"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Son Ja Jang - December 11, 2010

In the cradle of my gustatory development, I was exposed to the venerably spicy beef noodle soup and chewy home-made mien ge dah (dough bits in soup, which in my household, was vigorously kneaded to kingly chewiness, urged on mainly, by little me). Later in my adolescence, I discovered the incredible pho bo (you surely do not need explanation for this, do you?). Therefore, as you can see, somewhere along these lines, I had missed out the ramen bandwagon for good reasons. Yes, I have had ramen – those wash-basin sized bowls filled with grotesquely yellow noodles with that distinct chemical flavor, all crinkly and wavy like an 80’s hairdo. Sure, some were better than others, as in all things, but an average bowl of ramen simply could not compare to an average bowl of beef noodle soup or pho bo. The main problem I have with ramen is the noodles. They are yellow, not because of eggs; they are yellow because of a brine made of potassium carbonate and/or sodium carbonate. Needless to say, this brine has a malodorous taste, which to me, can be described as chewing on a piece of Styrofoam. If you have bitten your coffee cup, you know the taste.

Hence, if someone recommended a ramen place, my curious ear would have remained deaf. However, if the game was for hand-pulled noodles, which seemed to draw in some quite dedicated patrons, then I am in.

It may be a sign of confidence that the treasure within would draw in the undefeated and indefatigable seekers of hand-pulled noodles despite layers of obstacles: The restaurant was well tucked away behind a staircase and a wall. A well guarded secret, it must be, since the signage actually pointed the guileless visitors upstairs. Cracking the labyrinth to get to the treasure. The ever misleading sign also indicated that the establishment in question was a Chinese restaurant. Since the quest must go on, whether Chinese or Korean, I shrugged it off. The door, finally discovered, opened to reveal a small restaurant, featuring a live noodle-making entertainment through a window in the wall.

Seafood Noodle

A big bowl of orange liquid laden with a chorus of seafood soon arrived, followed by a smile and a pair of scissors. Korean restaurants did teach me a thing or two about scissors: They can cut noodles and meat as well as direct mails. The noodles were softer and somewhat lax; they were less chewy than udon, soba, ramen, dao xiao mien, gang mien (dried noodles) and, definitely, al dente spaghetti, or even rice noodles. In short, the noodles lacked koshi (literally meaning the middle of your body or hip in Japanese) – the bite, the elasticity, the rebounding strength – that makes up the core of the noodles. Their hand-pulled noodles seemed to give in and yield upon contact with my teeth without any trace of struggle. Deeply unsatisfying, therefore, the texture was - as if facing a foe that decides to run away just as you begin the fight.

The soup was visibly spicy as a dust of red pepper was floating and congealing on the edges of the bowl. Despite the presence of mussels, clam (singular), fake crabs (sweeter and chewier than the Japanese version, it was interesting to note) and squids and shrimps, the broth strangely lacked any depth. Unlike pho bo, it did not make me want to slurp up every drop of the soup.

The noodle soup tasted home-cooked in more sense than one; it was hot and it was filling, but that was about all it could do.

Ja Jang Noodle

The same noodles were used for this signature dish of the restaurant. It looked suspiciously dark and shiny, and it tasted suspiciously sweet and greasy. Although a beef version was ordered, no visible sign of beef was found; instead, to my dismay, peas and potatoes were discovered. Proceeding straight to the condiments, I splashed vinegar, soy sauce and red pepper on the dark matter, but I was successful only to dispel one tiny layer of inedibility. I have had similar version in Taiwan; after all, it is a Chinese dish (the sign was correct). The Taiwanese version is also sweet, but not so much so that you would wonder whether there was any salt used at all, and it would be packed with diced bits of everything. Some seem to like it just as it is, having grown up with the flavor. However, I must say, at the cost of offending many, that I grew up in a more culinary blessed household. Life is thus unfair sometimes.

Son Ja Jang
Address: 232 Broad Avenue, Palisades Park, NJ 07650
Phone:  (201) 944-7777

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