This past September, Jimmy Huang stood amid the ashes of Huangcheng Noodle House, the business he’d built up in Oakland Chinatown over the course of two years, unsure of when he’d once again be able serve his Shanxi knife-cut noodles. An early-morning five-alarm fire had gutted the restaurant; it was a total loss. And, with the way insurance claims and large-scale construction tend to go, it was an open question whether it was realistic for Huangcheng Noodle to get up and running, in any form, within a year’s time.
And yet: Today, just four months after the fire, Huang is celebrating the official reopening of his restaurant at a new location at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. The relatively quick, seamless reopening is the end result of the collective efforts and good will of many, many people, Huang says — church groups, community organizations like Good Good Eatz and the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser, and countless individual donors and well-wishers.
“I really felt the community’s warmth,” Huang says. “I’m very grateful.”
The return of Huangcheng Noodle House is also good news for fans of handmade Chinese noodles — specifically the restaurant’s thick, bouncy Shanxi-style knife-cut noodles, or dao xiao mian, which have cultivated a devoted East Bay following over the years.
Those Shanxi dao xiao mian — traditionally shaved by hand into boiling water — are broad and slightly wavy, thick enough to yield the kind of springy, toothsome texture that’s prized by Chinese noodle connoisseurs.
That said, Huangcheng has never strictly been just a Shanxi restaurant. Huang’s mother is from Sichuan, and the restaurant has always served mostly a mixture of those two regional cuisines. That’s why classic Sichuan dishes like water-boiled fish and kung pao chicken feature prominently on the menu. The restaurant’s big selling point, however, is that those chewy knife-cut noodles are featured in all of the restaurant’s noodles dishes, whether it be the hot and sour noodle soup, the noodle stir-fry with pork and green peppers, or dishes that traditionally come with a different type of noodle altogether — for instance, Huang’s version Chongqing xiao mian, the brothy, red-hot street food staple.
The one significant change is that Huang has now bought a machine to cut the noodles — a specialized one specifically designed to make dao xiao mian. It flings those noodles into the pot rapid-fire, at an incredible speed — maybe five seconds for a single portion of noodles. Huang says the machine produces even better, more consistent results than when he and his cooks were shaving the noodles by hand. More to the point, he says it’s largely a COVID-era adjustment — it’s one less person he has to fit inside the small kitchen space during this time of social distancing.
Importantly, nothing has changed about the process for making and kneading the noodle dough: That’s all still done by hand over the course of two or three hours for a single batch.
At first, Huang had planned to add a number of new dishes to the menu — including, for instance, a version of rou jia mo, the meat-stuffed flatbreads often described as “Chinese hamburgers,” For now, however, Huang says he’s going to hold off on those additions, sticking with his original menu, which is dominated by its selection of soupy and stir-fried noodles.
Otherwise, the only new addition will be something Huang is calling “family noodles” — a hot pot-like dish meant to feed three people, featuring a flavorful broth made with pork bones and chicken carcasses, similar to a Sichuan dish known as mao cai. When dine-in service starts, Huang says, he’ll bring the meats and vegetables for the family noodles out to the table raw, so that diners can cook them in the hot broth themselves.
No matter what dish a customer orders, chances are it will benefit from a spoonful of Huancheng’s fiendishly delicious housemade chile sauce, made with nine different herbal spices — another hundred-plus-year-old family recipe that Huang inherited from his grandfather.
The restaurant took over the former Rosamunde Sausage Grill space in Swan’s Market, though, after a fresh coat of (mostly red) paint and a significant kitchen remodel, the place now has a sleek contemporary look. Of particular note is a large mural painted by Oakland artist Jocelyn Tsaih, who is also the founder of the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser, which, after the fire, donated several thousand dollars to help pay for the restaurant’s redesign. For now, Huangcheng Noodle House is, of course, only open for takeout, but eventually it’ll seat about 70 diners inside and another 18 outside.
Huang, a third-generation Shanxi noodle maker, says he learned how to make noodles from his father, and, according to family lore, his paternal grandfather had a noodle shop in China as early as the 1920s — a 100-year legacy. Now, Huang says he’s teaching his own son the family trade. Fires and pandemics be damned, he’s hopeful that legacy can stretch on for another 50 years or more.
Huangcheng Noodle House is open at 911 Washington Street in Oakland, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.