People Issue

People 2015: Andrew Chen Breaks Chinese Food out of the ’Burbs

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. Click here to find all our People Issue profiles.

Look to the suburbs if you want to find good ethnic food. The rule holds true in most cities, and especially in Dallas, where if you’re looking for authentic Chinese cooking your best bet is outside of LBJ Freeway. That’s where you’ll find the aggressive use of Sichuan peppercorns and Peking duck with crispy skin. Chinese restaurants inside the loop cater to customers who still fumble with their chopsticks.

Andrew Chen hoped for something different when he opened Monkey King Noodle Co. in the heart of Deep Ellum. Though its short menu focuses on freshly pulled noodles and hand-crimped dumplings, some diners are still confused as to what his restaurant is all about. “We still have people call us up and ask for egg rolls and fortune cookies,” Chen jokes as he discusses bucking the suburban trend. “That’s almost racist,” he adds. He’s laughing now.

“That’s not to say we won’t ever make egg rolls,” he says, but his primary goal was to add something to what he calls Dallas’ culinary conversation about good Chinese food. “It’s such a diverse source of food and culinary wonder and history,” he says. Chen knew the dumplings punctuating so many of his early food memories would speak to his new customers, so instead of cooking from a canon that includes moo goo gai pan and frozen dumplings, he uses the same ingredients and techniques his grandmother used in his childhood kitchen. The approach drew a line of customers down the sidewalk the first day the takeout opened for business. The line has been there ever since.

The variety of people in that line says as much about Chen’s success as its length. Monkey King has earned the moniker “Hipster Chinese,” as many noodle slurpers have beards and inked skin. But on weekends, the crowd grows more diverse, a testament to the team keeping Chen’s kitchen rolling.

“If it’s a nice Saturday, it’s like a Honda Odyssey convention,” Chen says, engaging in a little stereotyping of his own as he describes the sidewalk scene in front of the restaurant. His noodles have started to draw families from the neighborhoods he and his partners grew up in. “That’s when we knew we did it,” Chen says. “We got some street cred.”

Monkey King also has something that its suburban counterparts sorely lack. Chen’s restaurant focuses on street food — the dishes he lusted for after a night of drinking in Taipei. In Garland, ethnic restaurants are packed into strips malls, with little nightlife and no foot traffic, but in Deep Ellum the streets are vibrant. Chen may be converting those Dallasites slowly, but he’s doing it. And one paper cup at a time, followers from inside the loop and out are discovering that noodles taste better when eaten on your feet.
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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz