As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic pork belly. He had no one but himself to blame. What did he expect, having inhaled slabs of the fatty pig meat over the past year as if breathing air? He consumed it at Sakaya Kitchen, Sugarcane Raw Bar and Grill, gastroPod, Gigi, Pubbelly, the Setai, Sra. Martinez, 660 at the Anglers, 1500 Degrees... and, most recently, at American Noodle Bar, Michael Bloise's newcomer on Miami's Upper Eastside. The pork belly with spicy watermelon balls, lettuce, and basil leaves that he devoured there — cooked just right, with caramelized cap, tender meat, and melting ribbon of fat cut by the salad vinaigrette — was apparently the bacon that broke the camel's back.
Or could it have been the chicharrón-like pork belly croutons, atop a salad of romaine lettuce, slivered grape tomatoes, and red onion, dressed in devilishly delectable jalapeño vinaigrette? Either way, a conundrum continues to haunt Gregor: Is it unethical for a pork belly to eat pork belly?
This Kafka-esque nightmare isn't difficult to imagine, although in all fairness, the chalkboard menu posted above the counter of this petite 20-seater isn't especially belly-centric. Bloise prefers to use the whole pig. Heck, one customized noodle bowl alone boasted bacon broth, pork shoulder, and pork meatballs. I could have added Chinese sausage too, but saved that for another bowl.
I went whole hog on the daily selections, and a pulled pork sandwich with roadside barbecue flavor had me squealing with delight — and simultaneously squirming in pain. Steam billowed out of the oblong roll as I bit into it, resulting in a seared lower lip (I still have the blister, which I feel compelled to explain by pointing and saying: "Not herpes, pork."). It is a testament to the wonderful flavors of the assemblage that I barely consider the singed lip an unreasonable price (plus six bucks).
My next sampling was ballotine of pig's head, prepared via a labor-intensive process of poaching, deboning, rolling with basil and spices, poaching again, slicing, and breading and deep-frying each round. The resultant flavor was fine, but the frying made it too heavy. Still, you won't find ballotine at P.F. Chang's; it's the sort of challenging dish only a non-complacent chef would attempt.
Bloise, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. He burst onto the culinary scene as a rising-star chef at Tantra and Gaucho Room, then honed his credentials at Wish from 2003 to 2008. He spent the past two years as a private chef, cocooned from the public eye. American Noodle Bar is Bloise's butterfly moment: He's been released from corporate caterpillar to the free flight of his own little restaurant.
It's a very little restaurant: one communal table with low, individual bench-stools that prove more comfortable than they look (although not something you'd want to sit upon for more than an hour or so). A half-dozen counter seats run parallel to the table; an open kitchen stretches along the back wall. A plasma screen projecting kung fu movies grabs more attention than bonsai plants or bamboo-print wallpaper. Like Red Light a few blocks north, American Noodle Bar is tucked into a MiMo motel with a rich history of disrepute.
To place an order, you approach the counter at a spot under the blackboard and in front of a register. There, a worker takes your request and money while happily explaining how to personalize a noodle bowl. It's not complex: You select one of a dozen or so sauces (duck, oxtail or vegetable broth, smoky lobster, basil or Sriracha butter, etc.). Then you choose one of a similar number of add-ons (shrimp, oxtail, chicken thigh, mixed vegetables, deep-fried egg, and so forth). The noodles — chewy, lo mein-like strands thicker than traditional ramen — automatically fill a large portion of each bowl. The basic version costs $7; extra add-ons cost $1 each. Most folks add at least one.
I began with a light, sumptuous duck broth matched with morsels of "three-hour duck." The noodles with an add-on of deep-fried egg were prepared by soft-boiling, chilling, battering, and plunking into the fryer until golden brown. They were perfectly cooked, the yolk of the egg oozing over the noodles and giving the thin broth a bit more body.
The basic broths — chicken, pork, beef, and duck — boasted the fullness of homemade, roasted-bone-and-vegetable stocks left to simmer until they become a clean liquid rendition of the identifying flavor. They worked best as a base for the mild noodles. Basil butter and a mild Sriracha butter boosted taste in a pleasing way, but sauces spiked with roasted shallot and honey, and brown sugar soy, seemed too strong. So did bacon sauce and smoked lobster sauce, although both were appealing enough. I paired the former with pork shoulder (soft shreds) and garlic-potent pork meatballs; lobster sauce also matched well with thin disks of Chinese sausage and thumbnail-sized shrimp.
A disappointingly small number of vegetarian items were posted on the board, but a meat-free noodle bowl can be assembled via a lovely lemongrass vegetable broth (or straight lemongrass broth) paired with mixed vegetables (crisp snow peas, shredded carrots, greens) and a supplement of tofu. The last was marinated in a myriad of spices and was one of the best soy curd treatments I've tasted.
A menu category labeled other stuff encompasses six non-porcine small plates. A counterman described the cheeseburger dumplings as the most popular — not a surprise considering that hamburgers and dumplings, like bacon and pork belly, have been food-world hotties for the past few years. The five crunchy, fried won ton casings ($5) came filled with chopped meat and creamy melted cheddar. A tiny bit of chopped tomato and cucumber marinated in vinegar and fish came alongside, as did a subtle green curry dip. The dumplings were unique and fetching in a fast-food way, but there was something too Jeno's pizza roll-ish about them.
Big mama egg roll didn't roll me over either, but the wrapper was cleanly and crisply fried, the cabbage, sprout, and pork filling fresh. And it sure was big (at just $3); a good sweet and sour sauce would improve it. Chicken wings (four for $6), on the other hand, flew with the best — plump and meaty, the two parts of each wing were kept attached, and they were glazed in an intoxicating Thai barbecue sauce (based on fish sauce and caramelized sugar). Hush puppies, monster corn dog, and French fries with miso are a few of the other other stuffs. I wouldn't mind seeing a couple less items from the fryer and more from the wok — such as, say, flash-sautéed bok choy, or other greens.
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A hefty, homemade wedge of carrot cake flecked with candied pecans and dripping with delectable icing was twice as good as recent $12 desserts downed at upscale haunts. And I liked a scaled-down baked Alaska even more: a pristinely fresh, swirled/caramelized meringue dome over strawberry ice cream and a chocolate-crumb crust. Did I mention that such treats cost just $3?
House-made beverages, which are listed on a chalkboard below the register, change daily. Strawberry vanilla soda, white peach lemonade, and yuzu green tea were all sublime. A short list of American wines go for under $10 per glass and most bottles cost less than $25. The menu of American microbrews is a bit more extensive, and bottles cost around $6 or $7. Most impressively, prices on the food menu top out at $9. That makes American Noodle Bar one of the best values in town. Locals now have yet another affable and affordable outlet for deliciously fresh Asian fare prepared by a talented and passionate chef.