Once you start writing about food, your inbox becomes a chaotic smorgasbord of pitches promoting mash-up sushi burritos, celebrity spokespeople hawking groceries in a not-so-amusing way and mundane restaurant openings or worse, re-openings.
And then there's the occasional gem that simultaneously pokes your brain, stomach and heart with curiosity and hunger. A recent pitch for leftover-style Chinese noodles at a new Manhattan restaurant, Clancey (that's a mash-up of the street names it's on, Clinton and Delancey) did just that.
Subject: A Dish Served Best Cold
Hi Melissa, How do you like your lo mein? At Clancey, the team believes it is a dish best served cold. Reminiscent of leftover takeout, this nostalgic dish is kicked up a notch with Yesterday Lo Mein (cold noodles, hot pig scallions, and mushrooms). The must-order dish has been an instant hit for diners and brunch goers alike ... Are you working on any stories the Yesterday Lo Mein could be a fit for? Let me know or if you'd like to come in to try it!
I have literally never heard of a "hot pig scallion" nor do I have any desire to ever try one, but the concept of fresh, restaurant food created to resemble leftovers seriously intrigued me.
Is this what the people want? Are New Yorkers really willing to pay good money — $12, I discovered —for a cold dish inspired by something you'd pull out of your refrigerator after a night of binge drinking? Though cold noodle dishes have been popular in New York for years, this takeout-inspired dish styled to resemble a mid-morning refrigerator accident in its promotional shot perplexed me.
Yesterday Lo Mein Origins
Just like any impactful work of culinary genius, the Yesterday Lo Mein was inspired by childhood strife, more specifically, the picky eating struggles of Clancey owner Todd Birnbaum.
"I had a very difficult time eating lunch as a kid. I was very picky," Birnbaum said via email of his upbringing in Roslyn, Long Island, and the future inspiration for this to-be-iconic dish. "Mom packed a dry bagel for me when I had playdates at other homes. Basically I was a pain."
And from great suffering, comes great discovery.
"I loved Chinese food and I learned early on that lo mein was better cold," Birnbaum said. "So on Sundays when we ordered dinner, I would often order an extra pint of roast pork lo mein to bring to school on Mondays." Birnbaum did not remark on his popularity at the lunch table.
"Clancey is a very personal restaurant, our dishes are all inspired by travels, memories and other tastes we've had," Birnbaum said of adding Yesterday Lo Mein to the menu at his new restaurant. "Yesterday Lo Mein is leftover on purpose. Think of it more as a marinade than a leftover."
To create the leftover-style dish (which is made fresh for the restaurant's purposes), Birnbaum and his chef Keith Geter tried as much takeout lo mein as they could humanly handle, "trying to emulate it, but with just a touch [of] finesse," Birnbaum said. They upgraded the meat from traditional char siu pork to pork belly to "give it a bit of decadence and make it stand apart from what you find at a take out shop."
A popular day-old dish
Birnbaum isn't the only one in the habit of purposefully ordering extra food with the distinct goal of having leftovers.
"I love Chinese food and I definitely order extra," Naomi Tomky, a 33-year-old food writer in Seattle said in a phone interview. She usually orders for two people, and tries two dishes from family-style Chinese restaurants, and like any Chinese food aficionado, she just wants more.
"I try to order inappropriate amounts of food," Tomky laughed. After feasting on multiple Chinese dishes, she lets the leftovers stew in her fridge, which sometimes enhances the original dish.
"Anything in a sauce gets better because it soaks up the sauce," Tomky said. "Spicy foods get spicier and flavors intensify overnight ... A stewed meat or braised meat is always great."
And though most dishes from the fridge will get a quick zap in the microwave, Tomky leaves the chill in her noodles, and sometimes a dumpling. "I love cold noodles for breakfast," she said. "I'll always make sure I have enough noodles for that."
American Chinese food is in many way unrecognizable from the food served in proper China, so the idea of leftover Chinese food can differ culturally.
"With non-Americanized Chinese food, noodles definitely taste infinitely better when fresh, especially the soup-based ones, which get all soggy the next day," 25-year-old New Yorker Angel, a Chinese American who asked to be identified by just her first name, said via email. "If the noodle isn't soup-based, then it's fair game to me since I'm personally a huge fan of any leftovers."
The grease factor is hugely important in the noodles' viability. "Noodle leftovers taste better the greasier they were made!" Angel said, noting she's mostly a fan of her own leftovers but doesn't see the appeal in ordering a leftover-style dish at a restaurant. Still, fresh food will always be preferable. "I don't prefer noodles leftover, but seems like i'm missing something here!" she said.
Stocking up on leftovers
My former neighbor, 25-year-old Camille D'Elia, happened to be home in the middle of the day, eager to talk about leftover noodles. Her favorite: The Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles from Xi'an Famous Foods, a New York mini-chain famous for its intense warning signs shaming any leftover seekers.
But still, the warnings don't scare D'Elia: She likes her leftovers, stocking up with her boyfriend on cold winter days when she knows she won't be going out for a while.
"If you're going to order a type of food that you're going to eat as leftovers, Chinese food is the food," D'Elia said.
Still, D'Elia is in the re-heating camp of leftover noodles, opting to avoid that congelation that can sometimes form in chilled takeout containers. As we spoke, D'Elia was making a lunch of instant ramen, leftover ham and a soft boiled egg, "I'm making a meal out of leftovers, but I'm still excited," she said, noting that's part of the joy of ordering Chinese takeout. "It's a fun, indulgent thing, it's not that good for you but you order it and you're down to eat it the next day."
Ordering Yesterday's Lo Mein
As long as the leftover-style lo mein isn't actually leftover (don't be shocked at how many restaurants do serve day old or days old food, preserved properly, of course), D'Elia said she'd be down to try it.
Tomky, however, was hesitant. "It's a hard decision. I would be trepidatious about [ordering leftover-style noodles]. I like them fresh as they're meant to be served," she said. "The leftover is more of a bonus, as opposed to what I'm actually going for." Still, Tomky said she's "incredibly culinarily curious" and would like to try the dish, because when it comes to leftovers, cold noodles are really top notch. "They're up there with cold pizza as top breakfast items!"