Those who have followed their love for Chinese food to the modest Chen's Noodle House in northwest Austin will likely perk up at the name Chen Z Hot Pot and Noodle Bar.
Noodle House owner Zhao Chen is also connected to this new urbane spot on Anderson Lane.
But Chen is not alone in this endeavor. While his handmade noodles are a major part of the new restaurant's appeal, Chen is joined at Chen Z by Henry Wong, former owner of sushi restaurant Mikado Ryotei, and Johnson Ngo, general manager of Mushashino.
Chen Z seamlessly weaves the varied styles of the three restaurateurs. The result is a hip and sophisticated take on classic Chinese. Many of the dishes, if not the higher prices, will be familiar to regulars at Chen's Noodle House, but the Chen Z owners have created a calling card of sorts by featuring traditional hot pot service that dates back hundreds of years in China. Beyond the menu, the modern look and feel of the new place announces a marked change in direction from the spartan Chen's Noodle House.
Bare limestone walls, set off by dark brown leather chairs, match fabric lamp shades hanging over two large communal tables that bifurcate the dining area. Soft music from Thievery Corporation replaces the rustle and din at the packed Chen's Noodle House.
While several of the dishes from Chen's Noodle House make appearances here, the stars of the show at Chen Z are the hot pots. And it's no spectator sport. Guests select one of four broths for $6, served in a stainless steel pot. A sterno fire brings the dish, placed in your table's center, to a rolling boil. You then submerge your selection of individually purchased proteins, starches and vegetables into the cauldron.
There are about 40 options of hot pot items, so the combinations are endless. From the more than a dozen protein items, we favored the head-on shrimp. Ten large, skewered raw shrimp ($8) arrive on a plate, their bubbling fate awaiting them. We first put one-fourth-inch slices of sweet potato ($3.50) the color of cantaloupe into the frenzied stew of plump tomatoes. After giving the potatoes a few minutes to soften, in went the shrimp. We waited about two minutes, pulled the shrimp from the pot and set them aside to cool before removing the heads and peeling the succulent meat from the shell. The tender potatoes, now pumpkin colored, had absorbed the acidic juices of the tomato broth, which had also given a sheen of flavor to the plump shrimp.
We made a joyful mess of our table, a Pollock-esque scene of dripped and splattered broth amid scattered plates, skewers and ladles. But our server assured us we were not alone in our sloppiness. Service at the restaurant is extremely attentive yet unobtrusive, guided by the hand of the friendly Wong, who navigates the tables like a true host.
Each hot pot comes with a trio of dipping sauces — a mild and disorienting chili oil and oyster sauce, a pungent and salty mung bean sauce and, my favorite, a sesame oil sauce spiked with a dollop of stinging garlic.
On another visit, we ordered a pot with thin slices of raw ribeye ($8.50), shiitake mushrooms ($4.50) and baby bok choy ($4.50) in a steaming hot pot of ma-la broth. The oily broth hits your mouth with a spicy punch before vapors of star anise rise into your sinuses, like entering a culinary steam room. The shiitakes, one of four mushroom choices available, are fat, meaty and well suited for absorbing the flavors of the broth, and the bok choy maintained its freshness and crunch. The thinly sliced ribeye cooks very quickly, so, as with all the hot pots, you must act with some precision when tossing ingredients into the fire.
At $17.50 the shrimp and sweet potato hot pot was a decent value for one person or could be shared by two if a noodle dish is ordered. But the $23.50 price of the beef, shiitake and bok choy hot pot seemed exorbitant, as it was barely enough to serve as a dinner for one.
I recommend sharing a hot pot and supplementing with appetizers, dumplings or a noodle dish. The grilled lamb skewers ($9) provided ample meat on the eight skewers, but the gaminess of the lamb competed with a chalky rub of "Chen Z spices" that tasted mostly of chili powder and cumin. The more refreshing braised cold beef ($8), bright and fiery with anise and chili oil, or the cucumber salad ($4) make for better starters. The potent garlic and bitter leek flavors of the quiche-like fried egg and vermicelli pie ($6) are another starter standout. Dumplings can be ordered pan fried or steamed in a traditional wrapper ($7 for pork, $8 for shrimp) or spinach dough ($7.50 for pork, $9 for shrimp). Go with the steamed variety to avoid the unwanted burnt texture that comes from a frying pan.
Fans of the original Chen's Noodle House may find the décor surprising, but they will get their bearings when they recognize a variety of Mr. Chen's popular homemade noodles on the menu.
The pan-fried surf and turf sits at the opposite end of the value spectrum ($11) of the three-ingredient ribeye hot pot. The dish teams with a mass of tender chicken, chewy cuttlefish and beef. Unfortunately, the crunch of red pepper and snap peas could not distract from the gummy spinach noodles, their pan sear rendering them to a Medusa-like tangle.
Wispy rice vermicelli noodles cling to each other at the bottom of the spicy pork loin ($8.50) that comes in a slightly oily broth warmed and cooled by a flotilla of red pepper flakes and an abundance of cilantro.
Thick, doughy tendrils of buckwheat noodles serve as the base for the wok-fried double-pepper chicken ($9) and smoked duck dishes ($9.50). Grainy crystals of ginger play hide-and-seek in the mildly spicy sauce in the chicken dish that comes with fibrous chunks of sautéed red and green peppers. The menu promised green onions and cucumber with the duck, and while the dish failed in that regard, it did deliver a welcome balance of tangy enoki mushrooms and earthy shitake mushrooms. The duck, like the chicken, was tender and well-seasoned, though the abundant sauce pushed the limits of oily sweetness.
The intended sweets, a mound of coconut jelee ($4) and a dense, gelatinous mango pudding ($4), refreshed and cleansed the palate.
Chen Z represents a refreshing alternative in the limited world of upscale, traditional Chinese restaurants in Austin. The value of the hot pots is not quite as exciting as the act of preparing and eating them, but splitting a hot pot and another dish can keep a meal for two from stretching much beyond $30.
The noodle dishes may offer the best value, but many suffer from an abundance of sauce and salt or a lack of attention while cooking. If the owners can refine their execution to the degree they have honed the look and feel of the place, Chen Z could have a long and popular run in Austin, and its style and hot pot gimmick could possibly translate to a franchise.
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