Face-Off: Chinese Beef Rolls

New Mandarin Noodle Deli
Beef rolls can generally be found as supporting players to the heartier cast of noodles - souped and fried - at Northern Chinese noodle joints around San Gabriel Valley. But for many, the side is the main attraction. The wrap is built on a thin fried flour pancake encasing slices of beef, scallion slivers, and an inky sauce of either sweet soybean paste, hoisin, or a mix of both. Depending on the cook, cilantro and/or cucumber make cameos as well.

Across local food-centric media, the consensus is that 101 Noodle Express' roll trumps all others in surrounding neighborhoods - notably, Jonathan Gold who has swooned over it in print twice (first in 2006 and later in 2009). The menu at the recently opened westside outpost at Westfield Culver City Mall acknowledges this dish's popularity by making 15 different varieties. In other words, the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express is the defending champion that others are measured against.

There is another worthwhile contender, at New Mandarin Noodle Deli, where the beef roll ($6.75) is wrapped with distinct layers - beef and sauce, julienned fresh young cucumbers, and slivers of scallion and cilantro at the center. The addition of cucumbers are a welcome respite from the rather assertive use of their sauce composed of sweet soybean paste and hoisin. 101 Noodle Express wouldn't reveal whether their sauce includes sweet soybean paste, hoisin, or both, except only to indicate that it is a blend created by the cook. They use the sauce sparingly, just enough to coat the sliced beef with a slight sweetness.

Typically shank, the beef in a beef roll is simmered in a marinade made from varying amounts of star anise, peppercorns, soy sauce, and other seasonings. The sliced beef is saltier and laced with a distinct note of star anise at New Mandarin, whereas 101 Noodle Express features a more nuanced version. The natural beef flavor comes through and the resulting roll ($6.75) is balanced in taste.

101 Noodle Express
But the New Mandarin roll is more texturally complex. The pancake is flakier than its 101 counterpart, giving crunch alongside that of the fresh herbs and young cucumbers sitting at the center. 101 doesn't use cucumbers of any variety, while its cilantro and scallions are somewhat cooked through from the residual heat of the hot pancake as a result of being rolled with the sliced beef.

Those seeking balanced flavor in a beef roll will choose local media darling 101. Fans of wheaty, crunchy texture in this Northern Chinese classic just may prefer New Mandarin's take. Readers: do you have a favorite?

101 Noodle Express
1408 East Valley Blvd., Alhambra

New Mandarin Noodle Deli
9537 Las Tunas Dr., Temple City

More on Asian food:
Noodles in the SGV: From Hand to Mouth
Kimchi and Acorn Jelly in the Korean Kitchen

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