First Bite: Cheu Noodle Bar

Cheu Noodle Bar–the TOTALLY not-a-ramen-bar from Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh–opened yesterday at 3pm at 10th and Locust, and we were there about 3:30 to grab a couple seats at the counter, see all the industry folks who showed up for a late lunch and eat the hell out of the short, tight menu.

Something you should know right off the bat: They call the place a noodle bar and that’s exactly what it is–a long, thin space with counter seating and a few tables where the crew in the kitchen focuses primarily on putting out several variations of noodle bowls, from ramen to pho to brisket, lamb neck and curry.

Something else you should know: The noodles are actually the least interesting things on the menu.

Which isn’t to say that the noodles aren’t good, because they are. They’re fresh and they’re interesting and they’re served in interesting ways (like thick slabs of brisket in a chile broth with cabbage and a giant matzoh ball or duck pho with little duck meatballs, thinly-sliced and delicious duck breast and a tangle of soft noodles lurking at the bottom of a bowl of broth that is both milder and more refined than the broth I’m accustomed to at the little shops I frequent), but it’s just that everything else on the menu is so much more compelling.

The pork belly in the pork belly buns is cooked so long and so slow that it literally melts the minute you bite it, turning into some kind of weird pig butter, smeared all over the steamed and grilled bun and your face if you’re lucky. A side of broccoli is elevated by the addition of Vietnamese sausage, crushed peanuts and a reduced soy glaze; the scrapple is just plain amazing–like a tiny pork grenade, perfectly crispy outside, perfectly smooth inside, just waiting to blow up all your ideas of what Philly’s third-most-famous export is supposed to taste like. And the dumplings, soaked in chile oil, come three to an order as though designed by Darragh and Puchowitz to cause fist fights among friends who thought to share a single order. A little advice? Order your own. Don’t share. Use a spare set of chopsticks to eye-poke anyone who makes a move on your bowl.

You’re welcome in advance.

Three more things worth mentioning. Thing 1 is this: Cheu lays out ramen noodles as bar snacks. Dry ramen noodles, like straight out of the plastic pack they come in, broken up and sprinkled with the magical ramen dust that comes with every 99-cent package. They are amazing and so cool that I can’t believe no one else thought of this before.

Thing 2: The very first time you go there, order the BBQ rice cakes. They sound strange on the menu, I know. And whatever it is you’re expecting, I promise that what will arrive will be something different entirely. Small, chewy nubs of vaguely rice-flavored goodness, soaked down in sweet, fermented black bean sauce and sesame oil, mixed up with green things that are made even more delicious just for sharing the bowl. It’s like a bowl of candy for food nerds and after tasting it once, you’ll want it every day for a week.

Thing 3: Right now, Cheu is open until 11-ish. But I talked to Darragh and he told me that once things get settled (and once the weather warms up a bit), they’re planning on extending the hours. If he does–and if Philly responds to Cheu the way I think they will–these 30-odd seats are going to become some of the hottest in the city after dark. There’s just something about the place–the narrow space, the open kitchen, the music, the grub–that makes me think of jam-packed midnights, flaming pans, loud voices and howling guitars. A great place to be a cook, a better place to be a customer. I’m telling you–if this crew can survive their first couple weeks and get into a groove, then come summer they are gonna shake the paint off the walls.

First Look: Cheu Noodle Bar [Foobooz]

Cheu Noodle Bar [Official]