Chelmsford, MA: Hand-Pulled Noodles at Gene's Chinese Flatbread Café
I know, I know. This is my fifth consecutive post that covers Asian noodles, but this place is too exciting not to blab about.
For years, I've lamented about a major missing link in Boston's otherwise-solid Chinese food scene: hand-pulled noodles. I'm talking about the kind where a wad of dough is repeatedly pulled lengthwise, thwacked against the counter, stretched, bounced, twisted, and either separated into uniform spaghetti-like strands or "peeled" (or sometimes called "shaved" or "ripped") with a knife into wider, thicker, heartier, irregular noodles. Both varieties, which are most commonly found around the Shaanxi province of China, are pretty easy to come by in New York (Flushing is a Chinese noodle mecca), I'd guess they're readily available in California, and there's at least one place in Philly that makes them.
Then, about a month ago, a colleague of mine ecstatically emailed me about a new place in Chelmsford (about 45 minutes northwest of Boston) called Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe that was making hand-pulled noodles. There was buzz on Chowhound and Yelp, and then fellow noodle nut and colleague Dan Souza went and gave me the thumbs up. I ran.
To use the cheesiest-possible analogy, the tiny, family-run restaurant was like a mirage in a desert—both in its uniqueness as the only hand-pulled noodle joint for hundreds of miles, and also because the building (which shares a wall with a small liquor store) sits in a virtual dead zone outside of Chelmsford center.
Leaving aside the Chinese-American staples like fried rice and scallion pancakes, the menu is small and focused: a handful of noodle-based dishes and, as the sign on the door implies, flatbread sandwiches. Being a total sucker for broad, chewy, ropy noodles, I immediately ordered the Biang Biang Mian. They're hand-stretched to order, then tossed with mild-mannered chili oil, chili powder, cilantro, scallions, and enough fresh garlic to put Buffy out of a job. All I can say is that I've never felt more inadequate as a journalist; I just don't have the words to convey their freshness, glorious chew, and spot-on seasoning.
My other, equally weak moment: the Liang pi cold noodles. I'd had these once before at New York's now-famous Xi'an Famous Foods, and was thrilled to see them on the menu—even if they are available only on weekends. These wide, flat ribbons also boast satisfying chew, but rather than being simply stretched, the dough undergoes a rinsing and steaming process that results in flat, slippery noodles and spongy cubes of wheat gluten—a byproduct of the noodle-making process. The two wheat-based components are tossed with chili oil, vinegar, cilantro, and bean sprouts, all in all adding up to one of the best noodles dishes I've ever had. (Wheat gluten isn't just for vegans and hippie college cafeterias.)
Now, if only the idea would catch on in Boston proper...
Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.