When it opened in late July, Dagu Rice Noodle in Asia Town became just the second U.S. location for this massive Chinese export, which is said to have approximately 300 locations spread across that country. The Cleveland site follows one in Las Vegas and preceded, by just a few weeks, another in Greater Los Angeles. This city's jump on the competition speaks both to the size and appetite of the local Asian community and the enthusiasm that entrepreneur Sheng Long Yu has for the concept.
In terms of options, there's an embarrassment of riches in Cleveland's ever-expanding Asia Town food scene. But that doesn't mean there's nothing new left to discover. Thanks to Yu, who first experienced Dagu in Canada, we can add "crossing the bridge noodles" to our collective cauldron. Now that I've had the opportunity to get acquainted with this celebrated noodle soup, it will be hard to keep me away.
As with all novel foods, there's a bit of a learning curve. A quick glance at the menu reveals a dizzying array of selections printed both in English letters and Chinese characters. There are multiple sections, each of which is filled with numerous dishes. Those dishes, in turn, come with an assortment of "add-ons," sub-items that can be ordered to customize one's bowl. Toss in the various broth types and presentation methods and it's nearly enough to send one running for the door.
"It might seem a little overwhelming," Yu admits, "but here's how simple it is. Our menu is separated into sections for appetizers, noodle soups and drinks. Any soups that start with the letter A means the chef has prepared everything for you. The soups that start with letter B are the 'crossing the bridge' ones."
To further clarify matters: There are only two main broths, despite the appearance of more. There is the main pork-based broth and the vegetarian tomato-based version — both of which are deeply flavorful. What complicates matters is the fact that the pork broth comes in various trims, to use an automotive analogy, that include traditional, spicy, sour or a combination thereof. Also, not all tomato broth-based bowls are vegetarian.
Once you've made your choices, tick off the appropriate boxes on the paper menu and wait the six to eight minutes that is the average ticket time at lunch (add a few minutes during dinner time). Soups are still literally boiling when they land on the table, served in super-hot earthenware bowls that retain heat. While "crossing the bridge" refers to an old romantic fable, it also represents the movement of food to bowl while eating. Presented alongside the broth bowl are a dozen small items that get added to the soup, among them quail egg, chives, fish tofu, krab stick, roasted soy beans and a paste of pickled vegetables. In the case of the "A" soups, everything is already in the bowl. If you ordered add-ons such as beef or lamb slices, those come on the side in both versions. Served raw and sliced very thinly, they cook in seconds in the hot broth.
Of course, the star of the show is the rice noodles, which come from the parent company in China. Snow white, round, slippery and downy soft, the cooked noodles get added to the broth along with everything else. At Dagu, meals come with a free refill of noodles, though I've never even finished my first.
Top-sellers are the A1 ($9.99), a pork broth-based soup with a Flintstone-size braised pork shank protruding from the bowl, A4 ($12.99), the same as A1 but with a Flintstone-size beef shank climbing out of the bowl, and the B2 ($9.99), a spicy version of the pork broth served "crossing the bridge" style. The tomato-based brew works just as well in vegetarian dishes ($9.99) as it does in versions containing meat or seafood.
Dagu also offers a host of interesting appetizers, many of them tongue-tingling Szechuan-style starters served cold. The savory beef and ox tongue ($5.99) is sliced paper-thin and doused in a potent chili sauce, a pair of marinated hard-cooked eggs ($1.99) is served warm, and the crispy fried chicken nuggets ($4.99) are peppery and well seasoned. If you are adventurous, tack on an order of spicy duck tongue ($6.99), a funky finger food with a surprising amount of fat, meat and flavor. (Who knew duck tongues had bones?) On the sweeter side are crispy squash pancakes ($3.99) filled with red bean paste, and sticky rice cakes ($3.99) drizzled with a brown sugar glaze. To drink, there are sweet milk teas made with real fruit.
Yu, who also operates Shinto Japanese Steakhouse in Strongsville and Kenko in University Circle and Kent, says that he isn't at all surprised by the number of customers who have visited since he opened the doors. But it has been fun to welcome diners returning for the new school year.
"A lot of the Asian college students who came back after summer say that it tastes just like home," he says.