Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe

>>  Sunday, September 30, 2012

You Po MianWhy, oh why does this amazing little find of a restaurant have to be so far away from where I live?

Remember how I've been hunting for hand-pulled noodles since like, forever? How, after not being able to find any in Boston, I set out to learn how to make them, culminating in this crazy video that I made for Project Food Blog Round 7? And how I even went to Beijing and tried to learn the art of noodle pulling from a real master?

It's been a tough decade since Noodle Alcove closed.

But the days of waiting are now over . . . sort of.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread CafeThis past November, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall Chinese "cafe" quietly opened up in Chelmsford, a suburb about 45-minutes outside of Boston. Gene Wu, the proprietor of this humble place, cranks out some insanely incredible hand-pulled noodles, along with several other authentic and very tasty dishes from the region of Xi'an, most famous for its terra cotta warriors.

This place is far, far away from Boston. Expect to drive at least 40-60 minutes, depending on traffic. Furthermore, it's really sort of located in this random spot that's easy to miss. The space sort of looks like a gas station or convenient store.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
Clearly, they do a lot of take-out business, as their phone number is plastered all over the place.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
Inside, the menu is refreshingly easy. All the dishes are pictured behind the counter and labeled by number in bright red text. The photos make it easy to know what you're getting, which is extremely helpful considering that less people are familiar with Xi'an style food.

You order up at the counter, pay cash, and then wait for your name to be called.
Lamb Skewers
We started with these lamb skewers (I think they were only about $1.50 each), which were fantastic. They were really flavorful, with a complex blend of spices that I can't even begin to list out, but which definitely had some heat.
Chinese flatbread
We got a few flatbread sandwiches (one pork, one beef - $4), which were OK but not great. The flatbread itself was a bit dense and dry, which the flavorful filling did not quite compensate.
Lamb Pao MoThe lamb stew  (羊肉泡沫 yang rou pao muo) is a classic Xi'an style dish. Traditionally, the server brings out the dense bread for the diner to break up into small pieces.
According to Mrs. Wu, Gene's wife (who worked front of the counter and also served us our food), breaking bread is a very social affair in Xi'an. People will sit together at the table and slowly break up the break into tiny, tiny pieces while chatting. It's time consuming, but sort of fun because you're also socializing.
When I initially broke up the bread (see pic above), Mrs. Wu told me that my pieces were too big.

"The smaller the pieces, the better it absorbs the soup, which makes for a much more flavorful dish overall."

She handed it back to us and told us to keep on shredding. When the pieces are finally of sufficient acceptable size (about 1 cm squares!), the server takes the bread back and moments later, brings you this amazing soup.
Lamb Pao Mo
This lamb stew consists of slices of lamb, various mushrooms (e.g., woodear), vermicelli, and a really flavorful broth.

It was warm and hearty, yet not at all greasy. I really felt healthy eating this, like I was being nourished. I really, really enjoyed this soup, and could totally see myself craving this on a cold winter night.
You Po Mian
But wait, what about the hand-pulled noodles?

These noodles, called "Biang Biang Mian", are so named because the hand-pulling action make this "bang bang" sound when you slap the noodle dough against the table.

These were awesome. The texture was far better than any noodle in Boston - period. It was thick, chewy, and had that perfect "QQ" bite to it. Tossed with tons of garlic, chili powder, cilantro, and scallions, it is absolutely loaded with flavor, and really quite addictive, might I add.
Liang pi
Oh it's so hard to pick a favorite, because I loved the Xi'an Chilled Noodles ("Liang pi") as well, which are only available on weekends. These noodles are lighter yet also have a really neat, chewy texture that's also quite addictive. The chili oil in which they are tossed is garlicky, spicy, and vinegary. It was refreshing and would be perfect on a hot summer day.
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
This place is a true gem and I'm so so sad that it's so far away. I'm a little jealous of Bryan, actually, whose office is only 4 miles away from this place. Grrrr - he could eat here for lunch once a week if he wanted!
Gene and Jen
I had a chance to chat with Gene himself (in pure Mandarin!), who is a really, really friendly guy. He told me he had originally wanted to open up his restaurant in Boston, but alas he couldn't find the right space. So when this space opened up in Chelmsford, he was so anxious to open something by that point, he just took it.

I asked him if he would consider opening up a place in Boston.

He looked at his daughter (a little girl around five years old) and said, "maybe when she goes to college I can move."

That kind of broke my heart right there.
You Po Mian
But it's OK, really. I shouldn't be so demanding. Seriously, I'm thrilled that I can drive less than an hour and access some pretty incredible Chinese food. This really has become one of my new favorite Chinese restaurants in the Boston area. The food is excellent, the prices are dirt cheap (the most expensive item is $6.50), and the owners are really, really cool people.
Liang pi
We ended up going back up and ordering second helpings of our favorite dishes - both the Biang Biang Noodles and the Xi'an Cold Noodles!

I guess 13 years is a long time to wait for this place to come to Boston. For now, I'm at Bryan's mercy on whether he chooses to drive there after work to pick up noodles for me.

If you have a car and enjoy trying out new, unusual, and interesting Chinese food, definitely check this place out. There's definitely nothing in Boston quite like it, and I think we are so fortunate to finally have hand pulled noodles in (greater) Boston, once again.

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