I made it a point to visit at a traditionally slow time in the day for restaurants, and I was rewarded by Chef Jimmy Huang, founder/owner and chef at Huangcheng Noodle House, taking a break from his bustling kitchen to sit down with me. Wearing a flour-speckled black apron and thick black gloves, donning beads of sweat on his forehead, it was obvious he was not above rolling up his sleeves with the rest of his kitchen staff.
Jimmy educated me on his family’s Shanxi-style knife cut noodle tradition, something that he proudly carries on from his ancestors rooted in the Shanxi Province of China. The incredible story of his family’s connection to the culinary style is proudly displayed on a wall of the restaurant and known by heart by those that work there. In 1900, in response to the Boxer Rebellion, the Eight-Nation Alliance attacked Beijing, causing Empress Dowager Cixi to flee to Xian, the capital of the Shanxi Province. She stayed there for 18 months, at which time, she grew accustomed to the regional differences of the area. After finding out the Empress had never tasted knife cut noodles before, the county magistrate chose the shop serving what she considered the “most traditional” knife shaved noodles in the province to serve to the Empress. After Empress Cixi ate the bowl of noodles, she claimed it was “one of the most delicious bowls of soup” she had ever eaten. She then requested to meet with the chef behind this masterpiece. It was Jimmy’s great grandfather “Huang.” And so a legend was born.
When Jimmy emigrated from China to the United States, his first stop was in Las Vegas, where he worked as a cook for an Asian restaurant. He was cooking other people’s recipes, and his traditional knife shaved noodle dishes were confined to his home and off-hour meals with coworkers. After witnessing his knife wielding prowess and tasting his incredible knife cut noodle dishes, his coworkers encouraged him to start his own business. Just like Empress Cixi a century before, they knew they were experiencing something special. In 2018, he relocated to Oakland and started Huangcheng Noodle House.
The Ambience and Service
The shop is in a prime location on the corner of 8th and Webster. Outside of the poster-sized description of their family tradition, there is nothing spectacular about the interior. They have plain white walls, large tinted windows, and a mix of eight rectangle and circular tables covered by red and white plastic table covers. I estimate they can accommodate around 40-45 guests at a time.
There is a refrigerator near the cash register, where you can help yourself to bottled beverages. Also near the cash register sits a pan of house made kimchi, which is free for customers in the know. There is no big sign with “Free Kim Chi” over it, but trust me – it’s free.
I recognize there is a cultural difference between what Americans traditionally consider good customer service and the type of straight-to-the-point service you typically receive at establishments in Chinatown, but Jimmy is a bit of an anomaly. He is a genuinely friendly and approachable guy. I saw him check on other diners throughout the restaurant to gauge their level of enjoyment, and he asked me a couple times mid-bowl, “so how is it?” I believe his persona carries over to his floor staff, which includes his wife and daughter.
Would it be a deal breaker for me if they were not-so-friendly? Not at all. I only mention this to folks who are more reluctant to accept the cultural differences in service. In contrast, I had eaten at Gum Kuo (another excellent spot in Oakland’s Chinatown), and for my money, I received phenomenal Peking Duck, no greetings or small talk, and about a dozen icy stares from the staff and customers. As long as the food is good, I am good. Adjust to the rules of the house, and not vice versa.
The menu is pretty expansive, with 60 dishes to choose from. Many of them feature the knife cut noodles, but there are other choices if you aren’t in the mood for noodles. The pig ear with garlic was a tempting appetizer (and would probably be an Instagram stunner), but I kept my eyes on the prize. Once I made it clear to my waitress that I wanted knife cut noodles and she teased out my fondness for spicy food, she recommended the Chongqing Street Noodle, or the D11 for those that don’t believe the “q” is pronounced like a “k.”
Within 10 minutes of my order, a steaming red bowl was delivered to my table, and it was pretty. The reddish brown broth freckled with little orange dots of oil foreshadowed its depth in flavor and spiciness. One swirl of my chop sticks through the broth revealed bok choy, cilantro, peanuts, scallions, and bits of ground beef, all clinging to the knife cut noodles.
Each thick noodle was between two to four inches in length, with jagged edges being the tell-tale sign of the knife cutting technique. This noodle is chewier than any other noodle type I’ve eat in Asian cuisines – or any cuisine for that matter. In an attempt to make this relatable to what others have experienced, the thickness, chewiness, and ability to absorb flavors is akin to a freshly made pappardelle noodle in Italian cuisine. The savory, just-spicy-enough broth and other ingredients complemented the noodles well, but the noodle is the undeniable star of the dish.
I left fantasizing about how the noodle would taste in Huangcheng’s other dishes, including the Noodle with Beef Sirloin and Tomato Sauce, Noodle with Twice Cooked Pork, and the Huangcheng Cold Noodle.
I’m extremely appreciative to Chef Jimmy Huang for sitting with me, detailing the legendary story and tradition behind his Shangxi-style knife cut noodles, and then serving me a delicious dish graced with said noodles. In future travels, when perusing a city’s Chinese restaurants, I’ll be on the lookout for other establishments using the same technique. I encourage foodies in Oakland, Bay Area, and those traveling to area to seek out Huangcheng Noodle Shop and try a knife cut noodle dish for yourself.
See if you agree with a Free Range King and an Empress and say it is “one of the most delicious bowls” you have eaten.
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