You know that thing where you get to a certain level on an instrument, and musical moments that once seemed like wizardry suddenly start yielding their secrets? Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”: just a bunch of arpeggios. Every metal guitarist ever: simple pentatonic scales, albeit very fast ones. This Sheila E. drum solo from 1987: okay, I have no fucking clue how she’s doing that in stiletto boots.
It’s the same thing with learning a new cuisine. As someone who didn’t grow up with a pantry full of chilli oil, Sichuan pepper, rice wine and Chinkiang vinegar, the spicy, numbing dishes of central China always blew my mind when I tried them at restaurants. And as for homemade pasta? Forget about it. Then 2020 happened, and every culinarily inclined human I knew started making Xi’an-style biang biang noodles – thick, chewy dough strands, hand-rolled and elongated via a series of thwacks on the countertop, coated with spices and hot oil or a cumin-lamb mix made famous by NYC pioneer Xi’an Famous Foods.
Intimidated at first, I realised that with the right ingredients and guidance (check out this recipe, or this video from early Berlin biangfluencer Sissi Chen), a proper bowl could be mastered almost as easily as Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”.
Great news for me and myriad other first-time biangers; less so for Wen Cheng, a hand-pulled noodle shop just opened by the crew behind Asian fusion mini-franchise Han West. On the one hand, more Berliners than ever are aware of their product. On the other hand, a good number of them are lockdown-wizened smartasses who’ve spent months tweaking their dough hydration levels and the proportion of star anise in their chilli oil. On the other other hand, they’re in the middle of Schönhauser Allee so must also contend with walk-ins for whom the slightest hint of capsaicin is Alarmstufe Rot.
The resulting product (€11.50) is satisfying enough – smoother, flatter noodles than I’ve ever been able to biang out, an obligatory lamb-cumin bowl loaded with garlic, nicely meaty braised tofu and shiitake in the vegetarian version – but the heat level, at least during opening week, was far too low. I’m not one of those macho-masochistic white folks who equates spicy with “authentic”, but this particular dish needs a huge kick to counterbalance the amount of oil involved. I was told that diners in the know could request a spicier bowl, but given our city’s newfound literacy in Shaanxi cuisine, why not make like Chung King and serve that as a default?
I heard similar comments coming from the tables around me, so that shortcoming may have been amended by the time you read this. In the meantime, as for anyone grumbling “I could make this at home”: do you really want to? Standing over a stove infusing chilli oil or waiting for dough to rest is all well and good when you’re housebound in January, but right now it’s summer, the mercury’s pushing 30 and you’ve got places to go. Maybe you’re even headed to a concert for the first time in months – because even if you know exactly how a song is played or a dish is cooked, it can still be a little bit magical when you’re not the one who’s doing it.
Wen Cheng Schönhauser Allee 65, Prenzlauer Berg, Wed-Thu, Sat-Sun 12-21, Fri 17-21