Steaming bowls of noodles capture tastes of China — from Jingdezhen to Yunnan

Berkeley’s Noodles Fresh serves a wide selection of dishes from all over China; once indoor dining resumes, it will also focus on tea.

Wenyan Petersen prepares a special tea at Noodles Fresh in Berkeley.
Owner Wenyan Petersen prepares a special tea at Noodles Fresh in Berkeley. For now, the restaurant focuses on its soups and noodle dishes, but will also offer tea service when indoor dining returns. Photo: Anna Mindess

Looking back, March 1, 2020 was probably not the best date to open a restaurant. But Wenyan Petersen, who with husband Tom, co-owns Noodles Fresh on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, still exudes a positive spirit and sees the advantages in these challenging times.

Petersen is proud that she kept the full menu at Noodles Fresh for takeout dining. “People will taste our freshness and uniqueness,” she asserted.

The restaurant’s elegant interior, festooned with porcelain teaware, is actually the couple’s second location. (They opened the first Noodles Fresh on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito in 2015.) The wall of tiny teapots hints at the other side of Noodles Fresh, its refined tea bar, but that will have to wait until indoor dining is back again. Meanwhile, the Petersens have been offering a wide selection of soups and noodle dishes to-go.

But instead of focusing on the distinctive cuisine of one of China’s many regions, Petersen chose her menu to represent the specialties of many different areas.

“My father was a porcelain artist,” she explained. Her hometown Jingdezhen is in the Jiangxi province, which Petersen is proud to report is the porcelain capital of China. This explains the stunning pieces of porcelain that decorate Noodles Fresh. “He would travel around China, discover regional dishes and then cook them at home.”

Petersen has lived in different regions of China herself, and delighted in sampling their specialties. At age 16, Petersen moved from Jingdezhen to Nanjing for university and later Canton, where she worked as an engineer before moving on to Vancouver, Canada, where she met Tom, who was originally from Berkeley.

“When my passion became a reality, and we decided to open a restaurant, I wanted to share my favorite dishes. It’s funny,” she said, “if I’m working as a server, and a customer, who is having a hard time deciding, asks me, ‘Which is your favorite dish?’, it’s a difficult question, I have to say they all are — because I put the menu together!”

Petersen designed the menu to be both a cultural education and a balm for homesick diners who hail from the same regions as her dishes.

“There is a family of four,” said Petersen, “who have been in the U.S. for over 20 years. They have come in numerous times and always order the same thing: four bowls of Hunan hot and sour soup. The couple and the wife’s elderly parents say they miss the taste of home.”

Many of Petersen’s favorite dishes have stories:

The Sichuan dan-dan noodles (wheat noodles with ground pork, bok choy and peanut-flavored chili sauce) are a popular street food in Chengdu. Traditionally, sellers would carry a bamboo pole (called a “dan”) on their shoulders with a barrel on each end: one, full of noodles, the other with chili sauce, scallions and numbing chili oil to make the noodles flavorful. A hungry passerby would stop the seller, who would assemble a dish with the ingredients in each barrel. “A lot of yummy food comes from street food,” said Petersen. “This is authentic regional cuisine. Some people eat this dish with soup, but dry is the original way.”

Another dish, from Yunnan province, that Petersen calls Yunnan Over-the-Bridge has an interesting backstory. According to legend, there was a scholar who crossed a bridge every day to study for his imperial exams on a tranquil island in the middle of a lake. His wife would traverse the same bridge to bring him his daily lunch box. But she realized that by the time she got to her husband, the noodle soup was not warm anymore. Since she knew that animal fat could be good insulation, she used a whole fatty chicken and duck to simmer in the broth and create a thick layer of poultry fat floating on top to seal in the temperature. She kept the noodles separate so they wouldn’t get soggy, then put all the ingredients in the very hot chicken broth when she arrived.

Yunnan Over the Bridge noodles from Noodles Fresh in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess
Yunnan Over the Bridge noodles from Noodles Fresh in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Petersen said, “I call it ‘Over the bridge,’ but other people may call it ‘crossing the bridge.’” She serves this dish of thin rice noodles with fish, ham, chicken and bok choy, in a clay pot. “That’s my healthier way to keep the soup warm, instead of adding too much fat.”

During our interview, a surprise guest popped in to say hello. Paolo Equinozio owned an Italian restaurant in Southern California for 19 years, before moving up north. He and his family are big fans of the El Cerrito location.

“She makes the best kung pao chicken, “ Equinozio told me. “I won’t get it anywhere else. Her vegetables are so fresh!” All Noodles Fresh hot dishes are cooked to order with a few swift stirs in giant woks.

Speaking of Italian cooking, Petersen said her husband’s family’s love for Italian food inspired one of the menu items at Noodles Fresh.

“We often go to Italian restaurants. At home, I cook spaghetti every Wednesday night, spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. Then I realized it is similar to Beijing black beans, the former is beef, the latter pork, the former has tomato sauce, the latter black bean sauce. But the ways you cook the sauces are similar. It made me think that perhaps the idea for Bolognese sauce came from Chinese black bean sauce. That’s why I put it on the menu.”

Chef Peter Liang at Noodles Fresh in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess
Chef Peter Liang in the kitchen at Noodles Fresh in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Besides Equinozio, it seems that other repeat customers also have their favorite dishes. A German couple in their ’80s, Petersen said, who owned several German restaurants for 40 years, always order her spicy cabbage and Canton seafood. Peter Levitt of Saul’s Deli reportedly goes for her Jiangxi noodle salad (a warm combination of rice noodles with chicken and vegetables).

Wherever she lived, Petersen would cook the dish she calls Jiangxi stir fry, made with rice noodles and flank steak, from her hometown. She imports the special, thin rice noodles and uses them in her restaurants because they are made with natural spring water.

“That’s why I wanted to open a noodle house to feature these special rice noodles. I left home at 16 and no matter where I go, I make that dish with the rice noodles I bring from home, and people love it. I remember when I was 24, a co-worker tasted this dish and said, ‘You should open a noodle shop. This is the dish that inspired me to open a noodle house.’”

Noodles Fresh is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily.