Post-Expansion, Monkey King is Still a Noodle Stand at Heart

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Monkey King Noodle Co. is fast becoming a Deep Ellum institution. After two and a half successful years as a small takeout window, during which time Dallas city regulations shut down its informal collection of tables on the sidewalk, the restaurant has moved around the corner into a permanent home with a patio and perfectly legal indoor seating.

Monkey King’s glorious noodles, thankfully, survived the move.

There’s something about a good bowl of hand-pulled Chinese noodles that satisfies hunger in both the stomach and the soul. And the folks at Monkey King make damn good noodles from scratch: a little springy, a little chewy, slurpably thick, with big, flavorful sauces clinging on for dear life. The spicy beef noodles ($8) contain perfectly tender medium-spicy cubes of meat, though cilantro haters must be warned.

Similarly great: The dan dan noodles ($8), mildly spicy in a sauce of garlic, ginger and chili oil that leaves you scrambling to pick up spare bits of ground pork with your chopsticks. The tim tim sesame noodles ($8) are outstanding, too, but for sesame connoisseurs only. With black and white seeds, plus toasted sesame oil, the flavor concentration is very strong. There are also cold chicken and beef noodles in a black vinegar sauce ($8), but these are subtler, quieter bowls, best tried on their own rather than immediately after spicier, bolder menu-mates that make them seem dull in comparison.

Monkey King’s dumplings are more hit-and-miss. The pork dumplings ($7) are immensely flavorful and have a splash of broth inside for good measure; eat ’em while they’re hot. Wontons ($7), coated in a spicy chili sauce, bring energetic flavor but, on one visit, arrived with chewy, undercooked wrappers. The wontons are also available in a soup; hot broth might solve any undercooking problems.

Speaking of broth, the celebrated soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, pose a problem for Monkey King ($8). The broth is mild-mannered and underseasoned, without the savory intensity of the pork dumplings. More worryingly, about half of the soup dumplings arrived busted on two Observer visits, with the soup inside already spilling across the tray. That’s a big disappointment.
The side dishes range from pretty good to merely solid. Best was the bok choy in garlic sauce ($6), a new addition in which the bok choy gets a gratifying sear, edges deliciously charred from the hot wok. A seasonal special of long beans and spicy ground pork ($6) mimics a Szechuan classic, and does a darn good job of it (a vegan version is available, too). Mushrooms and bamboo couldn’t be simpler, a quick stir fry ($5), and the scallion pancakes ($5) are thicker and doughier than average, though that will be fine by many patrons.

Do the craveable pork dumplings and spicy noodles make Monkey King a top destination? The grand masters at Royal China, Imperial Noodle and King’s Noodle won’t give up without a fight. Certainly Royal China’s soup dumplings are a world apart. But that’s an elite standard, and those are sit-down restaurants. Monkey King has one big advantage: its Deep Ellum location, and its perfect fit for that neighborhood.

The vibrant décor, complete with a neon “Monkeys Welcome” sign that sorely needs to be tested by a marmoset-toting customer, sets the tone for Monkey King’s casual cool. All the food arrives already in to-go containers, even for dine-in customers, preserving the laid-back feel of the original takeout window. No pretensions here.

Monkey King’s new patio is an improvement on its old one, and not just because it’s legal. It’s a big, irregularly shaped space with plenty of bright red picnic tables. Indoors, things can get loud during peak times, especially if the stereo is blaring, but long lines seem easy to predict and beat. On a weekend lunch, for instance, arrive just before noon and watch the rush follow.

The Monkey King empire is only going to expand from here. The original window recently reopened as Banana Stand, a tribute to the sitcom Arrested Development, and although George Bluth cannot slake his desire for ice cream sandwiches there yet, Banana Stand offers a tantalizing list of Asian-inspired desserts. (Banana Stand opened too recently to receive full coverage in this review.)
Meanwhile, owners Andrew Chen and Michael Wang are planning to add a second Monkey King location in Carrollton in “early to mid-October,” Chen tells the Observer, at which point they’ll have to face the challenges of replicating their success.

Chen says they’ve opened a “commissary kitchen” off-site, where all the noodles and dumplings are made from scratch and can be driven to each restaurant. “I’m very particular about what goes in the dumplings and the wontons,” he explains. “I didn’t want to outsource the production. We still make everything by hand. We get to control the entire process.” Chen decides everything from what flours go in the noodle mix to adjustments for changes in Dallas’ heat and humidity.

Moving to a sit-down restaurant with a bigger kitchen allowed the chefs to expand the menu, and a few more dishes might be coming soon. Chen tells us he’s toying with a couple more types of noodle and “a stir-fry component.” The bok choy is an early winner there. Still, the goal is to “stay true to the scope of what we originally intended as a noodle stand.”

More challenges lie ahead, then, for this ultra-casual Deep Ellum hangout. Not least of them is making sure the soup dumplings pack more flavor and go bust less frequently. In the meantime, as a noodle stand Monkey King is a success, and as a neighborhood spot it has found a cult following. Spicy beef noodles make for a great hangover cure. Now if only somebody would try bringing their pet monkey.

Monkey King Noodle Company, 2933 Main St. 469-713-2648. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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