Back in the early 90s, after breaking up with a particularly unsuitable boyfriend (actor/bartender/alcoholic — quite the rollicking combo), my bestie best friend and college roommate, Janice, and I moved into a crappy walk-up on West 15th Street. Our place became a bit of a crash pad for friends and family returning home from traveling and/or looking for somewhere to pass out. Janice’s brother-in-law, Paul, stayed with us for quite awhile while his lovely wife Julie gallivanted around Southeast Asia (he’d taken a leave from his job and had to return; she’d smartly resigned from hers).
We had a decent kitchen and did cook quite a bit, but we also enjoyed many evenings of take-out. It’s New York. That’s what you do. And we became obsessed with these cold sesame noodles. Not just any cold sesame noodles, though; they had to be the cold sesame noodles from Empire Szechuan. And not from just ANY of the 132 or so Empire Szechuans plopped around the island of Manhattan. No, they had to be from the Empire Szechuan on Bleecker Street. I never figured out if Empire Szechuan was a chain, but I don’t think so because we sampled other Empire Szechuan cold sesame noodle offerings and they always came up short. (And don’t be fooled by the identical name; you’ve heard of the whole Ray’s Pizza brouhaha, no?)
But I digress. These cold sesame noodles were that perfect combination of sweet, sour and hot, and I loved how the cool slippery noodles combined with the crunchy cucumber and nice little bite from the scallions. Perfection.
The day our Empire Szechuan closed was a very sad day indeed. Our brief high hopes of the promised “renovation” were dashed by continued lack of any sort of actual renovation taking place. And then, the kicker, the nail in the coffin: a CVS moved in. And that was the end of the infamous cold sesame noodles.
I’ve thought a lot about those noodles. I’ve tried a lot of Empire Szechuans. It’s just not the same. But these are pretty close. RIP Empire Szechuan on Bleecker Street. RIP early 90s. Long live cold sesame noodles!
Cold Sesame Noodles
NOTE: Play around with the garnishes. Shredded carrots, julienned red peppers or cabbage are all nice additions. I’ve also sautéed some firm tofu cubes in sesame oil for a protein boost. But in a purist Empire Szechuan world, it’s really all about the cucumbers and scallions. Those are required.
1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1-2 garlic cloves, pressed
2 teaspoons grated peeled fresh ginger (keep it in the freezer; it’s much easier to grate)
Hot red pepper flakes or a big squirt of Sriracha (optional and to taste)
1/3-1/2 cup pasta water or vegetable stock
1 pound thin spaghetti
3 chopped scallions
1/2-3/4 seedless cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted (optional)
Boil the spaghetti according to instructions. While that’s cooking, combine the sauce ingredients in a heavy saucepan and cook over low heat until sugar melts (you can also do this in a heatproof bowl in the microwave, but then your brain will be scrambled. Kidding!). Add some pasta cooking water or stock a bit at a time to thin out the sauce. You want the sauce to be thick enough to coat the noodles, but not gloppy.
Drain the spaghetti and rinse with cold water. Pour the sauce over the pasta and add the garnishes (reserve a bit of each to top the dish), stirring gently to combine.
Observe a moment of silence for Empire Szechuan on Bleecker and dig in. They are meant to be served cold or at room temperature (with a bit of time for the flavors to come together with the noodles), but no one cares if you just chow down immediately.