I don’t care what the USDA or any other federal regulatory agency says. There’s only one food group that matters, and that food group is “noodles.” They’re slippery, chewy, slurpable, and just plain more fun than most other food. They’re an invitation to make weird faces and weird noises, and to take your food a little less seriously. There’s nothing that embodies “cheap and cheerful” more fully, so here’s some inspiration for some cold-weather noodling.
// Bring the Heat
If you’ve ever squirted a ton of hot sauce into pho broth, stop. You’re upsetting the clean finish and balance of the broth with a chili-garlic suckerpunch. Instead, if heat is what you’re after, Bún bò Huế is the way to go. The dish originated in the ancient Vietnamese imperial capital of Huế, and while it bears similarities to its cousin pho, there are a few notable differences.
The noodles—a rice vermicelli—are thicker and rounder, and the soup—a murkier, red-tinted broth that shimmers with a spicy chili oil sheen—is rich with a complex balance of spicy, sour, salty, and umami. In Mekong’s rendition, lemongrass breathes brightness into a broth, which has solid backing from its beef-and-pork-bone base. Sliced pork, braised beef, and even the odd pork knuckle (tender, chewy, and gelatinous) make it hearty. Garnish with the provided cabbage, lime wedges, basil, and cilantro sprigs for some crunch and fresh aromatics.
Bún bò Huế (#43, spicy beef and pork noodle soup), $9. Mekong Restaurant, 2013 Wade Hampton Blvd, Greenville.
// Old Reliable
Banish the thought of foil flavor packets and starchy noodle bricks. There’s nothing instant about tonkotsu ramen. The broth—which is what separates tonkotsu from other ramen varieties—is made by boiling pork bones for hours. That milky flavor bomb of concentrated smoky goodness gets ladled over satisfyingly chewy noodles. Ramen noodles are made using alkaline mineral water, which is what gives them their yellow hue and signature structure. They’re also made for slurping: kinked noodles help broth coat each strand, so when you start inhaling them—as you should—you get a little extra soup to go.
Menkoi Noodle House’s version adds spinach and bean sprouts, a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) for a little ocean umami, a few slices of chasu (fatty braised pork), a slice of narutomaki (the emoji-looking fish cake with a pink swirl), and a soft-boiled egg with a perfectly fudgey yolk. A garnish of chopped scallions leavens the intense savoriness with just a bit of green freshness.
Tonkotsu ramen, $7.50. Menkoi Noodle House, 241 N Main St, Greenville.
Some noodle soups are meant for heavy burdens like curing colds and mending broken hearts. Others are just for a regular Tuesday lunch. Bánh canh is one of the latter. Another non-pho Vietnamese dish, bánh canh refers to thick tapioca noodles cut from sheets of uncooked dough. Saigon Fast Food tweaks the formula by substituting thick cellophane glass noodles.
The cellophane noodles—so called for their translucence—are slippery, but have a firm bite, almost like al dente pasta without the starchiness. The soup, made from a chicken broth base, is clear and flavored primarily by fried shallots and chopped cilantro: fresh, but with a savory kick. Shrimp and sliced pork (tôm and thịt, respectively) add substance without being overwhelming, while bean sprouts for garnish give a little crunch to each mouthful. In short, it’s satisfying and warm, but light enough that you won’t need to budget for naptime afterwards.
Bánh Canh Tôm Thịt (#72, clear jumbo noodle with pork and shrimp), $10. Saigon Fast Food, 1011 N Pleasantburg Dr, Greenville.
// Local Cue
Want something that bucks convention? Well, you might look to the Village of West Greenville for Golden Brown & Delicious’s ramen. The exact composition changes regularly, but it’s always anchored by a bowl of GB&D’s house-made noodles. A recent incarnation featured a duck-and-pork–based broth, slices of roasted duck, local oyster mushrooms, slow-cooked egg, tatsoi (sometimes known as spinach mustard), quick-pickled cucumbers, and house-made kimchi, all topped with benne.
So here’s the thing about GB&D’s ramen: it’s not really about the noodles or the broth. The noodles are thicker and have a solid chew, and the broth is light but packed with umami. Though you won’t be slurping it up at speed. The noodles are short, and there’s not enough broth to drown your sorrows. But they are solid dance partners for rare roasted duck that’s tender and rich; meaty oyster mushrooms; the slight bitterness of tatsoi; and the sweet crunch of quick pickles. And the slow-cooked egg adds just enough body to the broth. Whereas these elements would be secondary in other dishes, here, they are responsible for a playful back-and-forth volley of flavors and textures.
Ramen, $16. Golden Brown & Delicious, 1269 Pendleton St, Greenville.