Vendor Spotlight: XINJI Noodle Bar
Written By Rachel Hunt
Photographed By Breanna Kulkin
“Most Asians grow up eating rice. I have a love for noodles,” Shuxin Liu, the Cantonese mastermind behind the new casual eatery XINJI: Noodle Bar says seriously. “I wanted to call it a ‘noodle’ bar because I don’t want it to be strictly Asian.” Soon enough, international pasta enthusiasts will have an official meeting ground at 4211 Lorain Avenue. Based on the turnout of a recent pop-up event at Liu’s former employer Momocho, it won’t be hard to find them.
The reservation book at the quaint mod-Mex restaurant is filled by Tuesday evening. Spectators get a front row seat in the second floor dining room as expo buzzes back and forth within eyesight of the kitchen as Liu leads the show. The pop-up celebrates the impending opening of Liu’s debut venture as an emerging owner-chef, similar to mentor Eric Williams. However, instead of Mexican fusion, he’ll be concentrating on modern Asian cuisine.
“A lot of foods introduced in America in the beginning were mainly Southern Chinese. Now, I would say, the Fukumimi and Hunan restaurants that you see, and takeout places, those are still considered Southern Chinese and that’s mainly how far people’s understanding goes. I want to push up towards Beijing and Mongolia. You see more spices that you don’t see in Southern Chinese cooking,” Liu comments.
For the pop-up menu he concentrates on a mixture of Japanese and Chinese fusion. The Chinese bao steamed buns are filled with hanger steak, tofu, chicken, or al pastor pork; fresh ingredients that represent a wide array of cuisines in the local food landscape. At two per order, the servings are a filling snack or in this case, enough to appease a hungry table of four.
In school, and then seeing people on shows that have a dedication to the craft, that’s when I knew I had to step up my game. That’s when I started growing a love for this industry. The people around me push me.
“When I started working in restaurants, I didn’t have much of a passion for it. It slowly grew on me,” admits Liu. “In school, and then seeing people on shows that have a dedication to the craft, that’s when I knew I had to step up my game. That’s when I started growing a love for this industry. The people around me push me.” It’s hard to believe that the skill Liu exhibits on the line isn’t an innate ability, that it’s a drive inspired especially by his peers at Momocho, who know him well from the year he spent in their ranks.
Carey Gill, our server this evening advises, “You’ve got to try the chicken wings.” We take his word and are not disappointed. Two variations of my top guilty pleasure arrive piping hot and ready to be consumed. We receive Korean Fried Chicken, like KFC but with a tasty twist, laced with Gochujang hot sauce and served with sweet pickles, daikon, and carrots as a good Southern (and Asian) BBQ might provide. The chicken wings are smothered with a sweet soy dressing, but that plays a backseat to the delightful, deep smokiness of the meat itself.
“I want to keep it really, really casual. That’s why we didn’t mark up the pricing that high,” says Liu post pop-up. “I want it to be super approachable within this industry, because a lot of folks aren’t making that much money. We’re struggling to go out and try new foods, so I wanted to make sure our prices stayed pretty low so that people can try it.”
And we try everything. When the noodles hit the table, our party knows we’ve reached the climax of our meal. The Ho Fun sticks out like a sore thumb as the most rare and delicious among dishes offered on the petite menu. With Peking duck, ginger and coriander, and huge Jantaboon rice noodles, this is a delicacy not usually included in a ramen-saturated market.
Peking duck is native to Beijing, originating in the Imperial era during the Yuan Dynasty when emperors would dine on the crispy, inflated and roasted skin and meat. The rice noodles are the other prominent part of the bowl, appearing like large round pieces the size of the body of a squid but much softer in texture. “I try to do everything from scratch,” emphasizes Liu.
The majority of noodles on the small menu are still ramen, authentic in preparation and presentation. Shio and Miso ramen are both included, the former served with pork belly and the later chicken. Both come accentuated with nori, a crunchy piece of seaweed, and a slice of fishcake, much sought after but seldom included in Cleveland soup bowls. Fishcake is also known as Kamaboko, Japanese processed seafood made of various whitefish.
With the meal are paired cocktails crafted by Williams and the Momocho crew that blend their tequila heavy menu with an exciting spin, like a Tamarind or Rooster Claw margarita. “We’ll just have beer, sake, and shochu,” Liu says of the opening alcoholic offerings at XINJI: Noodle Bar. Most Clevelanders have tried sake, a fermented Japanese rice wine, but less are familiar with shōchū, a distilled spirit that can be made from rice, sweet potato, barley, and other ingredients.
Liu is excited for the final inspections to be complete so that he can unveil the brand new restaurant. “We will have an open kitchen so you can see how we operate. I did take the chef’s table from Momocho; I like that style,” he confesses. “We have a dual seated chef’s table that will be open to the public after the first two months. People can make a reservation or just come in to be seated. There’s going to be an open bar, so you can see everything going on.” The show will continue just down the street on Lorain Avenue far after the XINJI: Noodle Bar pop-up has come and gone.