By Vickie Lewis
Everyone who enjoys Chinese food seems to have a favorite Chinese restaurant that they go to dine in or for take-out. Most of these typically serve traditional entrees from a single region or province in China, such as Hunan or Sichuan. At Noodles Fresh in El Cerrito, however, customers have the opportunity to order popular dishes from a number of different Chinese regions, including, but not limited to, Shanghai, Taiwan, Canton, Yangzhou, Hunan, Sichuan, and Jiangxi. Although the menu is not as extensive as some Chinese restaurants, it features some of the best, traditional, and authentic dishes of the regions they represent. In addition to the diverse dining menu, Noodles Fresh also offers a variety of favorite hot teas which can be ordered with meals, or sampled during free monthly tea tastings.
Noodles Fresh was founded by co-owners Tom and Wenyan Petersen and opened in August 2015. It is located on San Pablo Avenue between Central and Fairmount Avenues, near the Rialto Cinemas Cerrito. The building that now houses Noodles Fresh was formerly a Comcast office, and it took the Petersens fifteen months to transform the space into the roomy, modern, and brightly decorated restaurant that it is today. Wenyan, a trained engineer and industrial designer, personally designed and oversaw the construction of the restaurant. The tables and chairs, booths, the ornate light fixtures, and the lovely porcelain dishes were all imported from China. Wenyan grew up in the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi, in the city of Jingdezhen, which is known as the porcelain capital of the world. She has procured beautiful serving pieces from her native city, as well as many beautiful porcelain teacups and other porcelain pieces which are on display and are available for purchase.
Tom is a native Californian who had a long career in higher education. He and Wenyan met in Canada, where he was teaching and she was attending school. They eventually married, and continued to work in their respective careers until they decided to open their own business a few years ago. Although they had never before been restaurateurs, Wenyan had always enjoyed a love of cooking, having been inspired from a very young age by her father. He was an artist who learned much about gourmet foods from other regions as he traveled extensively throughout China. He learned to prepare many these foods and passed his love of cooking on to Wenyan. For the first five months following the Grand Opening of Noodles Fresh, Wenyan spent most of her time in the kitchen cooking and creating new recipes. She is fortunate to have many chef friends throughout the Bay Area who help her create and perfect recipes to ensure the authenticity of the dishes offered on their menu. Although she no longer works exclusively in the kitchen, Wenyan still personally prepares some recipes for Noodles Fresh. Both she and her husband work intermittently as servers and regularly engage with their customers, many of whom are regulars. In addition to serving customers, Tom tends to most business matters, including social media, marketing, budgeting and accounting, and overseeing internal systems.
We visited Noodles Fresh on a Thursday evening, and upon entry from the rear parking area, were immediately intrigued by the vast porcelain display of teapots, teacups, and other items on the back wall. We passed by an impeccably clean, open stainless steel kitchen where the chefs were hard at work, and continued into the spacious dining room where we met Wenyan. We were seated at one of several roomy booths, where we had time to admire the restaurant’s interior décor and familiarize ourselves with the menu, while listening to pleasant, soothing jazz background music.
The two-sided menu lists appetizers, entrees and sides on the front side, and drinks, beverages and desserts on the opposite side. The menu boasts an impressive list of appetizers, including traditional items such as Spring rolls, Pot Stickers, and Edamame beans, and a number of different items that I’d not previously noticed on other Chinese menus; such as Vegetarian goose, Nanjing salted duck, and Double happiness gluten puff. Entrees categories include Noodle Plates, Rice Plates, Noodle Soup Bowls, and Chef’s Specials, many of which are prepared Gluten Free, and others which are identified as “GFA” (Gluten Free Available) for an upcharge of only fifty cents. Alcoholic beverage offerings include several locally sourced draft beers, bottled beers, red and white wines by the glass or bottle, and Sake by the bottle. Non-alcoholic beverage offerings include assorted sparkling juices and soft drinks, iced tea, and of course, a selection of hot teas. The Red Tea (also known as the “house tea”) is offered complimentary with meals; however, other teas native to various Chinese provinces, are offered at a nominal charge of $4.95 per pot.
As an aside, Wenyan has an intense love of tea, hence the reference to Noodles Fresh as a “Tea House”. Wenyan offers five of the most common categories of Chinese Teas, and once a month on Sunday afternoons, Wenyan offers free tea tastings between 3:00 and 4:30 PM. Interested customers may also set up private tea tastings by appointment.
After giving us time to review the menu, our very kind server, Lucky, arrived to take our order. She was happy to answer any questions we had about the menu, and pointed out the two Noodles Fresh House Specials–Jiangxi Salad and Jiangxi Stir Fry. Each of these entrees is made with Jiangxi rice noodles, which are imported from Wenyan’s own Chinese province of Jiangxi. These noodles differ from other rice noodles because they are made using fresh spring water versus tap water, and thus contain no chemicals. Noodles Fresh is one of very few restaurants in the Bay Area that serves Jiangxi noodles, and these are used in the preparation of about half of the dishes on their menu.
Contrary to the name, the Jiangxi Salad is served as a warm dish and is made with rice noodles, pan-grilled chicken, house chili sauce, garlic, ginger, sweet pepper and scallions. I ordered the Jiangxi Stir Fry, which is rice noodles with beef flank steak, bell peppers, baby bok choy and spicy chilies. I was initially concerned about the spiciness of the dish; however, Lucky explained that I could choose my own spice level—mild, moderate, spicy, or very spicy—I chose moderately spicy. My guest ordered one of the rice dishes, the Canton Sweet & Sour Chicken, which included chicken, pink onion, bell peppers and oranges cooked in a house-made sweet and sour sauce. For starters, we ordered two appetizers—Pot Stickers and Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings, and I ordered a hot Red Tea to drink, and my guest ordered iced tea.
Our food was prepared very quickly, and our entrees actually were served just slightly ahead of the appetizers. Everything was presented on beautiful blue and white porcelain dishes, imported from Jingdezhen. We started by sampling the pot stickers, which were filled with ground pork, scallions and Chinese cabbage. Although they were not as plump as other pot stickers I’ve eaten, the flavor was excellent, and the homemade dipping sauce was distinctive, made with garlic, vinegar, sesame seed oil, and chili sauce. The salt and pepper chicken wings were crisply fried, but lacked the salty and/or peppery flavor that we’d expected.
Both entrees emitted enticing aromas and looked very appetizing, so we were eager to try our meals even before our appetizers had been completely devoured. My guest raved about the Sweet & Sour Chicken, which was served with a mound of steamed white rice, and a generous portion of lightly fried chicken pieces tossed with pieces of bell peppers, onions, and orange slices. The house-made sauce had a sweet yet citrusy flavor, and my guest commented that it is the best sweet and sour dish he’s ever eaten. The Jiangxi Stir Fry looked like long spaghetti noodles mixed with many thin, tender slices of steak, accented with sautéed green peppers and bok choy. The moderate spiciness was a perfect choice for me, and I found the entrée to be extremely delicious. I typically do not order Asian noodle dishes (except for an occasional order of chow mein) but I honestly enjoyed the rice noodles in this dish very much.
As we concluded our meals, we observed many late evening diners arriving, and the restaurant was still quite busy even as the closing hour (9:00) approached. As food was delivered to nearby tables, we stole glances to see what other patrons had ordered. Each dish we saw looked wonderfully appetizing and all portions were large. Peter Liang, the Master Chef for Noodles Fresh, has over 20 years of experience, and incorporates creativity and versatility into his culinary creations. He prepares each menu item meticulously so that they boast the authentic flavors of the regions from which they originate. Noodles Fresh offers a separate banquet menu which includes items not on the traditional menu. This menu is available to those who book private parties at the restaurant and who may wish to order some of these specialty items for their event. Many of these beautifully presented menu items from the banquet menu can be viewed on a slideshow which plays continuously in the dining room. A private banquet room is available which seats twelve guests comfortably, and Noodles Fresh accepts reservations for large parties in their dining room, which accommodates up to 90 guests. For events with fifty or more guests, the restaurant may be closed to the public to host the private event. If you’re interested in booking an event at Noodles Fresh, contact either Tom or Wenyan for more information.
Because no meal is complete without dessert for this reviewer, I chose to order the Mango pudding from the Sweets Menu. The short list of selections also includes Vanilla ice cream topped with home-made sesame peanut candy, and Sesame Balls. There is also a short list of Tea Snacks to enjoy with tea service. The mango pudding was served in a “crooked” cup, reminiscent of those in Alice in Wonderland, and had a smooth, thick, and rich mango flavor. This is one of the recipes that Wenyan continues to prepare herself, and I readily complimented her on how delicious it was.
Noodles Fresh is an upscale Chinese restaurant with a varied and interesting, yet affordable menu; high quality cuisine; a modernistic atmosphere; and the added feature of being a Tea House. Wenyan’s love of her country is clearly evident—the cuisine, the porcelain and artistry, and the variety of teas—all of which are showcased at Noodles Fresh. Also noteworthy is that the Petersen’s are environmentally conscious, and designed their restaurant with features to meet green standards. Their efforts earned them the prestigious award in March 2016 for being the only restaurant in Contra Costa County that is a Certified Green Business!
Next time you are in the mood for Chinese cuisine, pass on your good old “stand-by” restaurants and head to El Cerrito to try out Noodles Fresh for some great regional cuisine and hot tea in a truly ambient setting. You’ll surely want to return again and again, as we do!