65 4th Ave., New York, NY
Before Chat Thai became Chat Thai—the successful one-hatted restaurant chain—I knew it as a humble stall at a bland, whitewashed food court under Sydney Town Hall. Indeed, I don’t remember it as Chat Thai, rather as the place where heaps of office workers, tourists, students, and staff next door would wait their turn as they saw noodle and rice plates emerge from the kitchen with frightening speed. Nevertheless, demand outstripped supply: there was always a queue. That never stopped me from lining up for the lard na (otherwise spelt raadt naa), a semi-soupy bowl of flat rice noodles, wok-charred and topped with a brown gravy-like sauce which, among other things, contained soy sauce and fermented yellow beans. I usually ordered it with pork and a helping of pumpkin, wombok, and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). The latter vegetable is all you’ll get nowadays. If you want choice, you can opt for chicken or beef instead (not recommended).
Prior to Chat Thai, I had never eaten lard na, though I had eaten something like it. It was less soupy, closer to classic fried noodles, albeit with a generous serve of thickened—sometimes eggy—sauce. The Vietnamese called it hù tiéu xao and the Malaysians kwe tieu siram or wat tan hor. I knew it by a Cantonese name: char hor fun. The dish could come with thin egg noodles instead, crisped on the outside like instant ramen and browned: my mother’s favourite. I preferred the flat rice noodles, though, and quickly learnt to recognise its Chinese names, which I associated with the marvellous charred taste.
My earliest memories as a child go back to long car rides to Cabramatta, which in the 1980s was one of those dangerous suburbs to go for reliable Chinese food. There’s not much to recall, as I usually drifted in and out of consciousness with the weave and bend of my father’s driving. My parents tell me that on one particular outing I was so sick that I threw up char hor fun in the restaurant: the waiters had to scurry over, stainless steel bowl at the ready. It was not a fancy restaurant, didn’t have red carpet or any gold-painted trimmings but the bare minimum interior, and yet we kept going back because we knew no better, trusted its menu and the execution of the dishes (in spite of my mishap) and, above all, the sense of familiarity it engendered. My father looks back on this period with some embarrassment. But where else, I think, could we have gone and said chiu in pai kuat and hoi sin poh and be instantly understood?
Curiously, I did not develop an aversion to char hor fun or any of its regional variations. That was fated for another dish—the ubiquitous pad thai—which I ate nearly every week as an undergraduate in North Sydney, where I worked part time. Freed from the tyranny of cold sandwiches and my school canteen’s meagre offerings (with the exception of made-to-order pork souvlaki), I chose to spend my cash on freshly cooked meals, patiently waiting with the bored suits for my wok hey hit. One day, without warning, the polarity of my tastebuds switched. The thin rice noodles became too cloying, the tamarind overly sweet. Suddenly everything about the dish repulsed me, and would so for more than a decade. Maybe it was a case of overfamiliarity, maybe an unfair demand: a catchy pop song played one too many times.
I don’t really like Thai food, my friend said, after we had finished a mediocre lunch at a Thai joint in Fort Greene. I had to agree, I thought, after having too many forgettable Thai meals in Manhattan and hipster Brooklyn, all facsimiles of the same, unadventurous fare. One could get the opposite impression, given the wait times at shiny Thai establishments downtown. What was the cause? I wondered. Ignorance, bad taste, a love for faux-retro decorations? The misguided enthusiasm of NYU students? Or the one-way window in the bathroom situated near the young diners, where one can play the voyeur? Maybe it was something as simple as price. (Set menus were inexpensive and catered to the individual.) For my part, what was unforgivable—what made me renounce New York Thai—was that a single plate of lard na was nowhere to be found.
Around that time a new Japanese ramen store called Ippudo was opening in the East Village. It was the first of its kind in America (in fact the first anywhere, outside of Japan)—hard to imagine, I suppose, because Ippudo is everywhere now, just as Uniqlo and Muji are. I line up with friends, friends of friends, cousins of friends, various family members, for periods that range from twenty minutes to over an hour. We kill time by walking to Broadway Street or milling near Think Coffee, a sort of cooler Starbucks where fashion models like to hang, dressed down in jeans or designer casual—barter for last week’s runway efforts. We loop around onto Fourth Avenue and are ushered into the restaurant, and it seems to me that we could just as well be in Ginza or Hiroo. We are greeted in Japanese; the cooks are all Japanese; the water is probably Japanese. It is as if we have stepped through a portal to Tokyo. On second thoughts, it’s more likely the restaurant was shipped whole from there, including the staff.
The interior is black and bling, a cross between jazz lounge and nightclub, except the disco ball has been flattened onto the walls or rearranged into stalactites. There are accents of red and white, notably the aritayaki-fired bowls, which are stacked and mounted as if they were Doric columns. They also land up on our table as “shiromaru classic” or “akamaru modern,” menu items based on Ippudo’s tonkotsu broth.
It’s this broth—sweet and salty and creamy and smooth and umami-rich—that converts me to ramen. After the noodles (thin and taut) are gone, the slices of blowtorched char siu digested, the soup is all that remains. Sure, you can get a top-up of noodles—kaedama!—or you can do what I do, which is have the soup neat, draining the bowl to the very last drop. It’s a sign of appreciation, of reverence, as I learnt from the film Tampopo. Leaving it unfinished is an insult.
A tonkotsu (that is, pork bone) broth takes around eight hours to make—the average amount of sleep an adult in North America no longer gets. Add onion, garlic, spring onions, ginger, pork back fat, a chicken carcass or two, and set the stove to work. Unlike other ramen varieties, such as shio or shoyu, a tonkotsu broth is cloudy in appearance—but that doesn’t mean you can leave it to boil. No, you’ll be up all night, letting it almost boil then straining it periodically, coaxing out the gelatinous texture from the bones.
My parents refuse to eat the fat of the fatty pork, a friend complains the soup is too salty, a friend of a friend dilutes her bowl with tepid water. Needless to say, none of them finish the broth. Perhaps it’s too much to expect them to throw off the fat-free ’90s or their latest health obsession, but at least they should be chased out of the restaurant. The most I can do is look for a sympathetic glance as these indecencies are committed.