Asian noodles swim in a completely different ocean than the durum and semolina flour pastas of Italy. Made from a variety of starches — buckwheat, rice, sweet potato, whole wheat — Asian noodles can be served warmed or chilled, in broth or out. They can even be served with nuts, which is, well, nuts.
Rice noodles are the noodles of choice for pho, the national food of Vietnam. The pho tái at Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant (5634 Rivers Ave. North Charleston. 843-718-3781) is a classic rendition of the northern Vietnamese style with its lighter use of spices and a broth that leads with the flavors of star anise and cinnamon. Over at Xiao Bao Biscuit (224 Rutledge Ave. Downtown. 843-743-3880), hearty egg noodles anchor Niu Rou Mian, a Taiwanese beef noodle soup made with oxtail and brisket with chives and pickled greens. The meaty broth gains a deep complexity from aromatics like ginger, garlic, and black peppercorns. A delicate rice noodle would be lost in this swirl of deep flavor.
The Japanese have given us three great noodles — ramen, soba, and udon — each with a different purpose. Made from buckwheat, soba noodles are gray in color, firm, and nutty — and they can be served in a soup or chilled and dipped into a soy-based sauce. If you haven’t tried soba, you can head to O-Ku (463 King St. Downtown. 843-737-0112), which serves green tea soba noodles stir fried with spiced seasonal vegetables. Ramen noodles, by comparison, are made primarily with wheat flour and alkaline mineral water, which makes them firmer and better able to hold their texture in soups. The specific broth and garnishes vary by chef, as does the tare, a concentrated sauce mixture that imparts most of the flavor to a bowl of ramen. At Kanpai (1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. Mt. Pleasant. 843-388-8001), the ramen noodles have a delightfully springy texture that is complemented by a miso broth. Another Japanese noodle, udon, is thick and made with wheat for soups and stir-fries. The yaki-udon at Miles and Jun Yakitori in Summerville (710 Bacons Bridge Road. Summerville. 843-875-3195) comes steaming hot in a soy-based sauce with shrimp and bok choy.
If Korean cuisine is more to your liking, there’s Ko Cha (3515 Mary Ader Ave. West Ashley. 843-766-0301), which serves dangmyeon noodles in several house specialties. Made from sweet potato starch, the dangmyeon is glossy and translucent — they’re also called cellophane noodles — but are surprisingly durable. On a recent visit, a bowl of spicy nang myun was served with a pair of kitchen shears to help cut the long noodles mid-bite. The dangmyeon noodles added a distinctive chewiness to the nang myum. Although this chilled noodle dish comes with a bit of spicy broth, it’s not a proper soup like ramen or pho. The noodles are the star here with slices of cold beef, boiled egg, and cucumbers in supporting roles.
Meanwhile, over at newly opened Johns Island eatery Sunae’s (1766 Main Road. Johns Island. 843-559-8051), which serves a combination of Korean and Japanese hibachi cuisine, there are big bowls of jajangmyeon, a noodle dish topped with a spiced soybean and pork sauce with a deep black color that gives it the unappetizing nickname of “mud noodles.”
Stir-fried noodle dishes have become synonymous with Thai cuisine, but the pancit noodles of Singapore and the Philippines are another popular rice noodle that are wok fried with protein and spices. At Red Orchids (1401 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. West Ashley. 843-573-8787), the Singapore pancits bring together thin rice noodles with beef, chicken, and a sauce tinged with spicy curry.
Finally, at Warehouse (45.5 Spring St. Downtown. 843-202-0712), you can pony up to the bar and order a Thai Duck Bowl, complete with ponzu rice noodles and red curry peanut sauce — and there’s nothing nutty about that. Just delicious.