1015 Route 25A, Stony Brook
SERVICE: Minimal, but friendly
AMBIENCE: Lively, edging toward chaotic
ESSENTIALS: Open every day from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. No room for a wheelchair. Limited parking but there’s a public lot about 80 yards east on Route 25A. $15 credit card minimum.
In the kitchen: Woks heave, cleavers fly, noodles flutter and broths bubble.
In the dining room: Patrons stand in wait for open tables while takeout customers, heading out, hold the door open for hungry hordes.
China Station is not the place to go for the refined culinary artistry of the Chinese kitchen. This is blunt-force chow.
Because it is located at the edge of the Stony Brook campus and serves huge portions of inexpensive, belly-filling Chinese food, the three-month-old restaurant has become a haven for Chinese-American students, as well as a destination for anyone else seeking a cheap, authentic Chinese fix.
About 30 seats crowd into the space, half of them stools facing either the street or the kitchen. Order at the counter, and when your number is called, pray that there is an open table whose surface has been wiped recently.
The focus of the extensive menu is the food of Northern China; hand-pulled noodles (lamien) figure prominently. (You can see a fellow stretching, folding and stretching the supple dough into ever-thinner strands right through the front window.) China Station is Stony Brook’s second lamien-ery to open in the last five months. The soups here are not as refined as those at Splendid Noodle, but they are no less appealing. There are 25 varieties, almost all of them based on meat and, taken in the aggregate, they manage to make use of almost every part of the cow, lamb and pig: beef, beef stew, beef tripe, beef tendon; lamb chop, lamb meat, lamb bone; braised pork, pork chop, pork bone.
Beef hand-pulled-noodle soup has a dark, rich broth laden with shards of shin, whereas beef stew features an assortment of bits, chewy, tender and every texture in between. Also recommended: the succulent chunks of spicy pork, marked on the menu with the telltale little red pepper. “Wide noodles” don’t appear on the menu, but you can order them instead of hand-pulled with any soup and, if the latter resemble spaghetti, the former are more like rustic pappardelle. Noodles are also available, dry, in huge stir-fried platters. Skip rice noodles, both skinny (mai fun) and wide (ho fun).
I’d never seen anything like the hot and spicy saute pots. These are served in those huge, wood-parquet bowls that pizzerias use for salad, but instead of iceberg lettuce and chunks of salami, you’ll find your chosen ingredient (be it beef, chicken or seafood) mingling with lotus root, broccoli, snow peas, rice cakes, chunks of potato, clear noodles and perhaps the odd slice of Spam. There will be whole, dried chili peppers strewn on top, which you should regard as decorative. The food is already spicy enough. It’s also been stir-fried with a healthy dose of Sichuan peppercorn, which will render your lips and tongue pleasantly numb.
You could make a fine meal out of the fried pork dumplings, eight of them for only $5.75. The other eight dumplings on the menu are boiled. Don’t expect the delicate stuffed morsels familiar from Cantonese dim sum; these are thicker-skinned and misshapen but no less worthy.
On a dreary day, try a bowl of congee, the restorative rice porridge that invariably needs helpings of salt, vinegar and hot sauce to wake it up. You’ll find all three on your table or, at the very least, on the neighboring table. I always find Chinese buns bland, doughy and short on filling, but if that’s your thing, get the bok choy pork bun. Pass on the tough scallion pancakes.
Finally, don’t overlook the cold side dishes at China Station, which are displayed behind glass in steel trays. Most of them are good and spicy, from the veg-friendly matchstick potatoes, cucumbers with tree ears, and bamboo shoots, to the gutsier crunchy-gelatinous beef tendon and pig ear slivers. They are served, ingloriously, in aluminum takeout containers, but that makes them all the easier to take home. At China Station, where almost nothing costs more than $10, it’s virtually impossible to finish what’s on your tray.