This Bowl of Dan Dan Noodles Just Might Be the Best Airport Food in the World
Don’t eat in airports. At least, I mostly don’t. The food, it is sad. Best-case scenario you are paying too much for something that’s pretty good (the JFK Shake Shack, Atlanta’s One Flew South), or nothing for something that’s not bad (literally any lounge buffet). On the Venn diagram of airport food, affordable and delicious just don’t intersect. I—a lifetime member of the clean-plate club, the sort of person who has brought leftover barbecue to a symphony orchestra—once tossed a nearly-whole burrito in despair. I cannot recommend in good conscience the Atlanta airport’s Concourse C Baja Fresh.
I admit: sometimes you have to eat. We all make compromises. If you are lucky enough to enter the fairytale realm of airport lounges, where the booze is free and the wifi is plentiful, even stale pita bread tastes like manna. Once I watched a surprisingly complex machine produce a single, mediocre made-to-order pancake in an Air Alaska lounge and I felt nothing but wonder and delight. The bar is low. So when airport food is good, it is astonishing. And when airport food is great, it’s practically unbelievable.
I have eaten the ramen of Nagoya, the jambalaya of New Orleans, the fistfuls of Haribo in Munich, the chai of Kochi, the sausage rolls (served with ketchup) of Whanganui, New Zealand. It was all…pretty okay. I have also eaten the dan dan noodles at Cathay Pacific’s flagship Wing lounge in Hong Kong. I am here to tell you that they were sublime.
The Cathay Pacific Noodle Bar: shall I compare thee to a normal restaurant, one where the quality of food actually matters? Thou art as good, and arguably better. Dan dan noodles, a Szechuan dish, aren’t even what Hong Kong—a city dominated by Cantonese cuisine—is known for. And yet: I ate one of the best bowls of dan dan noodles I’ve ever had there, in an airport. And it was free. (Okay, “lounge free”—you have to be flying business class or above, have crazy frequent flyer status, or have access to a lounge pass, which members of Cathay Pacific’s loyalty program, Marco Polo Club, can earn.)
All normal rules of air travel were suspended for this brief, beautiful moment. Unhurried, unhassled, unbothered, me and this bowl of noodles that had been made to order. There were toppings: crisp, beautifully green scallions; crushed peanuts; a dense, oily chili sauce. Chili oil flecked the rich, nutty sesame broth. I still dream of these noodles. I would eat them every day. There was also unlimited char siu bao. Is this heaven? No, it’s an airport.
The popularity of the Wing Lounge’s Noodle Bar is such that Cathay Pacific has reproduced it at other lounges, both within the Hong Kong airport, where it has a staggering five locations (some subdivided by class!), and throughout the world. Their latest, the Deck, which opened in the Hong Kong airport in March, prominently features a Noodle Bar. You can eat dan dan noodles at Cathay Pacific Noodle Bars in Singapore, London, and Paris. It makes me wonder: what if every airport had a Noodle Bar? Or, what if airports just served at least some good food? What if air travel didn’t mean being trapped in a maze of overpriced limp lettuce and chairs designed to torture adult humans? I can dream.
That morning in Hong Kong, after inhaling the dan dan noodles (and the bao too, for good measure), I went looking for an armchair to settle down into. When my backpack slipped down one arm, I spilled most of a cappuccino I had just procured on the floor in front of a room full of tired, unamused-looking people. Who could blame them? We were all on our way to someplace else—somewhere without a Noodle Bar. I was mortified, but only briefly. The impossible thing I had experienced buoyed me up. I could not be in a bad mood. I had eaten airport food, and it was great.