Cheu Noodle does 'authentic' its way

Shawn Darragh (left) and chef Ben Puchowitz inside Cheu Noodle Bar on 10th Street.
Shawn Darragh (left) and chef Ben Puchowitz inside Cheu Noodle Bar on 10th Street. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 04, 2013

OF ALL THE topics that diners tend to fuss over, "authenticity" is the fussiest to understand. Just listen to one of the food scene's more talented over-thinkers run a restaurant through his or her analytical atom smasher and you might agree. The quantitative critiques - service, prices, vibe - are all there, but things get weird once culinary credibility undergoes cross-examination.

Is it "authentic" to use this sauce? In that soup, is marjoram an "authentic" garnish? Was the pot used to braise tonight's pork wrapped in indigenous leaves, buried beneath loose earth and gently attended by a pitmaster with TaĆ­no ancestry? Because that would be "authentic."

As much as I'd like to believe that it's emblematic of Philly's proud intolerance for BS, I find this brand of speculation exhausting. Is this a restaurant or an art appraisal? You still haven't told me if the food tastes good.

While the handwringers develop finger cramps wringing their hands over such matters, take a second to consider the just-opened Cheu Noodle Bar, where inauthenticity is a not a curse word, but a capstone.

Buddies since Cheltenham High, Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh are atypical arbiters of Asian cooking. Puchowitz, chef of Center City's Matyson, was first introduced by his older brother to the wonders of Vietnamese pho, hand-drawn Chinese lamian and other brothy, bowled-up situations. He in turn encouraged Darragh, a marketing specialist and reformed picky eater, to get good with chopsticks.

Matyson has always done well, but Darragh, who's run marketing for Qdoba and Krispy Kreme, started wondering if Philly would embrace a Puchowitz-vetted version of an Asian noodle bar. He began prodding his chef friend to develop a menu. ("We're very much a married couple," joked/lamented Puchowitz.)

The second they opened the doors to their first pop-up event, held at Matyson in January 2012, dozens of broth cravers queued up along 19th Street, plowing through broth supplies faster than the friends could've imagined. They hosted several more pop-ups - all under the name Roundeye Noodle - with identical results.

Though the Caucasian partners intended "Roundeye" as a self-deprecating dig at themselves, it incensed some Asian-Americans. To ease off, they decided to change the moniker to Cheu, a switch that didn't compromise the food - or interest from investors. Right "when buzz was at a peak," according to Darragh, they were approached by a team of investors impressed by their ability to fill seats and foster word-of-mouth. On Monday, a year to the day after the third and final Matyson pop-up, the permanent Cheu Noodle Bar opened on 10th Street.

The name no longer conveys the idea that Puchowitz operates outside traditional, dare we say "authentic," borders, but the menu more than compensates for it. He's twisting up flat, hand-torn noodles with braised lamb neck and dates, a Moroccan-tuned savory pairing balanced by pickled mustard greens. Buns, close in consistency to an English muffin, play host to mini cheeseburgers and crispy fried mung-bean cakes.

One dish in particular is the best spokesman (spokes-soup?) for Cheu's approach - a bowl of scratchmade ramen noodles joined by matzo balls and sweet-and-sour sliced brisket, the beef inspired by Puchowitz's father's recipe. The food is personal, and it doesn't adhere to external standards because it doesn't really need to.

"We're definitely not cooking authentic Asian food," said Darragh. "And we never once have said we're trying to."

Puchowitz, long accustomed to the buffer provided by Matyson's back-of-house setup, is in new working territory at Cheu. He'll have a liquor license in a few weeks (it's BYO till then), and he's now on display in an open kitchen, flanked by chopstick wielders on bar stools. Opposite him sits a tagged-up wall decoupaged with photos, clippings from Asian cookbooks and all sorts of other noodle-bar ephemera. Beneath a drink rail, they've even glued 100 packs of dried ramen to the wall and Plexiglassed them in. It's a treat you can eat once you receive Cheu's "bread service" - Shin brand noodles crushed up in the bag, seasoning packet included.

It's those kinds of quirks that count, after all.

"Everything has to be right," said self-described perfectionist Puchowitz, who stresses the importance of atmosphere as much as he stresses over the rock shrimp in his chili-oiled dumplings. "If I see something that's wrong, it eats away at me."

Scanning the Day One crowd, the eaters in the room were more interested in feasting on his food than his psyche. The chef, meanwhile, has been starting most of his days by ordering out - pre-shift breakfasts from Sang Kee, in Chinatown, "even though we have all the ingredients here, within quick grasp," said Darragh.

Is that food more "authentic" than Cheu's? And if it is, does it matter?

Depends who you ask, and Darragh is happy to share. "It's not really a worry of ours," he said. "We know what we want to cook and we know what we're putting out. We're cooking what we like to eat."


Cheu Noodle Bar, 255 S. 10th St., 267-639-4136, cheunoodlebar.com.


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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