All Hail The Monkey King
It is a scene that belongs in a thousand places, the last of which is Dallas. On Main Street in Deep Ellum, past the cluster of bars and restaurants that anchor the neighborhood as a nightlife hotspot, Monkey King Noodle Co. sits in comparative isolation. The sky is overcast, and drops of frigid rain punctuate a light mist that swirls in the air.
It's the kind of scene in which you'd expect a lithe kung fu master to step through the fog before laying a few dozen mustachioed hipsters out on the pavement, but no epic fight scene unfolds. Instead, 10 or so customers are milling about, despite the miserable weather — many cradling paper cups of steaming tea beneath their chins with both hands while they wait.
Dallasites aren't exactly known for their tolerance of frigid temperatures, let alone their desire to stand in conditions like these while waiting for dumplings. That anyone is in line is testament that something exceptional is happening at Deep Ellum's newest takeout. That the queue is constant throughout the lunch rush hints that you ought to be in it, too.
Monkey King is the work of Andrew Chen and three partners, who opened their first restaurant this September in a standalone building that used to hold a takeout taco shop. The defunct taquería's garish orange paint job is gone, replaced with gapped cedar boards that wrap the building in a sleek façade. A new stainless steel counter runs across the front of the building, and outdoor speakers pump out indie beats for the locals. Inside, Chen does the absolute last thing he thought he would end up doing after earning his international relations degree — he pulls Chinese noodles by hand, one order at a time, for hours a day.
Since noodle pulling wasn't part of his college curriculum, Chen says he enlisted the help of "Willy," a northern Chinese expat who pulls noodles in and around New York City. Willy came to Dallas to put Chen through a sort of noodle-pulling boot camp. Training wasn't easy.
After weeks of working with his mentor, Chen learned the finer points of working with dough made simply with flour and water. He learned how humidity can affect how much water the dough needs and how temperature can affect the springiness of the resultant dough. Chen also learned to work efficiently, letting the weight of the dough do most of the work so his arms had to do less. When he forgot that lesson, his muscles reminded him with burning arms and backaches.
And while Chen toiled away in noodle camp his partners helped stitch together the rest of the pieces of Monkey King. The results are a tiny takeout that exudes style and a street-food-inspired menu of Chinese and Taiwanese dishes the likes of which Deep Ellum has never seen.
The spicy beef noodle soup is exceptional, and by far the best way to get to know Chen's handcrafted noodles. His strands can be inconsistent at times — fat like pencils in one bowl and as thin as spaghetti in the next, and a little mushy one day yet firm and springy more often than not — but you won't care in the slightest the second your nostrils fill with the scent of Sichuan peppercorn, smoky dried chiles and star-anise-laced broth.
The beef comes from the foreshank, which is loaded with tough muscle and connective tissue. If you're new to the concept of texture and the role it plays in many Asian cuisines, a few chunks of meat may look unnerving. But they absolutely melt in your mouth, resolving into massive beefy flavors and glistening, velvety textures that make for one of the most soulful soup experiences that can be had anywhere in Dallas.
You might feel bad for the dan-dan noodles, forced to compete with such artful soup, but there is no shame in second place. This dish lacks the deep, smoky flavors of other versions that lean heavily on dried chiles, and the numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns is almost imperceptible, too. It's a subtle dan-dan, but the mound of pork sitting on a nest of noodles, topped with a ladle of hot chicken broth, will soothe you.
Chen may pull noodles, but he's got other employees pulling dumpling duty. Try the wontons to see the best of what his dumpling ladies are capable of. The tender, pork-stuffed wrappers are dressed in chile oil that smacks of vinegar. They're at once bright and spicy. Or get the pouty soup dumplings, which explode with broth when you take a bite, or the regular pork dumplings, which seem almost as juicy. Even the vegetarian dumplings, loaded with finely minced mushrooms, step in with big flavors while other versions are bland. Vegetarians should also take notice of the noodles dressed in a slightly fermented bean paste, with potatoes and fresh julienned cucumber. Omnivores should take notice, too.
When the weather is warmer, it might be easy to picture yourself on the rooftop patio, with a tray or two of dumplings in front of you and your palm wrapped around a warm paper cup. The spiral staircase is treacherous, but it's a worthwhile climb to the top of Monkey King Mountain. Some people are likely already up there, ambient temperature be damned, and if Chen continues to hone his noodle skills, there are going to be more. By spring, you'll probably have trouble finding a seat. It's going to happen.
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