It’s astounding how many new, and often inspiring, food pop-ups are, well, popping-up these days in Brooklyn. From food stands at markets and street fairs, to trucks roaming the streets, the BK is becoming an overgrown jungle of grab-n-go foods that are actually good. Often, these food hustlers are giddy and passionate pioneers – career-changers who felt the bite of the food bug, chefs looking to ditch the stainless steel isolation of the restaurant kitchen to get face-to-face with their eaters, and food niche fanatics dying to share their treasured culinary obsessions with the world. The stories are often fascinating, and the food is often good. I hope you’ll join me in this series, as we explore the street foods of today’s Brooklyn and meet the people making them.
First up? Noodle Lane.
We’ve been wondering when the growing lust for all foods Sichuan would inspire the arrival of spicy, tingly, savory treats at Smorgasburg. Sichuan cuisine is characterized by the presence of the mighty Sichuan peppercorn, revered in the province’s traditional cooking for its unique lemony notes and its gentle, tingly, tongue-numbing effect. The peppercorn was banned in the United States until 2005, due to fears that it act as a vector for a citrus-damaging disease. Its return to these shores has coincided, if not caused, an explosion of interest in the region’s traditional cuisine.
Dan Dan noodles, one of Sichuan’s signature dishes, are a slippery treat – noodles drenched in vermilion chili oil and a savory sauce, and sprinkled with minced pork and peppercorns, topped with scallions and bean sprouts that deliver a crisp, cooling counter to all that savory spice. The dish got its name, long ago, from the type of pole, laden with a dangling pot of noodles at each end, that street vendors once used to walk their noodles through the streets. This once exotic-to-Brooklyn dish is gaining hordes of new adherents each week, now that Lane Li has set up shop dishing the Dan Dan at Smorgasburg on Saturdays.
Lane, a thirty-something resident of Williamsburg, founded Noodle Lane about a year ago. Her pop-up went live in the Smorgasburg lineup late last year, and the Smorg is still the only place to score her take on Dan Dan – they’re served hot in a bowl, and you call the spice as you like it – “Very spicy” is the traditional way. Cilantro, is optional.
Noodle Lane also serves Cheong Fun – a sticky, sweet and nutty dish made with rice noodle stuffed with scallion, then tied in knots and pan-friend until golden in spots, drizzled with peanut sauce and topped with chopped peanuts, bean sprouts and spears of cool, cool cucumber.
Unlike the Dan Dan, the Cheong Fun is not Sichuan – it’s a typical Hong Kong street food, Lane admits. And it only made the menu through disaster narrowly averted – while preparing a new cold Sichuan noodle dish one week, things went awry: “The noodles got clumpy. The sauce tasted weird.” With only two days to go before market, Lane replaced the failed dish with the milder Cheong Fun, on the fly.
“It’s not Sichuan but people sometimes order the Cheong Fun with the Dan Dan ingredients and it makes an excellent Sichuan dish,” said Lane. “I think the Cheong Fun works because not a lot of people know about it and they love it once they try it – and it’s completely different from the Dan Dan, which was what I was aiming for.”
Lane, born in Canton and raised in Flatbush, calls herself a lifelong food fanatic, but her daytime career is in finance. She continues to hold down a full time job in the field, temporarily relegating her noodle obsession to the weekends. “Ultimately, I would love Noodle Lane to be my full-time job, and I’m working towards that goal,” she said.
Encouraged by some colleagues, Lane enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at the French Culinary Institute, and graduated a few years ago. “I would work eight hours a day and then cook for another five hours,” she said of her night school schedule. “It was hard work but I loved it.” Afterward, Lane tried to break into the restaurant business by trailing at a few restaurants, but she soon discovered Smorgasburg and decided to start her food venture there.
So why did a Canton-via-Flatbush girl choose to dedicate herself to Sichuan food? Lane explained that her version of Dan Dan noodles features a non-traditional twist of ingredients inspired by her travels throughout Asia – she uses the bold spices of Singapore and Malaysia to season her Dan Dan sauce, and she uses bright yellow egg noodles rather than the traditional paler variety. “I’m Cantonese and people do find it strange that I love fiery, hot foods because Cantonese food is very mellow.
Lane is currently working on a cold Sichuan cucumber dish to serve this summer. Expect more noodles from the stand, and expect more bold, spicy flavors, she warns. But don’t expect a restaurant-sized menu of options from Noodle Lane anytime soon – Lane loves the small, specialized, selections offered by the food vendors at Smorgasburg, which she describes as, “the closest thing here to the food markets in Singapore, where the best foods to eat, period, are found.”
Cathy Erway is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, based on her two-year mission to resist the temptations of dining out and her blog, Not Eating Out in New York. A couple springs ago, she launched a rooftop garden at Red Hook’s Sixpoint Brewery complete with chickens and repurposed keg planters, which is the basis of her second blog, Lunch at Sixpoint. She hosts a weekly podcast on Heritage Radio Network, Let’s Eat In, which has featured guests ranging from Reverend Billy to Mark Bittman. She has written for Saveur, The Huffington Post, Edible Brooklyn and Brooklyn Based. And we like her.