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Noodle Town Close

I get off the train at East Broadway and cut past Seward Park on to Canal, through Chinatown and toward the restaurant. It’s cold in New York, maybe twenty-five degrees, and I haven’t been in the city for months. By ‘the city‘ I mean Manhattan. That’s what they call it here as simple distinction from the other boroughs, the same designation reserved by some San Franciscans for their city but without the pretentious need for capitalization. That always bothered me about San Francisco, the unnecessarily sanctimonious attitude taken by some toward what is already a great town. Just let it stand on its own .. no need to capitalize or bristle when someone says ‘Frisco. She’s a big girl and has been through worse. Earthquakes, for one. But I complain too much.

I’m headed for The Great NY Noodle Town, a Chinese joint for those unable to read between the lines, first introduced to me by Sean O’Toole in 2001. Sean’s a career chef whose résumé spans continents and five-star establishments. He’s worked in Vegas, Paris and New York but only after crashing at my San Francisco apartment way back when and getting his start in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s the kind of career ambition that eludes me but that’s a story for another time. Suffice to say I was there, remember it, and tend to remember most things better than others. So there’s that too. On that particular night I was with my girlfriend, a vegetarian but never one to fuss excessively about food. Sean ordered up about ten dishes, roast pork, vegetables, noodles, etc. It was all simple and fresh and the three of us sat in the crowded, noisy, exceptionally unpretentious surroundings and enjoyed a great meal. He’d been introduced to the place by the head chef from where he worked on the Upper East Side. It was a few months after 9-11 and we weren’t far from a large, cordoned-off area of downtown littered with concrete ruins. Something about the city felt real and immediate to me. It still feels that way and although the sense itself is ephemeral and unsustainable, I believe that when you give up chasing it you die.

Noodle Town is closed on this cold February night more than eleven years later. I notice the pulled-down metal doors and sign in both English and hanzi from across the street while standing near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. “Close For Chinese New Year Party To-Night,” it says, upon further inspection. I do some quick translating, surmising that they aren’t in fact suggesting that the restaurant is conveniently located nearby for all my Chinese New Year needs. It’s spelled this way, ‘close‘, on signs posted on several other restaurants in the area, emphasizing the first rule of China: power in numbers. Those same numbers allow for another joint – Big Wong King – to be open just a few blocks away on Mott. It’s OK but certainly no Noodle Town despite over five hundred Yelp reviews by what I’m guessing are largely young, white girls who have never met Sean O’Toole.

I look for a bar after but meet my match in the cold and retreat to a warm cab. The city seems simple on this winter night; uncrowded by New York standards and low-key functional. A guy huddles in his overcoat, walking briskly and eating an ice cream despite the weather. Two twenty-something girls in the cab next to me burn with elusive Monday night enthusiasm. On the other side of the Manhattan Bridge my apartment awaits, a fortunately warm if impermanent destination.

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