You can experience chinese soup dumplings or xiao long bao, as most of the guests do at Yu Noodles: for an explosion of flavors, textures and delirious and frightening contrasts. But you can also experience them as Yiying Lu does: as a metaphor for something bigger and more cosmic than a Shanghai dumpling.
Lu is an artist based in San Fransisco. She’s something of a dumpling scholar, not only designing the image that would serve as the basis for the emoji dumplings in the social landscape, but also studying the history of the doughy packets. She may not be the first to draw a linguistic parallel between the Chinese word “hundun” – which may represent “primordial chaos” or a mythical creature that looks like a plump dumpling with wings and feet – and the variety of stuffed packets commonly called Wontons. But she was the first to express the connection in a way that spoke to me like a poem.
“Every time we take a bite, metaphorically, we open up a new universe”, Lu said once.
I discovered Lu’s work while exploring Yu Noodles, a trio of establishments specializing in Chinese street food, with a focus on those in Chongqing, that sprawling municipality in southwest China. Yu, as you may know, is the official abbreviation for Chongqing.
I found it impossible to ignore the synchronicity between Lu’s research and the many opportunities I had to open up new worlds with every steamed bun, pan-fried dumpling, and spicy wonton I popped. at Yu Noodles. Eating, he reminded me, is a sensual pursuit, but deepened by this organ known for its more abstract thoughts. That someone, somewhere had the imagination to draw a line between the big bang and the explosion of a soup dumpling filled me with a joy that no single wonton could match.
Yu Noodles is also an expanding universe. Its two directors, Andy Qiu and Tony Cai, opened their first location in 2018 in Rockville. They have since debuted in Fairfax and Herndon, with plans to launch perhaps 10 more stores in the future.
You might be wondering how a place devoted to homemade noodles, dumplings and wontons can find enough talent to fill those kitchens, especially when the hospitality job market is tighter than Questlove’s snare. The answer lies in automation, machines that smash long, delicate noodles and even fresh, fully-composed soup dumplings, each just waiting to explode into new galaxies. (I should note that the small Rockville location does not serve soup dumplings.)
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The gods that shape matter in Yu Noodles, it seems, are mechanical.
The flavor-developing god at Yu Noodles, however, is fully human. A former chef and partner at Bob’s 88 Shabu Shabu in Rockville (a place that is long dead, way too young), Cai studied at a culinary school in Chongqing while he and Qiu worked on opening their first Yu Noodles. Cai is a master at layering flavors, frequently using the spicy, numbing sensations characteristic of Sichuan to accentuate a dish, not define it.
Cai’s style is probably best known through his spicy dry Yibin noodles, a bowl in which ground beef and pork are combined with fluffy wheat noodles sporting the thinnest burst of chili oil. The spicy anesthesia of ma la oil is present and explained, but it occupies a kind of middle ground, surrounded by sesame paste and homemade soy sauce, their nutty and umami qualities being processed on a equal footing in this terrific dish.
The chef uses many of the same flavors in the Chongqing noodles, but adjusts the ratios to give more room to the chili oil, perfect for those seeking warmth even on scorching summer days. The beauty of Cai’s noodle menu, however, is its diversity: the barnyard funk of plaice with sour pickled cabbage, the five-spice undercurrent of sweet and sour foon, and the nutty seed supreme. fresh noodles from the Yu village, a dish served deliciously cold.
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Despite his devotion to Chongqing, Yu Noodles has a wandering eye, as evidenced by Cai’s small line of soup dumplings, which has its roots in Shanghai cuisine. The chef injects a little Sichuan into his Spicy Pepper Soup Dumplings, whose salmon-colored skin is courtesy of the carrot juice in the batter. Once you pierce the pellet’s membrane, its heat is slow to arrive, but once it does, it clings to you, like moisture.
Cai offers robust snack and appetizer menus. I have yet to come across a dish on either that I wouldn’t order again, and again. First among equals, the pan-fried chive and pork dumplings, their flavor leaning, unapologetically, on the onion side of the spectrum. But I was also amazed by the siu mai, that dim sum staple stuffed not with pork and shrimp, but with fluffy sticky rice. And if I’ve had a better scallion pancake, a crispy, layered thing, I can’t remember when.
If you’re not in the mood for noodles, I’d suggest the chicken thigh over rice, a dish with a somewhat misleading description. The dark meat – marinated in oyster sauce, soy and black pepper before being roasted – is deboned and placed on rice with a poached egg. The dish screams sour, which you quickly discover is already provided, with some lightly marinated vegetables buried in the grains.
The only dish I cannot recommend is the potato tower, a spiral potato fried and served on a skewer. The second time I tried to order one – to confirm it was as bland as the first – the waiter tried to stop me. He said I wouldn’t like that. He called it children’s food. Later, I asked Qiu about it. His answer surprised me.
“Even the kids don’t like it,” he says.
An owner honest enough to critique his own food. Talk about having my mind blown.
Note: This story has been updated to add that the Rockville location does not offer soup dumplings.
368 Elden Street, Herndon, Virginia, 703-480-0326, yunoodlesherndon.com. 11217-C Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va., 703-877-0818, yunoodlefairfax.com. 9 Dawson Ave, Rockville, Maryland, 301-978-7693, yunoodlesrockville.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily for all three locations.
Nearest metro: Only the Maryland location has a nearby subway, the Rockville station, located about half a mile from the restaurant.
Prices: $2 to $13 for all menu items.