WHO’S IN CHARGE Thwack. Thwack. The dough hits the polished steel counter with an emphatic whack as Gene Wu, owner of Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Café in Westford, demonstrates his signature dish.
First he rolls out dough into thick strips, then elongates and thins the strips by pulling them and slapping them on the counter. The hand-pulled noodles then are cooked with spices – lots of spices – and with meat or other ingredients to create traditional central-northwest Chinese cuisine.
Wu was raised in the city of Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi province and the home of the famous Terra Cotta Army, thousands of life-size figures buried with China’s first emperor circa 210 B.C.
In Xi’an, “We eat a lot of noodles,” Wu says. The area is cold and dry, so wheat, not rice, is a mainstay and wheat flour is used for the noodles.
A third generation restaurateur, Wu moved to Massachusetts about 20 years ago and now operates three Chinese flatbread cafes, including one in Boston and one in Woburn. The Westford location opened four months ago.
THE LOCALE The café is tucked among the storefronts of a shopping center on Littleton Road, blending among the other businesses. The inside is modest to a fault, with brown brick walls, tables, and a brightly lit menu sign behind the counter.
The décor may shout “takeout,” but the tables are often filled with lunch and dinner diners, sampling steaming dishes served in plastic bowls expertly crafted to look like ceramic pots, set on cheerful checkered placemats atop bright red trays.
ON THE MENU Gene’s offers a variety of noodle dishes as well as lamb ($5.50) or pork ($4.50) flatbread sandwiches and lamb stew ($11). The selections are not as extensive as you often find in Chinese restaurants. Wu focuses on key dishes in central Chinese cuisine.
The star of the show is the noodle, pulled and thwacked into ribbons and cooked for each dish. Wu’s noodles here are far heftier than chow mein or the ramen, soba, and udon of Japanese cuisine, and even a weight class above the thick, flat hor fun rice noodles commonly used in beef chow fun.
Thick, but not doughy, with a slightly uneven appearance, Gene’s noodles demand attention. We sampled the Cumin Lamb Hand-Pulled Noodle, ($8.40), which came topped with fresh sprouts, carrot silvers, and bright leaves of cilantro. The chunks of lamb were below, nestled within the noodles.
Very satisfying but igniting the tongue was the Hot Sour Dumpling Soup, ($8.87), with pork encased in chewy dough and swimming in a sizzling broth garnished with cilantro (The fresh cilantro here is quite a treat). Our veggie companions ordered the hand-pulled noodles ($6) without meat; the noodles came with a rich, red coating of chili and other spices, hearty, but not for the faint of heart.
Other options include Hot Sour Hand-pulled Noodles Soup, ($8.40); Xi’an Cold Noodles, ($6.50), and Pork Intestine Hand-pulled Noodles Soup ($11). The dishes here are quite spicy; Wu says customers may ask for milder versions and that might be an option for those who do not want their mouths set ablaze.
The noodles themselves – chewy and comforting – are deeply satisfying. His recipes, Wu says, are based on family tradition. In Xi’an, “every restaurant and family has their own style, each a little different.” In Westford, you can sample Gene Wu’s style.
Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe, 175 Littleton Road, Westford, (978) 692-3406, genescafe.com