Eat Spicy Hand-Pulled Chinese Noodles at This Downtown Food Cart
Stretch the Noodle gets points for truth in advertising. The downtown Chinese operation specializes in, yes, noodles—hand-stretched, pulled, double-bounced and thumped all day long by Xuemei Simard inside the homey cart she runs with her husband Duane near Mama Mia Trattoria on Southwest 2nd and Washington.
On a bone-chilling December day, the lunch wait for Simard’s dishes—a tight list of stir fries, soups, and jian bing crepes dispatched in hefty portions—can run long. But there are few midday meals downtown that better nail the balance between thrift and bone-deep satisfaction.
Hand-stretched noodles are still a relative rarity in Portland. While brick-and-mortar spots like Frank’s Noodle House and Shandong are standbys, Stretch the Noodle, which opened last May, is one of the only carts in town serving the labor-intensive strings. Simard’s noodles are solid—lacking in chew on occasion—but for an $8 takeout lunch, they’re awesome. The cart’s open 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m. everyday but Sunday, walk-up orders only. “There’s no phone, it’s just the two of us in here,” explains Duane, who calls himself Stretch’s “dishwasher/order taker/stir fryer.” “If I answer the phone, the orders get discombobulated.”
So far, Simard’s la mian noodles in Sichuan beef bone broth ($8) are the cart’s ringer: the soup thrums with cinnamon and five spice, fall-apart hunks of beef, crisp bits of bok choy, and those slippery, slurpy noodles. The whole bowl is showered with peanuts, fresh ginger and garlic, numbing bits of Sichuan pepper, and herbs, each bite bouncing with bright and savory flavors. It’s a bit like Wei Wei’s beloved beef noodle soup, with a kick courtesy of a smoky Korean/Mexican chile blend the house uses as an all-purpose spice generator. (A warning: eat those noodles quick. The longer they sit in the broth, the sludgier they get, developing a bit of a pasty flavor.)
The most ordered dish is the chao mian stir fry ($8), those noodles seared up with a straightforward veggie mix and bits of chicken and dressed with that killer chile blend and soy sauce. On first bite, it’s tame—but just wait. Unlike the soup, this dish just gets better as it sits, the smoky chile sauce filling every cranny and turning those noodles into chubby, chewy fire bites.
A Beijing native, Xuemei met Duane in 2009 in Zibo, in China’s Shandong province. He was an English teacher. She was a yoga and Pilates instructor. He says he often got hand-pulled noodles from a cart near his school on his lunch hour. He loved the dish so much that Xuemei learned how to make it for him. She eventually became so obsessed with the art of the stretch she eventually enrolled in noodle-making school in Zibo. The couple eventually moved to Colorado Springs and, in early 2017, the pair headed to Portland to open a cart, and Xuemei determined to make noodles their full time gig.
Oddly enough, one of the cart's highlights isn’t a noodle at all. Simard also makes a mean jian bing, the ubiquitous Chinese street food that suddenly became a Portland obsession while back. Bigger, greasier, and crunchier than the also-great Chinese crepes up the street at Bing Mi!, it’s a maximalist fold of sprouts, eggs, “the crunchy” (a.k.a. wonton crackers), and whole strips of American-style bacon ($6) slathered in spicy sauce that’s overwhelming in the best way.
Be on the lookout for specials too, from pork dumplings hiding whole butterflied shrimp to pan-fried pork buns or rice dumplings stuffed with mushroom, pork belly and salted duck egg wrapped in banana leaf. Noodles, apparently, are just the beginning.