“Buzz here,” reads a sign in front of Very Fresh Noodles, a recently reopened Chelsea Market hangout that shows off the starchy and soupy traditions of Taiwan, Sichuan province, Western China, and elsewhere. After you reach out to push the bell — not an unsurprising hospitality touch in the COVID-19 era — a masked worker appears and takes your order on an iPad. A few minutes later, someone places your takeout containers on a table. From there, you ferry your fat Shaanxi-style biang biang home, or you take advantage of the outdoor seating and slurp down everything on the spot. Either way, you’re experiencing what remains one of the city’s top noodle shops, even if the crowds haven’t returned.
I chose the instant gratification option on a recent Thursday. I haven’t done traditional sit-down dining since the pandemic began, but I’m comfortable enough with this quick-service style of eating that isn’t too different from, say, public-bench gastronomy. There’s no waiter coming by every three minutes to refill drinks, replace your silverware, or get shouted at by maskless patrons. As at Wildair or MeMe’s, which employ similar service models, you simply pay, find a table, eat your meal, and leave with your trash.
And you eat well, thanks to the excellent work of chef Victor Huang, who previously cooked at Mission Chinese, Bricolage, and Ippudo. HIs pan-regional fare hasn’t changed much over the years, though the venue debuted a popular new delivery option upon rebooting.
Huang still forges exemplary noodles; it’s only too bad the acoustics and visuals of making them have vanished. A typical Before Times visit to the food hall involved watching a staffer spin, stretch, pound, and pull each batch of biang biang to order. You can watch the process on YouTube, or read New York Times critic Ligaya Mishan write about it in poetic detail. As at other approachable Asian noodle joints, it was a tableside prep for the masses, lunchtime theater for a few bucks. Alas.
The biang biang, each as wide and thick as a plastic ruler, exhibit a bouncy qq-snap. They serve as a neutral counterpoint to a bright, cumim-y Xi’an-style lamb soup. The Sichuanese dandan pack a similarly springy texture at first, then quickly become quite starchy and creamy, making them a fine conduit for a porky ragu. That sauce is just hot enough to make one’s brow sweat, sweet enough to balance out the salts, and tinged with just enough peppercorns to gently numb one’s lips for a nanosecond.
Huang’s fluency in these myriad noodle specialties is what makes Very Fresh so compelling, especially given the city’s ultra-competitive and hyper-regional noodle environment. If only more people were dropping by for takeout. Indeed, it pulls at one’s heartstrings to see outdoor diners crowd lousy pan-Asian spots like Tao Downtown — located just around the block — while Very Fresh, which Edible Manhattan once reported as boasting lunchtime queues of 30 or more, remains more lightly populated.
“Business is slow,” said co-owner Peter Tondreau (Bar Suzette, Bangkok Bar) during a phone interview, explaining that daily revenue has dropped from $8,000 to $2,000. The main concourse at Chelsea Market, a walkway whose lunchtime hordes channeled rush-hour security lines at JFK, remains closed to the public as the pandemic rages on. The masses, accordingly, might not come back soon.
“We’re barely breaking even,” Tondreau said, adding that he’s operating on a “skeleton crew” of just five or so workers, compared with 25 before the pandemic. The co-owners closed the four-year-old Very Fresh in March and contributed “as much money as we could” to staffers, they said, using their own funds at first and then a Paycheck Protection Program loan. They reopened Very Fresh in late July, citing a need to assist employees who couldn’t find work.
Indeed, even as the virus hovers at low levels throughout New York, the local hospitality community remains battered amid a continued indoor dining ban. Scores of restaurants have closed permanently, and the latest government statistics show that food and drink places in the five boroughs employ 193,000 fewer people than in February.
Outdoor dining has functioned as a boon for certain bars and restaurants, but the restrained flow of customers at Very Fresh highlights why a recovery will inevitably be slower for even some. Specifically, the noodle shop lies at the intersection of two tough realities: a ban on mall reopenings and big tech’s focus on working from home.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has permitted shopping malls to reopen in all areas of the state except the five boroughs, a mandate in line with the city’s indoor dining ban. Food vendors can stay open, as long as seating areas are cordoned off. It’s the right policy given the difficulties of social distancing in a dense urban environment, but it’s also a policy that threatens smaller operators in New World Mall and elsewhere. For some perspective on what type of crowds the vendors are missing out on: Reportedly 9 million people normally pass through Chelsea Market every year.
The lunchtime office clientele, or lack thereof, is also an issue. Google purchased Chelsea Market for $2.4 billion in 2018, but has since declared that most of its nationwide workforce won’t be coming back until the summer of 2021. That means the search giant’s 3,000 or so employees there — and thousands of others stationed a few blocks away — won’t be dropping by every day to lunch at Miznon, Los Tacos, or Very Fresh.
Then there’s the question of rent. Restaurateurs throughout the city have been negotiating with landlords to reduce their monthly real estate costs; Huang and Tondreau’s talks with Google in that regard have been “pretty easy,” they said. “If anyone can give some type of allowance, it’s probably one of the wealthiest companies on the planet,” Tondreau said.
The Very Fresh team is still working on a standalone Midtown venue, though architectural drafts were submitted in the pre-social-distancing era. Those drafts will need to change. And Huang continues to develop new dishes, including liangfen, wonderfully slippery mung bean noodles doused in crimson chile crisp. The chef said he’s hoping to collaborate with famed Chinese brand Lao Gan Ma on the finished product.
Takeout and delivery menus, it should be noted, contain a warning: “Your noodle dish will come to you ‘partially’ prepared, and will require a moderate effort on your part.” Do not fear. While any food is fully cooked for those eating at Chelsea Market, delivery orders — which now make up roughly half of the venue’s business — require about as much effort as assembling instant ramen.
For spicy lamb noodles, printed instructions advise patrons to microwave the meat and chile sauce for one minute, then boil the biang biang in water for precisely 20 seconds. The result is a dish with no less complexity or nuance than one prepared by Huang. The warm noodles seem to stretch and contract according to the physics of a rubber band; they’re taut at first, but they soften after a quick chew. They boast a silky exterior, but the chile and cumin clinging to the outside add a delicate level of coarseness, not to mention heat and musk. The sliced lamb, in turn, jolts the palate as much with its sweet earthiness as its snappy, juicy mouthfeel.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup comes together even more easily; you heat up the biang biang in the smooth broth, and that’s it. The soup packs gentle notes of soy and five spice, though a generous slick of chile oil imparts a dose of incendiary pungency. Slices of red-braised beef shank, streaked with fat layers of soft collagen, sport nice tenderness and funk, while a fistful of cilantro cuts through the richness with its grassy perfume.
If all the starchiness, chile, and fat start to overwhelm your stomach, the right antidote is douhua tofu pudding, prepared Cantonese-style with ginger and cinnamon. The soybean curd packs the texture of flan and the lightness of sea foam; it seems to disappear on the tongue. It cools one’s insides, and allows for more eating. It is a perfect summer dish — and will serve as a fine counterpoint to those salty liangfen when they make their debut.