Name That Noodle

Crying Tigers and Cutie Bumpers in Redmond.

"Crying Tiger," my wife, Laura, said, running her finger down the menu at Noodle Land in Redmond. If I had an 80's-style glam-rock band, our first power ballad—track six on our very first album—would be called "Crying Tiger," and it would be about a kung fu master who is sad because he's beaten all his enemies and now has nothing to do all day but sit under a peach tree and stroke his flowing mustache. If I had a van, I would have a giant crying tiger airbrushed onto the side, its claws out, rending the steel and weeping at its own awesomeness. If I were ever to join the yakuza, the first thing I would do is get a giant crying tiger tattooed onto my back, and Tora Naki (Japanese for Crying Tiger) would be my mafia name. I would become legendary as a hunter of men and a killer who always wept for the senseless loss of life every time he shot up some Shinjuku tea shop. Someday Hollywood would make a terrible movie about it, with the part of me played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Crying Tiger is actually a fairly standard dish in the traditional—and semantically excellent—Thai canon. It is beef, sliced thin, dressed in a powerful shot of lime juice, then tossed with chiles, chopped onions, cilantro, mint, and Thai basil—comfort food for the geographically dispossessed. It's a poetic name for a lovely mess of a plate, heavy on the protein and endemic whenever Thai people gather to party—snapping away with chopsticks and getting right past the smell of the dish (an acidic and muddy-green reek that at first gave me some trouble because it is so out of joint with the flavors, melded by heat) as they dig in. It's called "Crying Tiger" because of the way that, when traditionally prepared (with a big-ass hunk of beef, cooked whole, then sliced later), fat weeps from the meat on the super-hot grill like the beefy tears of Jean-Claude. Noodle Land, a small and half-hidden storefront surrounded by Chinese and Japanese restaurants, an Indian grocery, and a real-estate office, has maybe 30 seats. It's the kind of place for which the word "unassuming" was invented, but has an entire menu filled with beautiful onomatopoetic titles and weirdly conceived names for things. You make a choice: Earthquake or Waterfall (both soups, heavy on the noodles, and both tasty in oddly complex, spice-heavy ways) Angels or Paradise (the former an eight-vegetable entrée with bean thread noodles and egg, the latter a fish topped with chunks of bright yellow/orange mango, cilantro, fresh chiles, and shaved carrots). Emerald Noodles are rice noodles topped with verdant green curry, sweet with coconut milk. You order a plate of Garlic Land and you pretty much know what you're going to get: garlic, prawns, beef or chicken, garlic, cilantro, white peppers, and, you know, garlic. "So what are you thinking?" Laura asked, as I giggled over the Cutie Bumpers, Pinching Claws, and Rocket Noodles. I looked up at her and stabbed a finger down decisively at the menu, my decision made. The chosen dish: I Am Sweet and Sour. The space that Noodle Land occupies glows golden at all hours and smells of hot oil, garlic, chiles, and wonderful things being done to chicken in the back. There are high-backed wooden booths, flowers, and globe lights hanging from the ceiling. The size of the place is a strange trick—it's small, with room for only a few parties. But some quirk in its geometry makes it feel comfortable rather than cozy when crowded, and intimate rather than cold when it's quiet inside and the only sounds are the cooks in the back working through what must be an unending list of prep. They have to be ready, at any moment, to throw together plates as diverse as chicken satay (simple enough, though bathed in a scratch marinade of coconut milk and curry powder before cooking); tiny pork-and-shrimp shu mai in crisp wrappers, pan-fried rather than steamed; hot fried rice hit with a shotgun pattern of wicked little chiles; chive dumplings (handmade and fried, served with black bean sauce); or Peekaboo Noodles with spinach and peanut sauce in a combination I have never before seen. The board at Noodle Land, once you get past the cute names and strange juxtapositions, is an impressive document—deep and full of Thai party food not completely unaffected by the drastic change in area code, but also surprisingly authentic in its reach. For every I Am Sweet and Sour (deep-fried chicken served with a salad bar's worth of pineapple, sliced bell pepper, tomato, celery, onion, and cucumber, and tasting fresher, cleaner, and better than most strip-mall Chinese versions), there is a kao klook kapi made with jasmine rice, pork, and shrimp paste topped with a jungle of sliced mango, green beans, onions, and lime. Every dish makes good use of the standard grocery list of Thai cooking: basil leaves and lime, curry powder, mango, chiles, peanuts, and noodles in staggering variety. But in every third or fourth plate, there is a surprise. Straw mushrooms in the Vegetarian Garden, but used nowhere else; a fish ball here; a whole egg bobbing there. The meatballs in the Waterfall soup were my favorite oddity—far different from the standard Asian meatball (so stiff it squeaks when you bite it), made loose and soft and with meat that held its flavor even against the powerful spices in the broth. Not counting the combo plates, taro smoothies, green tea, or desserts of mango, sticky rice, or coconut ice cream, Noodle Land offers more than 70 dishes—some common, most not. Of the six curries (Red, Green, Panang, Masaman, Tarzan, and King), I like the Panang for its creative use of peanut butter and kaffir lime leaves. But the Masaman was best—the sweetness of the coconut milk bracing its true heat (rare, as I've discovered, among so many local Thai joints) and the chunks of potatoes providing both texture and a kind of sponge effect for the swirling flavors. The eight soups, all noodle-based, run the gamut from the meaty Turbo Noodle Soup (with egg noodles and wontons stuffed with shrimp and ground pork like aquatic shu mai, then baby bok choy and barbecued pork besides) to the Earthquake and Rocket and Waterfall—this last which I had on my final turn through Noodle Land's dining room and found to be so overpoweringly strange and rich and brown that I only ate half of it before moving on to something more comforting. Of the 16 appetizers, the Cutie Bumper—soft tofu, deep-fried and served all puffy and brown with a side of spicy garlic sauce—has the most ridiculous (and fantastic) name. The Heavenly Beef (marinated beef with sticky rice and Sriracha) promises the most, but ultimately disappoints simply because I've had the same dish, under other names, done better elsewhere. And the Mermaid Prawn was, by far, the oddest: tail-on prawns jacketed in ground chicken then wrapped in rice paper and fried. The result is a plate of what really does look like a half-dozen tiny little tails pulled from baby mermaids and fried up for a quick snack—disturbing to the more creative-minded, but delicious nonetheless. Noodle Land is best known for its noodles, everything from egg and rice to glass, flat, wide, and soba. There are the Highway Noodles—Thai street-corner junk food—with green onions, threads of carrot, bean sprouts, and squid. Then there are the Rolling Noodles, which the kitchen was sold out of on two separate occasions; Bamee Heng, which is like after-dark Thai drunk food with steamed egg noodles topped with slabs of barbecued pork, perfect in its simplicity and strong flavors; and Awesome Noodles, which, I'm pretty sure, are served nowhere in Thailand. But how can you argue with a big plate of rice noodles, washed in red chile oil, sprinkled with basil leaves, and served with whatever meat the kitchen has close at hand? After three visits, dozens of shu mai, my fair share of Earthquakes and Waterfalls, and more noodles than any one man ought decently to eat, I'd come to appreciate the balance of the familiar with the outlandish, and felt like I understood where the cooks in the kitchen were coming from. The names were goofy, sure, but they accompanied beautiful, delicious dishes that take most of their Western influence from the language while leaving their Thai authenticity on the plate. That was when I saw a big trout being walked out from the back—served whole, fried and stiff, garnished with crisp basil leaves and drizzled with a sauce that smelled of a hundred different spices, chile, and deeply burnt sugar. I searched through the takeout menu I'd stuffed in my pocket, looking for anything like it listed among the 70-odd dishes, until finally I found it lurking near the bottom of the page under "special dishes." A whole fish, deep-fried and sauced on the platter, laid out on a bed of greens like something just caught and bedded down on seaweed. It was called, of course, Smiling Sky.

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