At the tail end of what many agree has been a heartbreaking year full of surprise restaurant closures, Monkey House Noodle Co.'s soft opening of their new Carrollton location is a glimmer of hope for the future, a breath of fresh air saturated with the pungent aftertaste of chili oil and garlic.
Owner Andrew Chen admits the expansion was partially influenced by Jay Jerrier's positive experience opening his newest Cane Rosso next door in the area's developing downtown historic district. Given the zoning issues Monkey King's original Deep Ellum location faced (necessitating a welcomed relocation and expansion), the cooperation is encouraging.
"It's definitely different," Chen says. "The city is a lot quicker to respond here," adding the city of Carrolton is actually their current landlord.
Hardcore Monkey King fans anticipating new dishes at the new location will be slightly disappointed. The menu is essentially the same as Deep Ellum's, but Chen's integrated production model and commitment to quality ensures his standards are met for everything they serve. A majority of their product is made off-site in a central commissary kitchen, making further expansion opportunities possible without sacrificing standards.
"We have to make it ourselves," Chen says. "I don't want another company making it, because I don't know what they're putting in it." By making everything in-house using old-school techniques, they get to control everything from the methods to the ingredients. This way, "we get to control the flour, and we'll pay a premium for that flour if we need to," he says.
The space itself is a clean and quirky mashup of old-school nostalgia and modern minimalist design. Like their expanded Deep Ellum location, the Carrolton building was once an old garage, but it comes with some history. When Chen first saw the space, it looked like a standard old auto body shop. Soon after, they discovered the front part of the building was one of the state's first Texaco stations.
There's a red line on the dining room floor marking the original space. The historical building faces the street; it's a quaint A-frame with a stubby chimney and a bright red door that looks like it was designed by elves. The rest of the space, extending from the rear of the original, is newly built; two large garage doors connect the interior dining room to a large outdoor seating area. Soon they'll have a space adjacent to the patio that's purpose-built to host the Cow Tipping Creamery truck (currently awaiting repair next door in the Cane Rosso parking lot). Cane Rosso/Monkey King Noodles/Cow Tipping Creamery is the sorely needed power-threesome the 'burbs never knew it needed.
They're still finishing some of the interior details during this extended soft opening; it needs some final touches like a full menu display, a phone line and internet. They'll add some art to the clean walls, but that's pretty much it.
"We keep our designs really simple anyways," Chen says. "It's street food; it's not meant to be beautifully adorned." Pay attention to the details, though — the new space is giving some familiar furnishings a second chance at glory. "When I heard Luscher's was closing," Chen says of the beloved Deep Ellum hot dog spot, "I called up Brian [Luscher] and said 'I hate to sound like a war-time profiteer, but what are you doing with your furniture?'"
We stopped by just before Christmas to carb-load and check out the new space. The near-persistent gloomy drizzle made for perfect noodle weather. The dandan noodles came out piping hot, with crumbles of juicy ground pork and perfectly springy fresh noodles swimming in a flavor-packed ginger/garlic/chili broth. They carried some spice, but thankfully less so than other traditional Sichuan preparations we've encountered; it's hard to inhale a quart of noodles when your face is melting.
The soup dumplings were pretty damn perfect, pillows of spiced pork and a touch of soup stock enclosed within a delicate and slightly chewy dumpling wrapper. Soup dumplings around the area have become somewhat elevated as of late, and while that's not a bad thing, seeing them returned to their glorious roots as humble street food (especially at a buck a pop) can only mean good things.
We also tried the seasonal stir-fry dish, a smoky wok-charred Texas mushroom medley with blistered shishito peppers. We loved the meaty king oyster stems; cut on the bias, they give a great texture against the more delicate shiitakes. Since mushroom season is quickly coming to a close, Chen isn't sure what will take its place. He was sad to see the water spinach go earlier in the season as well, but he works with what his suppliers can get. He also admits he's limited to what diners are willing to try. The first iteration of the mushroom stir-fry featured bamboo shoots, but it wasn't popular.
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"I guess bamboo is a little too out there for the general public," Chen laments. "People just didn't like bamboo. They didn't like eggplant either; I was bummed about that."
Because of the location, it's hard to tell whether lunch or dinner service will win out as the most popular. If Cane Rosso's increasing dinner crowds are a good indicator, the new noodle stand might find a consistent demand throughout the day. In keeping with their original aesthetic, the ticket time is quick (Chen says they shoot for under eight minutes), and meals are served in convenient to-go containers. "We're not a first-date place, we're not a dining scene place," Chen says, "we're a quick and dirty street food place."
Speaking of dirty, if you're worried about slurping down a mess of oil-infused noodles while you're dressed for success, the Carrollton location will also stock bibs for your dandan noodle power lunch. They're open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner service and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday for lunch service.
Monkey King Noodle Co., 1309 S. Broadway, Carrollton