One thing that’s helpful to know about Joe’s Noodle House is that it’s not just a noodle house. Another is that no one named Joe is even remotely involved with the place. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Tian-Wen Pei, a Szechwan native who specializes in that region’s cuisine, and Audrey Jan, a Taiwan-born former computer-industry professional who decided late in life that she would open a restaurant, partly because she knew that Pei could cook, partly because her kids had left the nest, and partly because she had learned the business through family members who ran Chinese restaurants in Kansas City, Mo. Of her partnership with Pei, Jan’s known to quip, “Our governments aren’t getting along too well, but we are.”
Joe’s sits in a strip mall perpendicular to Rockville Pike, around the corner from a Mexican chain restaurant, and it can be difficult to find even if you’re standing in front of it. There is nothing on Joe’s Noodle House’s exterior to suggest that it might be a place called Joe’s Noodle House. The awning emblazoned with the restaurant’s name is actually located on the ground, in the crack-veined parking lot in the strip mall’s rear. Around the time when Jan and Pei took the place over, about three months ago (changing the name would’ve amounted to a license-transferring hassle), a young man was driving near the restaurant when he became entranced by a pretty woman—so entranced, says Jan, that he ended up crashing into the awning, which has yet to be replaced.
Joe’s is a clean and efficient, not very fancy, single-dining-room restaurant. Several posted signs announce that “Tipping is optional”—which makes some sense, given that orders are placed, fast-food-style, at the counter. Some of the menu, which is printed in English, occupies the vast middle ground where native Chinese and American tastes intermingle, but there are indeed plenty of fringy, un-American offerings. On the one hand, you have the familiar, classic double-cooked pork, thin and delectably fatty, like thick, well-sauced strips of bacon. On the other hand, you may notice Chinese families seated at the larger tables passing around plates of jellyfish, duck tongue with basil, and scrambled eggs and shrimp, the last of which is Joe’s version of a kid’s meal.
Like those at most Chinese restaurants, Joe’s menu is sprawling but uncluttered with needless details. The noodle soups are hugely filling; several index cards would be required to list the ingredients of the two I try. Beneath the shiny maroonish layer of oil covering the surface of the Szechwan beef-noodle soup sit broad ropes of flat pasta, wilted but still crunchy leaves of cabbage and Chinese broccoli, juicy strands of beef, cilantro, and basil. The dish is fabulous. So is the Korean seafood-noodle soup, which is spicier and dense with calamari.
Joe’s dishes are priced so low that when eating alone, I struggle to reach the $15 minimum required to use a credit card. Many of the items come in dim sum portions. So, whereas the soups qualify as meals unto themselves, you see a lot of tables here groaning with sundry plates.
Joe’s serves fine taut-skinned dumplings and crisp salt-crusted chicken, but it seems a waste to brave Rockville Pike to eat what you could get delivered to your door in D.C. Joe’s also serves shredded pig’s ear and plenty of tripe, but you don’t need to acquire a taste for either in order to try something new. I build one meal around a simple plate of duck that’s been marinated, steamed in saltwater, and served cold; it tastes almost smoked. Another night’s dinner is highlighted by a dish of minced pork tossed with pickled green beans that emit a tart, briny juice. Whole, head-on whiting comes three to a plate covered in a spicy brown sauce laced with pickled cabbage. One great noodle dish simply amounts to pasta set in a pool of chili sauce and sprinkled with the tiniest shreds of beef.
Granted, weirdness is easy to come by. Sweet-bean-paste buns are as big as baseballs, doughy and white and filled with what tastes like the stuff you find inside Fig Newtons, and Joe’s seaweed is strangely gelatinous. The vegetable dishes here are largely pickled. The fried rolls fall somewhere between funnel cakes and challah, not as sweet as the former and crustier than the latter.
Stationed behind the cash register, Jan speaks impeccable English, and if you bother to engage her, she can dispense some pretty good info; our conversation about congee segues seamlessly into the story about the guy who crashed into her canopy. Pei can occasionally be seen holding chopsticks in her flour-covered hands as she settles into dinner at a wallside table.
Joe’s staff insinuates itself into the dining experience in subtle ways. The servers are phantomlike, quick to clear, set, and move on. “It’s good, no?” I’m asked one night, and before I can lift my head from a bundle of chicken and shrimp wrapped in a leaf of iceberg lettuce to reply, the waitress is gone.
Joe’s Noodle House, 1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville, (301) 881-5518.
“So is Bistrot Lepic still any good?” one readers asks, curious if the talent that departed to open Petit Plats in Woodley Park has left the beloved French restaurant “sucking wind.” The answer is yes, it’s still good, although the wild-mushroom fricassee is hardly as saucey as you would hope. But even without the benefit of some of his senior staff, chef Bruno Fortin’s elegant touch is still as deft as ever. The sweet seared sea scallops he lays over broccoli mousse and ginger butter are an all-time favorite, and the veal cheeks cooked ossu buco style and served around a plate of rich, creamy pasta inspire pure bring-more-wine gluttony. Since last fall, the chef’s also been serving seven-course meals in an expanded dining room upstairs two or three nights a week. Note: For a fairly thorough explanation about the restaurant’s use of the letter T in its name (“People ask us that a lot,” our waiter tells a party nearby), go to its Web site, www.bistrotlepic.net.
Bistrot Lepic, 1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-0111. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.