Where to Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe, a new restaurant in Downtown Crossing serving specialties from chef-owner Gene Wu’s native Xi’an.
What for This is Wu’s second restaurant. His first, located in Chelmsford and also called Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe, has gained a serious cult following. When word of a Boston branch spread, foodie ululations were heard, shortly and inevitably followed by foodie debates. Were Wu’s hand-pulled noodles the height of deliciousness so many claimed? Were, perhaps, the noodles one might find in Queens better? Was Gene’s menu happily specialized or overly limited? Could eating here change your life?
The scene Gene’s is a small, no-frills space with limited hours. Come lunchtime, there can be lines out the door. There are brick and orange-painted walls, plastic trays with paper place mats that depict the Chinese zodiac, and few decorations but plenty of framed mentions from the local press. Pictures of the available dishes hang above the register; customers order by menu number and pay cash only. Condiments revolve on a lazy Susan, where peppermints are also on offer, a considerate gesture considering the amount of garlic in the food. In the kitchen, a smiling Wu stretches and slaps noodles into shape, then immerses them in a banged-up metal pot. A kid in a baggy T-shirt shares noodles with his girl, who is dressed for a date in red-checked sundress and blue patent leather wedges. Boys arrive for an after-school snack, hangdog and tired, hoping for revival in bowls of spicy noodles. Surrounded by electronic gadgets, a man in a sweater vest eats alone. A guy in a blue striped button-down, navy chinos with white embroidered skulls, and a bow tie nibbles experimentally at a pork flatbread sandwich.
What you’re eating There are only a handful of options on the menu — a flatbread sandwich, cold noodles, a soup. But you’re here for the hand-pulled noodles, thick, chewy, rustic hanks that come either topped with chili oil, cilantro, and drifts of raw garlic or cumin-laced lamb. You can attempt takeout, but these are best eaten in house, before they adhere into a glutinous blob.
Care for a drink? The refrigerator is segregated — sodas, Minute Maid juices, and Lifewaters on one side, mung bean drinks and juice boxes of green tea on the other. Lychee juice contains floating bits of fruity jelly, sweet and cold.
Overheard Conversations in Chinese. Numbers being called as orders come up. The slap-slap-slap of Wu banging noodles against the counter. A man in a navy suit with impeccable manners wields a bottle of sriracha. “That was awesome!” he tells Wu, beaming, as he heads out after eating. A woman runs in and approaches the counter, where the cashier hands her a bulky plastic bag. The woman laughs: “It was so good I forgot about my shoes!”
86 Bedford St., Boston. 617-482-1888. www.genescafe.com.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.