Cheu Noodle bar, pronounced “chew,” is a casual fusion Asian noodle joint in developing Fishtown. They recently released a new fall menu to change things up for the new season. We grabbed the Market-Frankford Line up to the restaurant to check it out.
When we walk in, the vivid decor is the first thing that greets us. A bright red bar area with a large selection of asian sauces and condiments stacked up behind it sets the mood, as does a “movie theater style” billboard of the daily drinks and specials, as Molly calls it. It’s clear this is no simple Asian noodle spot. Chef Ben Puchowitz comes from a family of artists, which plays out into the decor of the restaurant. His brother — a glass blower — created the hanging lights in the restaurant, decorative toilet, the sink in bathroom, and the tiles. Later trips to the bathroom revealed the artistry, complete with crazy stickers advertising mysterious “beef flavor.” We catch ourselves getting lost in the large graffitied octopus spread across the wall, capturing the fun and intriguing feel the restaurant engulfs us in.
We started with three appetizers–a scrapple bao bun with pho spiced mayo, bean sprouts, and lime, beet rangoon dumplings, and charred sweet potatoes. The beet rangoons–a sort of fried dumpling–come out wonderfully crispy and flavorful, Asian-inspired yet immediately indicative of Puchowitz’s fusion take on the cuisine. Beet is paired with goat cheese for a luscious mouthfeel, and while the flavors work extremely well, it is completely unexpected. Where in traditional Chinese cuisine does one find goat cheese? The blending of textures and tastes leave us wanting more — only the beginning of our unique dining experience at Cheu. Next are the scrapple buns: they were creative and Philly-inspired, but they were missing the succulence found in a more traditional pork belly bun. The pho flavorings were indeed spot-on, but the lack of traditionally juicy-ness left something to be desired.
As our charred sweet potatoes arrived, so did a surprise dish–black garlic chicken wings, gloriously tender and faintly garlicky. The same messy food typically paired with barbecue sauce and sports events now came with sesame, lime, and scallion. ‘Nuff said. The sweet potatoes were similarly delicious. Topped with crunchy furikake, the dish was not only flavorful but beautifully presented with differently colored sweet potatoes and bright greens. Again, we were impressed by the fusion of flavors that made it into the dish. It was clearly an Asian preparation, yet complemented by Mexican notes. Very unique, very tasty. In a later conversation with Chef Puchowitz, he adds that he strives for a menu that does not have personal touches all over the place, claiming that it would be “too conceited”, but instead has “little flares here and there.” Thus, he added a Mexican flare to the sweet potatoes but also made sure to have the more standard chicken wings on the menu.
Puchowitz came out just as we finished these plates, and courteously asked if we’d like to talk to him after the meal, which we were delighted to! Upon our urging, he suggested a few of his favorite dishes, from the Beef and Kimchi Bing to the Mapo Tofu Rice cakes. We ordered both, along with the classic Brisket Ramen available at both Cheu locations.
The Bing Bread was completely unexpected, with neither of us knowing what it would look like. We thought it may be like a Mexican pupusa pancake or like the Japanese okonomiyaki. The irony is that it truly was a fusion of both. The “Thousand-Island” dressing covered a fluffy, chewy bread stuffed with flavorful beef and faint hints of kimchi. As Molly was saving room for our two large plates to come, I (Xander) happily gobbled up the extra portion. When we asked how he came up with creative, fusion plates that worked well, Puchowitz said that he and the chefs know what ingredients tend to go well together and then they would experiment with unique add ins and preparations.
Next to come was the classic Brisket Ramen, a steaming bowl of red chili broth served with a massive homemade matzo ball, several strips of tender brisket, kimchi, and noodles. The melding of flavors was again present, from Jewish inspired brisket and matzo ball to Korean kimchi, producing a unique bowl of soup unlike traditional ramen bar bowls where toppings are as simple as pork belly and soft boiled egg. The bowl was very good, with the noodles, brisket, and matzo ball all complementing each other’s flavors and textures. The kimchi slightly stuck out and didn’t seem incorporated, yet added a certain welcoming funk. For an inspiring and warming bowl of ramen, order this–but for something more traditional, perhaps try the Miso Ramen.
Puchowitz grew up in a Jewish household, and combined his background with his love for noodles in this perfect explosion of flavors. Even more personally, he drew upon inspiration from his father’s homemade matzo balls and brisket–both of those components are made in-house. When we asked about the noodles, however, Puchowitz says they’re made by Sun Noodle, a noodle manufacturer that supplies to 90% of ramen restaurants in the country. He explains that “when you get to this level and our customers come in expecting something, you want to offer them consistency,” reflecting on the fact that making the noodles in house leads to rather inconsistent results than outsourcing from Sun Noodle. It lets the restaurant ensure consistency while maintaining high quality.
Lastly, at the point of overstuffing ourselves, we dug into the Mapo Tofu Rice Cakes, swimming in a lurky mass of chili oil. The Sichuan flavors seemed to take the dish in a new direction from what else we had seen, and was perhaps the dish most rooted in one culture that we had ordered. The tofu cakes had an addicting, chewable texture, and complemented soft tofu and chewy mushrooms. The first bite left a sudden shock of chili and Sichuan spice, but once expected, subsequent bites were awesomely authentic.
Puchowitz tells us his interesting origins in the professional food world–he attended Temple University, and while there worked in his cousin’s restaurant. He found when he graduated that he was much better at cooking than at what he went to school for, and decided to take on the head chef role of the restaurant when his cousin moved on. The cuisine there was what can only be called New American, or “melting pot food” as Puchowitz put it, enabling him to experiment with subtle takes on cultures around the world. He would design weekly tasting menus, perhaps one week focusing on Japan and the next on Southern food. Eventually, he opened Cheu, taking with him the experience of fine dining and his ability to experiment with multiple cuisines.
After sadly refusing dessert, we talked with Chef Puchowitz outside where he answered several of our questions. Nice and unassuming, he left us with a positive impression as we finally made our very full ways back to the train, satisfied and ready to recommend. Check out Cheu in Fishtown or its first location near Washington Square for a unique and delicious take on Asian cuisine, fusion not even coming close to describing it. Puchowitz expertly fuses Chinese, Jewish, Korean, and even Mexican cuisine for one of the best casual Asian-inspired restaurants in the city.
1416 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125
For Reservations Call: 267-758-2269
Mon – Thurs: 12-3pm & 5-11pm
Friday: 12-3pm & 5-11pm
Mon – Friday: 5-7pm
Saturday & Sunday: 3-5pm
Written By Xander Gottfried and Molly Gross
Photography by Molly Gross
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