The second decade of the 21st century is a great time to be a Chinese-loving food geek in Boston. Fans of the regional cuisines of Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sichuan, Shandong and Shanghai have been well-served, but other regions had gotten short shrift. That started to change when downtown- and Woburn-based Gene’s Chinese Flatbread introduced locals to Shaanxi cuisine, while Chef Chang’s on Back Bay debuted with some Shaanxi and Uighur dishes. Now comes Brighton Center’s MDM Noodles, a modest 40-seat storefront focusing on central China’s Henan province. Open a few weeks, MDM is already drawing throngs, mainly Chinese ex-pats and the usual plucky Chowhound types, but there’s more behind this stampede than mere novelty.
Guests enter to encounter a glass buffet case with an eye-catching assortment of ingredients: raw meats and seafood, Chinese sausages, vegetables, seaweed and mushrooms, gnarly slips of wheat gluten, tofu skin and puffs. Order the currently trendy mala soup ($5 vegetarian, $7 with meat or seafood)—think Chinese hot pot with noodles and spicy broth, only prepared in the kitchen, not tableside—and this case is where you’ll build your bowl. As the term mala indicates, the broth combines the fire of capsicum chilies with the mentholated, numbing “heat” of Sichuan peppercorns. Mala pot ($10/pound for meat and seafood, $8/basket for vegetables) offers a brothless version of the soup topped with cilantro and sesame seeds and served with a side of excellent rice. I chose beef, salami-like Chinese sausage, potato, lotus root, gluten, tree-ear fungus and cabbage for a fresh, light, mildly numbing-hot stir-fry. (I suspect my paleo-faddist friends would love this menu section, too.)
But the heart of MDM lies in Henan province, home of the two chefs, as well as the neighboring Shaanxi, Chongqing and further-flung Xinjiang provinces. Wheat, the staple grain of these temperate regions, is rendered into a variety of noodles and flatbreads. Lamb is the predominant protein. Dried cumin (a Chinese Muslim import), garlic, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns are everywhere. Caddy condiments include chili oil, sugar, finely ground white pepper and black vinegar for amplifying and tweaking flavors to diners’ individual preferences. For starters, BBQ lamb kabob ($1.50) is irresistible: skewered little chunks of juicy grilled lamb with a fiercely fragrant dusting of cumin and dried chili. Spicy cumin lamb burger ($4.75) is a sandwich of rugged flatbread (like a tougher English muffin) filled with garlicky, lightly fiery, tenderly braised lamb.
Miàn Duì Miàn means “Noodles on Noodles,” and where MDM truly shines is its namesake, especially its hand-pulled noodle, which recalls a long strand of narrow, curly-edged lasagna with a denser, chewier texture. A two-foot coil of this uniquely hearty noodle underpins the spicy boiled lamb hand-pulled noodle ($9). Easier to eat if you bite through it in spots, it’s topped with slices of lamb, an insistently garlicky and numbing-hot sauce, shredded carrots, mung bean sprouts and cilantro. Vegetarians can enjoy the similar but meatless spicy hot-oil hand-pulled noodle ($6.50). Hand-pulled noodle also bulks up the astonishing house specialty of lamb meat soup ($9.50), which has three superb accents: a silky, milky, lamb-bone/marrow broth; cubes of lamb leg with the old-fashioned, richly gamy flavor of mutton; and quail eggs with miraculously creamy yolks. And hand-pulled noodle provides the foundation of the gorgeous, substantial Xinjiang chicken ($20 for two, $35 for four, $50 for six), a piquant stew of bone-in chicken, potatoes, sweet peppers, aromatics and mala heat.
There are other types of noodles, like the potato-starch ones (akin to slippery, translucent linguine) that pop up in Sichang spicy noodle soup ($7), which balances mala heat with the pucker-inducing tang of Chinese vinegar; bok choy, ground pork and spongy fried tofu cubes add textural and savory interest. Buckwheat cold noodle ($6.50) is a rare disappointment, reading as ordinary wheat noodles with no discernible buckwheat character. Liang pi (“cold skin”) noodle ($5.50) is far more successful, a fabulous cold-noodle dish with the intriguing, delicate texture of white “noodles” made from starch extracted from wheat dough, topped with sprouts, spongy gluten cubes, cilantro and a dressing vividly combining soy sauce, chili oil and black vinegar. (Given its labor intensiveness and short shelf life, this dish frequently sells out.)
MDM noodle soup ($7) sets skinny rice noodles in a mild broth with bok choy, gluten cubes, cilantro and quail eggs. Wonton soup ($6.50), a nod to owner Sam Ho’s family roots in Hong Kong, boasts perfect, delicate pork-filled wontons in a fine golden broth. Beverage options are limited to bottled soft drinks ($2-$3) and complimentary hot tea. Service admirably keeps pace with the mobs already common at peak dining hours, though their English skills are variable; point clearly to your menu and buffet-case items to avoid confusion. Speaking of possible crossed signals, the phrase “May you live in interesting times” is frequently (and entirely apocryphally) cited by English speakers as a Chinese curse. After a few meals slurping and chomping your way down MDM Noodles’ fascinating regional byways, you may want to reinterpret that alleged imprecation as the blessing it really is.
– BBQ lamb kabob
– Spicy cumin lamb burger
– Spicy boiled lamb hand-pulled noodle
– Lamb meat soup
– Liang pi
– Xinjiang chicken
Hours: 11:30 am-8:30 pm daily
Parking: Small private lot in rear, metered street spaces
MDM Noodles 351 Washington St., Boston (617-208-8663) mdmnoodle.com