The menu at Uncle Zhou’s in Elmhurst is divided by noodle type: hui mian, la mian, and dao xiao mian. Hui mian, the wide, braised noodles of Henan, top the list. This is natural. Uncle Zhou is from Henan, and his restaurant proudly specializes in its cuisine.
“Henan cuisine, as representative of the Henan cuisine cooking of Central Plains civilization, originated in Luoyang,” begins a text on the wall. In a dizzying discourse full of mysterious associations and grammatical innovations, the text goes on to mention Kaifeng, another great ancient city in Henan, and several dynasties from the Shang to the Northern Song.
It is impossible to understand most of this text (to select an early instance of its difficulties: “’And’ refers to dissolve the East as a whole, unified, soluble salt hot and sour to sweet for a tripod for the blind, for the and.”). But the details don’t matter. The point is that Henan bears the imprints of countless generations—the Buddhas carved in Henan’s caves and the stories of “devil’s markets” of Kaifeng that opened at midnight and closed at dawn—and the cooking of Henan has a similarly rich background.
Naturally, I had to try Uncle Zhou’s hui mian. I ordered what the English portion of the menu describes as “Dial Oil Hand-drawn wide noodles”. I believe the Chinese name, 油泼烩面, is better translated “Hand-drawn wide noodles sprinkled with oil” (I am guessing the oil is just peanut oil).
The dish brought to me was a bowl full of folded, strap-like noodles with bok choy, smelling like peanuts. I immediately bit into the noodles, but the waitress came to my table and corrected me. “You have to stir to get oil.” So I stirred the noodles, and they became coated with reddish oil.
The menu marks this dish as hot, but it is a pungent heat, like that of horse radish, and on the mild side. It is accompanied by sourness and a little bitterness. The noodles are chewy and satisfying. These noodles sprinkled with spicy oil are a little like a pasta salad.
I came another time to try Uncle Zhou’s dao xiao mian. Dao xiao mian (often translated in English as knife-scraped noodles) do not originate in Henan, but in the more easterly Shanxi Province. I do not know the subtleties of the preparation of all the different kinds of noodles, but it is said to take someone who already knows how to prepare la mian several months to learn to prepare dao xioa mian, so I think there are differences in the way the dough is kneaded for the different kinds of noodle. The definitive step seems simple enough: to make dao xiao mian the noodle maker takes a loaf of kneaded dough and shaves noodles off the loaf into boiling water with a knife (in contrast to pulled noodles, which he stretches, and twists, and stretches, and twists repeatedly).
I ordered spicy beef knife-shaved noodles. They arrived in a soup spotted with chili oil, mixed with slices of tender beef. The noodles were about an inch wide, thick, with a spine running down the middle, and dense. They could almost stand on end. The soup was spicy—hot enough to make me sniffle. This was an immensely satisfying dish.
The décor at Uncle Zhou’s is traditional, and not very imaginative. Red paper lanterns hang in a row from the ceiling; Peking Opera masks frown across the room from one wall, and a statue of Guan Yu frowns back from a shrine on the opposite wall. Nevertheless, on a weekday evening, you may find many young people eating here. It is a nice place to share noodles with a date or a friend.
The text on the wall concludes: “From Kaifeng, Northern Song dynasty handed down since the ancient building, night markets, into the night is still uproar, especially now when the legacy.”
The legacy is worth trying, uproar or no.
Uncle Zhou’s Restaurant
Queens, NY 11373
Wed – Mon, 11am – 10pm