Some restaurants are just what they seem, no more and no less. They send out fajitas and margarita pitchers with mariachi bands, or 24-ounce porterhouses and cult cabernets with bows to the honchos unbothered by the price of them. Some restaurants beat you over the head with their credos, cladding every wall with antique farm implements and listing each biodynamic carrot’s pedigree, or cramming the menu with Escoffier-era French.
But some restaurants are codes to be cracked, and Cheu Noodle Bar hides the key in plain sight.
Don’t be fooled by the twinned chopsticks pinching each letter of the restaurant’s logo on South 10th Street. Or by the bricks of instant ramen Plexiglassed to the wall beneath a collage of Exit Through the Gift Shop-grade garishness (kanji graffiti, dumpling porn, duck carcasses, magic-markered eyeballs peeled wide before a command to “Get In My Belly”).
Instead, turn your gaze to the chalkboard specials, and let it drift down to the desserts. If it’s your lucky night, they’ll include Bubbie’s Banana Bread.
It is at that point that you’ll know you haven’t walked into a ramen bar. Or not really. Because while Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh’s pint-size restaurant churns out its fair share of bouncy, alkaline noodles in fatty pork broth, that’s just one aspect of a determinedly idiosyncratic (or, some would say, borderline schizophrenic) smorgasbord. Where places like Rittenhouse Square’s Nom Nom Ramen and West Philly’s Ramen Bar present themselves as studious questers after an authentic Japan, Cheu is more like a spunky Jewish kid crushing on a California girl whose parents were born there.
At least, he thinks they were born there. Maybe it was Korea. But no matter. Nothing to fret about—because the more influences to draw from, the better.
Puchowitz (who also chefs at Matyson) tried to telegraph that ethos with the original moniker of his and Darragh’s venture, which began as a series of pop-ups under the name Roundeye Noodle Bar. They drew throngs for the food, but loud criticism for the supposed racial tone-deafness.
However you slice it, Puchowitz is the kind of cook who obviously likes to span borders. Or better yet, continents. And at Cheu, that can mean anything from hand-torn noodles bearing pickled mustard greens alongside cumin-scented lamb neck and dates (a combo you might find at a Chinese restaurant in Casablanca) to yard-long beans barnacled with crunchy spirals of fried quinoa.
There’s no adventure without risk, and my visits turned up both wins and fails in a proportion made fair by Cheu’s modest pricing. The best noodles, by far, featured fatty brisket slices, a soft-boiled egg, and a giant matzo ball in a broth marrying Korean ssamjang and gochujang chili pastes with the tangy-sweet brisket cooking liquid. The most disappointing ones were over-rich with foie gras and granular ground duck and peanuts, with nothing sufficiently acidic to cut through all that umami.
Despite the name, noodles aren’t the best reason to come to Cheu—and not only because they can sometimes seem out of place, as in the Mexican pozole on special one night. The place serves some dynamite bar snacks.
You might order pork belly buns thinking of the ultra-soft pillows Momofuku has helped popularize, but Cheu’s versions snap with the crispy edge of superb house-made English muffins. And while the pork belly variety really does melt in your mouth, I preferred the falafel-like mung bean version.
There’s broccoli mobbed with peanuts and crumbles of Puchowitz’s lime-zested, five-spiced Vietnamese sausage. Paku “fish ribs” have stupendously crackling skin, and a tamarind glaze that all but makes the accompanying jicama matchsticks get up and salsa. And while authentic scrapple may usually derive from those parts of the pig not fit for hot dogs, Cheu cheats a little by using just the shoulder, which gets cooked into something approaching a slop, set into a terrine rich with its own fat, and deep-fried till the sides crunch like the hash browns at McDonalds. So, still pretty dirty, but, as Darragh cracked one night, “safe dirty.”
Visiting Cheu without ordering the chicken wings is like walking down the aisle and not kissing the bride. They’re slow-cooked in spiced buttermilk, then marinated in a fresh bath of the same, so that the fryer only needs to quickly crisp up their exceptionally delicate cornstarch/flour batter. Add black garlic and shishito peppers, and you have my favorite wings in town.
But not everything is so thrilling. Fatty BBQ pig tails left me cold. The dumpling dough—packed with pork and peanuts each time I went—could have been rolled thinner. If you order the chewy Korean-style glutinous rice cakes, eat them quickly, before they stiffen up into tooth-pullers.
But you don’t want to order the whole menu anyway, because you want to save room for that banana bread. Tender but crispy at the crust edge, finished with a sprinkle of house-made sesame pralines and pulverized Chinese peanut candy, it’s everything you want banana bread to be—plus a few things you’d never think of.
I didn’t ask whose bubbie it honors, but I’m betting that Puchowitz has bent the original article—like much else here—into something very much his own.