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YEG Noodles: Ninja Club (10324 Whyte Ave) vs. Noodle Feast/大秦面庄 (3440 99 St.)

DylanLK | Mar 26, 201502:24 AM

Great location, right? I think there was a Lebanese joint in there before, just down from the Strath. The name suggests a generic Asian cuisine joint. There's already a Ninja Noodle on Roper Road, which promises the best in Thai and Chinese cuisine. It's a narrow room with eight or nine tables, painted brick, counter at the back, a cooler with glass bottles of Coke, Sprite, Ramune, Asahi, and a television mounted on the wall playing a satellite radio stream of East Asian pop music. There's a menu with a page of ramen: shoyu, miso, kimuchi, seafood ramen. The backpages have Japanese restaurant must-haves, like... I don't know, bento boxes and radioactive spider rolls. There's a generic Asahi-branded sushi menu on the table. To me, sushi and ramen seems like having a restaurant that specializes in pasta and French fries.

Ordered one bowl shoyu, one bowl miso. The shoyu ramen broth is fine, I guess, but a few more sips and there's a burnt sugar-charcoal flavor like the grains of crusted sauce that collect under the lid of a bottle of Kikkoman left in the fridge and there are a few unincorporated blobs of maybe lard that reminded me of an unstirred bowl of packaged tonkotsu base. The miso ramen is, again, fine, I guess, but a bit too thin. Both bowls have a split hardboiled egg on top, peeled carelessly, cooked chalky, cold. Both bowls have a perfect grey rectangle of lean pork on top, unseasoned, cold. The ramen is disappointing. While eating them, I browse local food blogs that show unchecked enthusiasm.

Quick chat postramen and the owners of the shop are from Sapporo. They ran a sushi place downtown for a few years and decided to try ramen on Whyte. There's the question of how was it and sort of oh yeah great you've got a great location here, eh.

I want to get the authenticity thing out of the way. There's always the problem of authenticity floated with ethnic cuisines. Oh, great Thai food, very authentic. Whatever. I don't really care, especially with ramen. I mess with cheese tomato ramen. Japanese cuisine is amazing because of innovation and culinary syncretism. I guess authenticity comes up because when these cuisines pop up to serve mostly, in this case, non-passport carriers, authenticity is the pitch, the easiest thing for eaters to call out as a positive, to identify. You see the red lanterns and the Asahi in the cooler and.... So, the issue of whether this is authentic ramen is immaterial.

The problem is instead that this ramen isn't made with much attention or care. The owners checked all the boxes of Opening a Japanese Restaurant Checklist. But, the ramen isn't very good!

Noodle Feast/大秦面庄 is the opposite kind of place. It's wrong to compare them, maybe. But I ate them on the same day and it came to mind.

The location isn't good. It's a long drive south. It's in a stripmall. And it's closed two days a week. The room is tidy but warm with the buzz of customers, a TV showing a Taiwanese sketch comedy show then the nightly news. It looks like a suburban Chinese neighborhood joint with the same tables of customers waiting for their takeout orders.

The name is good. Noodle Feast makes sense, a good generic name that doesn't conjure corny Chinese restaurant stereotypes. In Chinese 大秦面庄 (Daqin Mianzhuang) is generic enough, too, but it also clearly suggests a specific type of wheat-based cuisine and a rural hominess. The cuisine suggested is Qin cai 秦菜, the food of Shaanxi Province/陕西. The menu makes it clear, noodles and noodles and the Shaanxi classics like liangpi/凉皮儿, roujiamo/肉夹馍. The menu is one page, mostly variations on a few noodle varieties. The ball of dough they come from is the same. The English translations are difficult to decipher, but considering the clientele, it's probably not often an issue.

In the small section dedicated to non-noodle (but still wheaten) dishes, roujiamo/肉夹馍, described in English as "Chinese pork burger." Their version is about as good as you can get between the suburbs of Vancouver (thinking of Xi'an Cuisine in the Richmond Public Market) and the suburbs of Toronto, but the texture of the pork leans toward flaked tuna and is a bit too lean and dry, where it should be a fatty, spiked with cilantro and slivers of pepper, but you can order it how you want it-- just ask for peppers and cilantro. The liangpi/凉皮儿 is a dish with a thousand variations but this version is good-- looking forward to eating it in August instead of March.

I got a bowl of beef noodles, the daoxiaomian/刀削面 version. The noodles don't correspond with my orthodox idea of daoxiaomian but they were good noodles. The braised beef was complicated bundles of fat, tendon, and soft thready meat. The beef broth was a blank canvas, a bit flat, but brightened up with the addition of dark vinegar and a float of chili oil. Cilantro and green onion on top.

A less straightforward choice is tomato and egg and zhajiangmian/炸酱面 combo chemian/扯面. The chemian are wide and thin, chewy, a more refined version of the version made in many North Central Chinese home kitchen. The base broth that floats below the nest of pale yellow noodles is oily and vinegary and, once the toppings are gone, in the perfect ratio.

Ninja Club's been empty to half full on my visits but even with their irregular hours, but Noodle Feast stays full. The customers that make the drive feel as strongly about noodles as the owners do. (The location has something to do with it, too. The people that come in the front door probably took a modest commute to get there. Izakaya Tomo feels like another example of the location selecting customers that care and understand the food). Noodle Feast takes one thing--noodles and a few wheaten Shaanxi staples--and does it very well. Ninja Club feels like a missed opportunity to do the same.

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