For as wildly creative as chef Ben Puchowitz’s Cheu Noodle Bar has become a year after opening as of today, it actually started off as a much harder-to-digest venture, conceptually speaking. In fact, had Puchowitz gotten his way, it would have been, well, offal.
“The food in the beginning, I was trying to make it chef-y,” he says. “I wanted to use lots of off cuts and organs and stuff like that—that was the original idea.”
Luckily, Puchowitz’s partner, Shawn Darragh, was there to reel in the chef’s culinary scope a bit, resulting ultimately in the slurpy bowls of noodle soups Cheu serves up today. But despite Puchowitz’s early acquiescence, the food at Cheu is no less schizophrenic, interesting, and lick-the-bowl delicious a year later. All it took, it would seem, was a little bit of growth and realization.
“When I go get soup,” Puchowitz says, “I don’t get the one with pig’s heart. I don’t want to try something new, I want broth and meat, so I had to tone it down. We’re doing pretty simple food here.”
“Toned down,” however, is probably not the first phrase most people would use to describe what comes out of the kitchen at Cheu, owing that fact to the umami-laden, balanced dishes that have emerged. After all, things like BBQ pig tails, fish ribs, and lamb neck with hand-torn noodles aren’t exactly what most Philadelphia restaurant-goers would call “typical.” Still, though, that doesn’t make them any less beloved. Sometimes, all it takes is the right pitch.
“As soon as you describe the pig tails as a pork wing, people go ballistic,” says Darragh, the restaurant’s marketing and business operations leader. And, indeed, it seems to be that fusion of unfamiliar ingredients and flavors with the concept of classic American comfort food that has people lining up outside Cheu’s 10th Street Center City location—sometimes up to 150 in a night.
Unfortunately, though, that combination is also a huge point of contention in the so-called “authenticity” trenches Cheu has found itself slogging through since it opened. Darragh and Puchowitz both say that they’ve gotten everything from dirty looks to outraged outbursts from customers and critics at the sight of their completely non-traditional food, but thankfully that doesn’t seem to be changing their culinary course at all.
“It’s boring,” Puchowitz says. “Any cook can go to a restaurant and learn authentic food and open their own spot by recreating that food. People will go. Veering away from that is where Cheu came from, being an alternative to those places. It’s not ramen, they’re right. That’s exactly what we’re not trying to do.”
Today, Puchowitz describes Cheu’s offerings as “not any type of food,” but says that his fare is noodle driven with some Asian influence on the appetizers. Whatever “Jewish-Asian fusion” or “pan-Asian American” descriptors that applied a year ago have long since lost their relevance, and, for Darragh, it looks like people are finally starting to “get” it.
“Now it’s happening,” he says. “People see a mature restaurant that has its shit together—which is what it should have been from the beginning.”
That maturity, however, has extended itself beyond the food at Cheu, beginning first with the name. As any Philly foodie can tell you, Puchowitz and Darragh started their restaurant as a pop-up dubbed “Roundeye Noodle Bar,” which caused quite the dustup in the press with activist Helen Gym. At the time, Puchowitz was understandably not happy.
“Their point was that by making fun of ourselves, we were bringing up the opposite slur,” Puchowitz says. “I was mad, but I can see their point. I’m not a grudge holder, so whatever. I was just mad because I loved that name so much.” Still, though, Puchowitz holds onto Roundeye with the “RE” emblazoned takeout container tattooed on his inner arm.
“Once they called us and realized we aren’t racists, they calmed down,” Darragh says.” Still, though, for all that mellowing, Cheu did still ultimately change its name—owing the final form to the “chewyiness” of noodles being mashed up with Puchowitz’s brother’s wife’s last name, Chu. The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is a politically correct restaurant (or nearly so) that everyone can enjoy — Gym included.
“She came here to eat and liked everything,” Puchowitz says. “She told me ‘this is the best ramen I’ve had in Philadelphia.’”
Now, with that honor solidly under their belt after a year of business together, Puchowitz and Darragh have decided to expand their noodly empire beyond their current Washington Square West digs to include a spot in Philly’s East Passyunk neighborhood. News about the venture broke early last month, with the pair staying tight-lipped about the concept, except to say that it won’t be another Cheu location. Because, after all, what’s life without a challenge?
“To me, Cheu is an easy restaurant to run,” Puchowitz says. “You can only get so busy. There’s 28 seats, so when you get 28 tickets on the board, you aren’t getting any more. From a cook’s standpoint, you can dig yourself out of that in 20 minutes. I haven’t been this relaxed since before I started at Matyson.”
“Which is why we’re opening a second spot,” Darragh adds.
That spot will take over El Zarape’s old building on Passyunk, with Puchowitz promising open windows in the kitchen “so people can see what’s going on,” indoor-outdoor windows in the dining room, a prep area where Zarape’s grocery store stands now, and a price point sitting at just under $20. With any luck, the bigger space will yield better food.
“There’s a lot more seats and space,” Puchowitz says. “Here at Cheu, it’s a constant challenge to organize everything. Everything was chaos when we opened, so it’s better that we have this experience before we go to the next spot.”
What that spot’s going to serve up, though, is anyone’s guess. Puchowitz maintains that “it’s not going to be noodles,” and that he won’t be doing Szechuan food because he doesn’t want to “step on Han’s turf.” Darragh, however, teases the concept a bit more.
“Basically, there’s ramen and then there’s this other group of Asian food,” he says. “We’re going to do the same type of spin with that other food, but we’re still finalizing it. It’s going to be like nothing else we have in Philadelphia, maybe not even anywhere near us at all. We’re excited.”
Ultimately, the new spot’s final incarnation is anyone’s guess. But whatever it is, expect the usual brain-popping combinations for which Puchowitz and Darragh’s Cheu have become known, though with a different Asian twist. That is, after all, what these guys do best—authenticity be damned.
“I don’t know how to be mainstream,” Puchowitz says. “It doesn’t come naturally. I don’t know how not to do this.”