The Best Noodle Place You’ve Never Heard Of
There are some things that Oxford has in abundance: books, white people, cartilage piercings, noodle restaurants. And just like that white kid with a cartilage piercing, carrying a book, that rocked up at the start of term, you might think that this city doesn’t need any more noodle restaurants. But you’d be wrong (on one count).
Tse Noodle, tucked away on the quiet end of Ship Street (think backside of Jesus), away from the bustle of Cornmarket, is the kind of place you might walk straight past. The condensation creeping up the windows obscures interior, but the sign that says “cash only” appeals; the only thing that tastes better than MSG is tax evasion*. Still, with Wagga and Edamame a stone’s throw away, it’s fighting an uphill battle and when we turn up on a Thursday evening, only one of the tables is occupied.
The chef/waiter/proprietor Tse is a friendly and relaxed host. He seems unfazed by his empty restaurant and spends the evening wandering back and forth between the open kitchen and the dining area, chatting with his four guests and gazing at the large flatscreen that hangs above the door displaying a single still image of an NBA game. It’s as though he’s enjoying these quiet weeks, before word gets around, the dining room fills up and then spills out of the door, and chilling ceases to be an option.
Eventually he wanders over with a couple of paper menus. I show him the bottle of wine that I bought at Tesco’s and ask if he has a bottle opener. For a moment there is consternation — apparently in the two months since he set up shop, no one has asked to have a bottle of wine opened. After rustling around in the pantry for a bit he returns with a long screw, some pliers and a triumphant expression. The wine is open within moments.Tse opens a bottle of wine DIY-style.
Where some East Asian menus read like an anxious fresher’s essay, Tse’s essentially has four options: noodles with soup (£8.50), steamed and pan fried dumplings, bao (all under £5), or some combination of the four. We order a noodle soup with prawn dumplings and sour & spicy sweet potato vermicelli. Tse doesn’t approve. “Westerners don’t like that,” he tells us earnestly, “I’ll make you something you’ll like.”
He’s not wrong, the food is superb. The broth, which sits bubbling enticingly in a large pot at the back of the restaurant, is fragrant and salty, with that subtle umami twang that makes ramen pretty much everybody’s favourite food. The prawn dumplings taste fresh and the improvised vegetarian soup is better, soft cubes of tofu bobbing around with pak choi and vegetarian bean curd dumplings. The presentation matches the Tse’s general aesthetic: completely, wonderfully lazy. A handful of seaweed, a couple spring onions, a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a dash of sriracha. Sorted. It looks as though he grabbed whatever came to hand and chucked in a bowl, but the result is generous and perfect. The noodles themselves are also satisfying — smooth, but with a wholewheat bite that reminds you that once upon a time, these noodles were flour, and before that, a plant growing somewhere. It’s much more wholesome than the springy white rubber you get served at Itsu. If your appetite is anything like mine, a bowl of soup won’t quite cut it. Safer to get a starter as well, although many of the dumplings are the same as come with the noodles, so opt for a bao if you’re after variety.
When he comes over to check that we like our food (we do), we learn that he’s from Hong Kong, that he’s been open since the summer that his name is (roughly) pronounced “Che”. He lets us off 30p when it turns out we don’t have quite enough to pay the bill. Thanks Tse.Sorry to the guy at the table for violating your privacy.
Open: Monday to Sunday, 12:00–15:00 and 17:30–21:00
Price: £22 for two soups and a starter
Drinks: BYOB, corkage free, but unconventional
Rating (on a scale that I just made up right now):
Quality: 8/10, Value: 7/10, Vibe: 5/10
*that was a joke, please don’t arrest him HMRC