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Hand chopped noodles at Paradise Cafe

I came across Paradise Cafe several weeks ago after a lunch at a nearby Fu Fu Cafe that left me wanting more. My beef tendon and pork dumplings at Fu Fu were pretty good, but you can find better cooking in the Bellaire Chinatown. While many cities struggle with too few choices, our problem in Houston is exactly the opposite – the choices are too many.

Within feet of Fu Fu Cafe are something like 7 or 8 eateries offering a bewildering range of options in just a single shopping strip. The gelato shop is right next to a bakery that sells French desserts, Chinese pastries and rice cakes that look like guerilla hand grenades. A restaurant a few doors down serves Braised Lion Head, a Shanghai pork meatball specialty cooked with Napa cabbage I have never come across and have yet to sample (no, it’s not made with real lion meat, I checked). Noodle House 88, which Robb Walsh swears serves some of the best Indonesian food in the country, is in the very same strip. If Indonesian food doesn’t suit you, you can order sushi from the same menu. A new dim sum place opened just days ago and already looks packed.

One of many hidden treasures in the food
shops surrounding Fu Fu Cafe.

Tucked in at the end of the strip Paradise Cafe looks almost impenetrable to a non-Chinese American. Other than the name and descriptive signs such as "noodles" and "soups", the only real clue as to what is inside is a magazine article pasted in the window showing a chef pulling noodles by hand. I got a blank stare when I asked for a to go menu, making me even more curious. For all I know the article could have been about the importance of keeping a tidy kitchen, but the promise of hand made noodles was too much to ignore, so I made it my mission to figure out what was behind the iron curtain.

I finally arrived at Paradise Cafe last week after being turned away on my first attempt to come in on a Wednesday, when the restaurant is closed for a day right in the middle of the week. Inside, the restaurant looks more like a smoothie shop than anything else, with the entire menu on the wall dedicated to drinks. Smoothies, coffee, juices, fruit cocktails, tapioca drinks. The whole spread. Expecting to finally find some answers about the food at Paradise Cafe on the menu, instead all I found were more questions

The much smaller section of the menu dedicated to food was confounding, to say the least. Noodle dishes, soups, fried rice and several hot pots, right next to Americanized standards you might expect to find at Gen. Joe’s Chopstix, plus a selection of more exotic sounding Chinese specials AND a few Japanese selections, just to make things interesting.

Undeterred, I decided to go for the noodle dishes and ordered two entrees to take home, along with an order of vegetable dumplings. Although the filling was overwhelmed by what tasted like orange rind, the dumplings were serviceable. The two noodle dishes were far more interesting.

Both dishes had noodles I have not come across before. Not exactly the type of stuff you expect when a guy pulls dough by hand, as I imagined, but clearly freshly made and with a lot more character than what you find in a typical noodle shop.

Mutton La Noodle, a last minute addition to the menu scribbled in pen, came with a deeply flavored beef broth and noodles of uniform length and somewhat uneven edges. I’d guess they were hand made and cut earlier in the day, and starting to dry out a little by the time they were cooked. The width and thickness was close to a slightly wider fettuccine and stood up nicely to other ingredients – steamed bok choy, pickled ginger, cilantro and hunks of braised mutton.

I was prepared for the mutton to be tough and stringy, as it often is in Chinese soups in Houston, but it was excellent. Instead of badly trimmed cheap cuts sold in many Asian groceries, these were carefully cross cut with just enough meat and fat to produce good texture after long cooking without giving you a mouth full of sheep grease. After steeping in the hot broth for a few minutes all the flavors were fully activated. Mutton La Noodle a hell of a dish.

The strangely named House Special Hand Chopped Noodles were even better. Although the dish came with a typical "house special" assortment of shrimp, pork and chicken, the meats were not very interesting; mostly an unnecessary distraction. The noodles were the real star of the show – soaking up the soy based sauce they formed a delicious gooey mess. I’d love to see these noodles in capable hands served up with a more collagen rich meat, such as pork knuckle, veal cheek or beef tendon.

Nothing about these noodles was uniform. These things were shorter, thicker and more dense than the noodles served with the mutton. Looking like a sliced up dumpling on the plate and peeled apart layer by layer they resembled jaggy edged, irregular blades of grass made of dough. Best part about this dish was the incredible texture – glutinous and sticky enough to carry the sauce, chewy and tender enough for a great mouth feel. As good as my mutton noodles were, I completely forgot about them once I dug into the hand chopped noodles.

I know very little about Chinese noodles, but my guess is that hand chopped noodles at Paradise Cafe are of the "dao xiao mian" variety. Dao xiao mian are fresh noodles made of wheat and prepared by rapidly slicing slivers of pasta into boiling water off a ball of dough. Paradise Cafe just might be the only place that makes this stuff in Houston, or LA or Ontario, for that matter.

Dao xiao mian preparation in action

Paradise Cafe is an interesting place. Dishes are cooked with care, the ingredients are fresh, noodles seem to be hand made and the menu looks delightfully offbeat. I think I’ll play the field for at least a few more visits to see if anything else pops out. If nothing else, I now know where to get some of the best chopped noodles in town.

Mission accomplished.

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