Last September, Jimmy Huang stood amid the ashes of the Huangcheng Noodle House, the business he’d built in Oakland Chinatown over the course of two years, unsure when to serve his knife-cut Shanxi noodles again. An early morning five-alarm fire had gutted the restaurant; It was a total loss. Given the trend towards insurance claims and large-scale construction, it was an open question whether it was realistic for Huangcheng Noodle to be up and running in any form within a year.
And yet: Today, just four months after the fire, Huang is celebrating the official reopening of his restaurant in a new location at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. The relatively quick and seamless reopening is the end result of the collective efforts and goodwill of many, many people, says Huang – church groups, community organizations like Good Good Eatz and the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser, and countless individual donors and well-wishers.
“I really felt the warmth of the community,” says Huang. “I’m very grateful.”
The return of the Huangcheng Noodle House is also good news for fans of handmade Chinese noodles – especially the restaurant’s thick, springy Shanxi-style knife noodle, or Dao Xiao Mian, who have cultivated a devoted East Bay over the years.
Pasta cut with a knife, fried with pork and green peppers
These Shanxi dao xiao mian – traditionally hand-shaved in boiling water – are wide and slightly wavy, thick enough to give the kind of springy, tooth-like texture that is appreciated by Chinese noodle connoisseurs.
Even so, Huangcheng was never just a Shanxi restaurant. Huang’s mother is from Sichuan, and the restaurant has always mainly served a mix of these two regional cuisines. That’s why classic Sichuan dishes such as water-cooked fish and kung pao chicken are at the top of the menu. The restaurant’s big selling point, however, is that these chewy, knife-cut noodles are included in all of the restaurant’s noodle dishes, be it the hot and sour noodle soup, the pork and green pepper noodle pan, or dishes that are traditionally of an entirely different type of noodles – for example Huang’s version of Chongqing xiao mian, the broth, glowing street food staple.
A plate of kung pao chicken, one of many Sichuan dishes the restaurant serves
The knife-cut noodles also play a leading role in dishes that traditionally do not belong to them – such as Chongqing Xiao Mian (right)
The one major change is that Huang has now bought a machine to cut the noodles – a special one specially designed for making Dao Xiao Mian. It tosses that noodle into the pot at an incredible rate – maybe five seconds for a single serving of noodle. According to Huang, the machine delivers even better and more consistent results than if he and his chefs shaved the noodles by hand. More in a nutshell, he says it’s largely an adaptation from the COVID era – it’s one less person to fit into the small kitchen space during this time of social distancing.
It is important that nothing has changed in the production and kneading of the pasta dough: All of this is done by hand for a single batch for another two or three hours.
In part due to COVID-19 concerns in a small kitchen area, the restaurant is now using a machine to shave the pasta
The machine can shave the noodles in a bowl in five seconds
Huang initially planned to add a number of new dishes to the menu – including a version of Rou Jia Mo, the meat-filled flatbreads that are often referred to as “Chinese hamburgers”. For now, however, Huang says that it is he who will limit myself to these additions and stick to his original menu, which is dominated by his selection of soupy and fried noodles.
Otherwise, the only new addition will be what Huang calls “family noodles,” a hot, pot-like dish designed to feed three people, and a flavorful broth made from pork bones and chicken carcasses, similar to a Sichuan dish known as Mao Cai. When the dine-in service begins, Huang brings the meat and vegetables for the family noodles raw on the table so that the guests can cook them themselves in the hot broth.
No matter what dish a customer orders, there’s a chance they’ll benefit from a spoonful of Huancheng’s devilishly delicious homemade chilli sauce with nine different herbal spices – another hundred-year-old family recipe that Huang inherited from his grandfather.
A close-up of the “QQ” texture
The recipe for chili sauce is more than 100 years old
Chef Jimmy Huang says he’s grateful for the community’s warm support
The restaurant took over the former Rosamunde Sausage Grill area in Swan’s Market. After a fresh (mostly red) coat of paint and a major renovation of the kitchen, the place now looks elegant and contemporary. Of particular note is a large mural by Oakland artist Jocelyn Tsaih, who is also the founder of the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser, which donated several thousand dollars to finance the redesign of the restaurant after the fire. At the moment the Huangcheng Noodle House is of course only open to take away, but at some point there will be around 70 guests inside and another 18 outside.
Huang, a third-generation Shanxi noodle maker, says he learned how to make noodles from his father, and family tradition says his paternal grandfather owned a noodle shop in China as early as the 1920s – a 100-year legacy. Now Huang says that he teaches his own son the family crafts. Fires and pandemics are doomed, he hopes the legacy can stretch for another 50 years or more.
The Huangcheng Noodle House is open daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on 911 Washington Street in Oakland.
The interior mural was painted by Oakland artist Jocelyn Tsaih, founder of the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser