Thin Wheat Line: Do Re Mi La Cay

Mi ChaoZhou.jpg
Jonathan Kauffman
Thin Wheat Line is a weekly exploration of noodles in Seattle.

Noodle: Chaozhou-style mi soup noodle

Source: Mi La Cay, 718 Rainier Ave. S., 322-6840

Price: $6.75

In the looks department, your average International District storefront is more Adrien Brody than Chace Crawford. Mi La Cay, on the south end of Little Saigon, tips all the way into Willem Dafoe territory, hard used and a little creepy. The twilight interior is tiled in dark-green marble covered over in the clutter collected by any family that conducts its life in its business. The decor, and the slightly removed location, doesn't keep MI La Cay from getting slammed at lunch.

As half of the twenty thousand menu items attest, Mi La Cay's specialty is mi, or crinkly, spindly wheat noodles, served both in soups or stir-fried. While Mi La Cay's owners come from Vietnam, and the menu's in Vietnamese and English, mi marks the restaurant as Chinese Vietnamese -- even more precisely, Chaozhou (sometimes spelled Teochew or Choo Chow).

The Chaozhou have emigrated all over Southeast Asia over the past few centuries, and you'll find them in Thailand and Singapore as well as Vietnam. Large numbers of Vietnamese Chinese emigrated to Seattle during and after the war, and they still own a number of restaurants on the Vietnamese stretch of MLK's restaurant row.

The surface of the Chaozhou-style noodle soup, with its clear chicken broth, is tiled with a mosaic of meats: white triangles of squid, coral twists of prawn, curls of pork liver, long strips of chicken meat, rectangular slabs of roast pork, spongy fish balls, all woven together with lettuce leaves. There's not much complexity to the dish, so a dollop of toasted chile oil isn't a bad idea, but the tender, concentrated slow-roasted pork -- which tastes like an Italian grandmother braised the meat in milk -- needs no sauce.

And if you prefer your mi even more bouncy and distinct, order the soup separate from the noodles. I wouldn't recommend this with the seafood noodles, since the flavor of the meats isn't particularly charismatic, but I ordered the two-bowl version of the roast duck soup noodles one day. The noodles were tossed with a teaspoon or so of the five-spice-flavored duck fat, a flavor that would have been drowned out by the broth. Taking bites off the crisp-skinned duck leg, slurping up a bundle of mi, and taking small sips of broth in between -- it was a fine meal, certainly finer than its surroundings.

 
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