During a recent trip to Cambodia my daughter and I visited Battambang twice – en route from Abby’s home village of Kra Kor to Siem Reap, and on our return trip. During those two brief stays we ate at Chinese Noodle five times. According to Abby there are other good restaurants in Cambodia’s funky second city, including the well-known White Rose next door, but we never crossed their thresholds. Whether it’s lunch, dinner or take-out, Abby’s heart belongs to Chinese Noodle.
Chinese Noodle is a storefront on Street #2. The metal grate rises early in the morning and stays up past midnight. Customers walk past a half-height wall with a glass shield where the chef creates his magic for the entire street to see. He pulls dough into strands like taffy, then rakes it into long noodles or cuts it into small discs, which get dolloped with pork or vegetable and then are pinched into a dumpling shaped like a Hershey’s kiss but twice the size. Next to him is a giant pot of broth that simmers all day. The prep line ends at the portable hot plate where his wife pan-fries dumplings or scallion pancakes.
Inside, tables for four line each wall. Each table has an assortment of sauces in squirt jars. The chef’s wife, who doubles as waitress, delivers a pot of tea and hands out a simple menu sheet. Abby doesn’t need to look at it. She orders us a dozen pork dumplings, a scallion pancake, a pork soup bowl for me and a chicken bowl for her. By our third visit I protest that we don’t need so much food, and we forego the pancake. But when our neighbor gets one and we remember how delicate and crisp it is, we order one anyway. Occasionally we mix it up with vegetable dumplings or a fried noodle entree. I have never tasted such light and flavorful pasta.
Almost every dish costs $1.50 U.S.; a few cost less, none cost more. Chinese Noodle has a refrigerator case where customers can buy a cold beer or soft drink. A can of Angkor costs a buck, but most meals we just drink tea, which is free and plentiful.
One evening we run into one of Abby’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers at Chinese Noodle. Battambang is the primary escape for volunteers in northwest Cambodia who need a bit of urban life, and Chinese Noodle is their unofficial headquarters. Although a few Cambodians frequent Chinese Noodle, most the clientele is twenty-something ex-pats.
There doesn’t appear to be any line between the owner’s private life and Chinese Noodle. Their young daughter skips among the tables and charms diners. One evening I needed to use the facilities, and they directed me a toilet room that required I walk through their bedroom. If I had known in advance I might have squirmed a bit longer, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The only downside to Chinese Noodle is that its two hours away from Abby’s home village, and she can go a month or more without a visit to Battambang. How to assuage her Chinese Noodle cravings? She gets delivery. The bus system in Cambodia part public conveyance, part postal service, part UPS. Abby calls Chinese Noodle, orders a dozen dumplings, gets it bicycled to Battambang’s bus station and delivered to Kra Kor. She admits that four-hour cold dumplings are not as good as the ones hot off the skillet, but when her taste buds have been deadened by rice, rice and more rice, they’re still very tasty. What does such elaborate delivery cost? About thirty cents.