Few things beat an excellent bowl of noodles, especially if they’re amped up by the bold and unexpected flavors that define Asian cooking. Here are 10 Philly dishes that fit this soul-satisfying mold, a collection of barn-burning broths, funked-out fishiness, offal lovin’ and off-menu surprises.
Bún bò Huế, Cafe Diem
Cafe Diem has a nice little menu, but the friendly Italian Market slurp stop specializes in one soup in particular: bún bò huế, traditional Vietnamese pho’s chili-crazy cousin. Using noodles thicker and chewier than glassy rice vermicelli, Diem fills each bowl to brimming with its unapologetically spicy broth, home to thick rings of sliced onion, steak, tripe, oxtail and other goodies.
Hand-Torn Noodles, CHeU Noodle Bar
Chef Ben Puchowitz minds no cultural boundaries at CHeU, showing off his intentional inauthenticity with dishes like this. Flat, thick homemade and hand-torn noodles get tossed with meat from slow-braised lamb necks, sour pickled mustard greens and chewy sliced dates.
Crab Pad Thai, Circles
Circles’ hooked-up version of this humble street-stall snack started as an off-menu item, but it’s now one of the most popular dishes at South Philly’s favorite Thai spot. The generous helping of lump crab meat tangled up in the fishy, limey, saucy noodles puts it on the expensive end for takeout/delivery, but you get what you pay for — especially if you up the heat level (request “Thai hot” if you’ve got the stones).
Dan Dan Noodles, Han Dynasty
How is it that one of Han Chiang‘s most bare-bones dishes — fresh noodles, ground pork, scallions — is also one of his most alluring? It’s gotta be the Sichuan chili kick hidden in each chopstick-ful. Or maybe it’s the secret ingredient: Chinese sesame paste, a similar-to-tahini wonder substance that smoothes out every bite from top to bottom.
Noodle with Pork Soy Sauce, Yummy Lan Zhou Hand-Drawn Noodle House
The name of this Chinatown soup parlor is quite the mouthful (gringos tend to just call it “Yummy’s”), as is “zha jiang mian” (pictured), the native name of this comforting dish. It’s nothing more than ground pork, cooked down in fermented bean paste and spooned over Lan Zhou’s hand-stretched specialty. On the side: a small serving of the restaurant’s fragrant, medicinal soup broth, for dipping or sipping.
Karai, Nom Nom Ramen
Sun Noodle Ramen Lab custom-builds the basis of Nom Nom’s soulful bowlfuls, nailing that elusive magic middle ground between soft and chewy. They’re best highlighted via Nom’s karai broth, a pork-and-miso starting point turned fiery with chili and spice. Pork belly is the default meat topping, but consider splurging for an upgrade to toroniku, insanely tender pork cheeks.
“Number 3,” Pho 75
It’s a no-nonsense situation at Wing Phat Plaza’s Pho 75, so utilitarian that it’s no big deal to order by number. Bowls are customizable here, but it’s difficult to resist the beefy balance of option numero tres — sliced eye-round steak, fatty cuts of brisket and tendon and tripe intermingling with the requisite noodles and herbs.
Let Thoke, Rangoon
This list is notably spicy and meat-heavy, so let’s lighten up the proceedings with a cold vegetarian offering. Rangoon’s let thoke mixes subtly fishy tamarind-dressed egg noodles with chopped cabbage, onion and potato, the lot topped with frizzled onions. The ideal snack to complement the Burmese restaurant’s famous “firecracker” lentil fritters.
Round Guy Ramen, South Philly Tap Room
Yes, this very American beer bar sometimes flexes its Far East kitchen muscles with proper Japanese soup — you just have to know when to go. Follow @roundguyramen on Twitter for real-time updates on when SPTR breaks out the ladles. The soup seems to change every time it pops up, its appearance an intrepid noodle-lover’s call to action.
Ramen (plus secret soups), Zento Contemporary
Zento chef Sam Ho does a killer tonkotsu ramen, distinguishing itself via creamy broth, baby Chinese broccoli and slices of pork neck, a lean but flavorful alternative to belly. But you should also ask your server or bartender if either of Ho’s off-menu soups are available for dinner slurping — shredded scallion with roast duck in a pork/bonito broth; and caramelized onion with thin shabu shabu-style Wagyu beef atop a light pork/soy base.