photos by kathleen marie

Have you ever eaten so many noodles you’ve gotten lightheaded?

It’s only happened to me a few times, but twice it was from grossly overconsuming the thick, hand-stretched noodles from downtown cart Stretch the Noodle. There aren’t many options in Portland for Chinese-style hand-pulled noodles, and the undisputed cheapest and most bountiful of them all are from this unassuming cart with a chalkboard menu and a small speaker playing tinny Chinese music on Southwest Washington near Killer Burger.

Even when I try to hit outside peak lunch hours, wait times have been a bit long for the menu of stir-fried noodles, soup, and Chinese crepes. But standing on the sidewalk watching Xuemei Simard thumping, stretching, rolling, and cutting noodles for her husband Duane to cook up only revs the appetite. Which is good, because you’ll need it.

My wintertime cardio has been grabbing the rich and warming la mian noodles in Sichuan beef soup ($8) and speed walking back to the office before it gets cold. It’s a deep broth of five-spice and simmered bones, best when dialed up to at least a medium spice level with chilies ladled in by hand. The beef is tender-braised, and rests with bok choy atop a massive raft of those noodles.

Herein lies a mostly pleasant catch-22: The noodles don’t stand up to the soup for extended periods, so you’ve gotta eat it all or be forced to toss the rest. (Or, find a friend who will share.) Deciding to press on and eat the whole thing alone is how I wound up dizzy with spice and carbohydrates on a random Wednesday. WORTH IT.

The more popular chao mian stir-fries with chicken or tofu and veggies ($8) are the better long-term strategy. That $8 is an overflowing go-box guaranteeing two lunches, if not three, and the leftovers just get better as they absorb the spicy ma la pepper sauce overnight. It’s still hard to stop, as each bite reveals one more particularly fat, chewy noodle that looks so good that it begs to be eaten right then. (Cue second carb coma.)

On my first visit in late summer, there were pork pan-fried dumplings with a proper crisp, lacy skirt connecting them for a ridiculous $4. I ask about them on each return visit, but they’ve been a bit too busy to add many specials.

Jianbing, the Beijing crepe filled with egg, shoots, a crispy wonton, and bacon for $6 is a messy portable that saves those east of Broadway from schlepping to Bing Mi at the 10th and Alder carts for a fix. Slightly bigger and sloppier than those at Bing Mi, they’re also cheaper and spicier and just what late breakfast calls for.

Until last week, Xeumei was home visiting in China, so the cart wasn’t serving her hand-stretched noodles as Duane made do alone with packaged udon. But now she’s back and hopefully full of ideas from her trip, making this the prime time to get thee to Stretch the Noodle.