Some 20 years ago, while living in Honolulu, I took Chinese cooking classes at the Army Officers' Wives Club from a celebrity television chef. This was interesting on several fronts: I got to see what the Wives Club scene was like; we got to eat what our teacher prepared at each session; and the celebrity teacher showed us his favorite shops in Chinatown for fresh and exotic ingredients.
The Wives Club was laid back and cliqueish. Even as late as the 1980s, the scene looked like a 1950s movie set in the tropics, starring Deborah Kerr: bridge in the morning followed by cocktails, followed by lunch and more cocktails, etc. Our celebrity chef's lunches were sumptuous, prepared with flair in a wok that circled, rocked and rolled in breathtaking fast motion. But the real treat was learning the ins and outs of the outdoor market and the tiny noodle shops that lined the narrow streets of Honolulu's turn-of-the-century Chinatown.
Our teacher was adamant: only fresh, handmade noodles would do. Loosely wrapped piles of twisted, still-soft lo mein lined the shelves of mom and pop shops off alleyways and tucked between restaurants. Buckwheat, rice and wheat noodles, wonton and spring roll wrappers were readily available, made on the premises every day, and were far superior to their dried and frozen counterparts.
Back on the mainland, noodle shops were hard, if not impossible, to find. But recently I discovered a Korean/Chinese/Japanese restaurant tucked away in a pleasant little shopping strip in southeast Colorado Springs where the noodles are handmade every day -- Lee's Noodle House.
The predominant flavor at Lee's is Korean; Ms. Lee is Korean, the counter is crowded with Korean language newspapers and flyers, and the Korean noodle specials are the heart of the menu. Chinese and Japanese offerings are fairly standard and a wide choice is offered. The dining room is tidy, quiet and tastefully decorated with Asian fans and lacquer landscapes. And the place is not so Americanized yet that a fork automatically comes with a meal; chopsticks are standard.
Lee's offers attractively served lunch box specials in both Korean and Japanese styles. We tried the Beef Bulgoki ($7.95), thinly sliced beef marinated in a sweet ginger sauce then grilled, served with rice, a salad, fried dumplings and three Kim-Bap, Korean-style sushi rolls with egg, seaweed, cucumber and something crunchy and pickled in the middle. The beef was tender, flavorful and plentiful and the presentation was lovely. The fried dumplings are crescent-shaped, stuffed with seasoned ground pork, and are delicious dipped in the soy and vinegar dipping sauce. The appetizer menu also offers steamed and pan-fried dumplings; of the three, I preferred the pan-fried, still soft but lightly browned.
All entrees are served with several porcelain bowls of various types of kimchi, pungent Korean pickle fermented in vinegar with hot peppers. The standard cabbage kimchi comes alongside cubed pickled turnips and electric-yellow pickled daikon radish slices. Our dinner entree came with another relish long strands of shredded daikon radish, cool and refreshing minus the heat of chili peppers. (Kimchi, it should be noted, is an excellent digestive when eaten regularly, increasing useful lactic acid bacteria and controlling impurities in the intestines. It's also fibrous and vitamin rich, and is considered by Koreans to be an essential health food.)
We tried two of the noodle bowls -- one cold and one hot. The cold noodles, Naeng Mein, are fine buckwheat noodles not made in the kitchen, but delicious nonetheless, soaked in a spicy, vinegar-based sauce. You can order them plain, with veggies, or with veggies and raw fish. I ordered the Hoe Naeng Mein ($10.95 with raw squid) and my server kindly asked the cook to prepare the dish mildly spicy. The abundant bowl was refreshing and had a nice spice kick as well as the pleasant surprise of crunchy slivers of apple and pear mixed with the noodles, julienned cucumber and carrot, cilantro leaves, green onions, sesame seeds and slightly knotty pieces of squid.
The hot noodle bowl, featuring Ms. Lee's exquisite handiwork, proved my former cooking school teacher's adage: there's no substitute for freshly made noodles. This dish, listed as Woo Dong ($7.95) was a large, soupy bowl of hot broth with bean sprouts, onions, carrots, bok choy, scallions, slightly charred slices of beef, pieces of squid and soft, slippery noodles made with Korean milkalu flour, topped with one perfectly steamed, open-faced green lip mussel. The noodles were fat but slightly flattened and absorbed the flavors like a sponge.
Ms. Lee also makes a potato noodle called Chow Row ($7.95) that's served only at dinner in a mild sauce with shredded meat and vegetables. I haven't tried it yet, but have tried the chicken teriyaki, the California roll from the sushi menu, the Mongolian beef, the sesame chicken and the vegetable tempura and found them all agreeably prepared, generous in portion and nicely presented.
Lee's also offers eight elaborate Korean soups and dinner boxes in the Japanese style. The service is prompt and thoughtful, and the noodles, well, the noodles suggest a need for regular return visits.