Noodles in the SGV: From Hand to Mouth

Carb counting be damned -- Los Angeles is a noodle town. In strip mall shops and sit-down restaurants, hungry Angelenos inhale aromatic bowls of pho, twirl sweet-sour tangles of pad Thai, hunch over steaming portions of ramen, and scoop up glassy strands of japchae.

And then there are Chinese noodles, perhaps the granddaddy of them all. Chinese noodles made from millet date back at least 4,000 years; these days they typically contain wheat, rice flour or other starches. The most familiar versions are made from a simple dough of water, wheat and sometimes a trace of alkaline minerals (which make the dough chewy and resilient in hot liquid) and take on a variety of shapes and sizes: round, flat, broad, thin and everything in between. They can be found filling bowls of soup, tossed in stir-fries or topped with sauce.

A cook at Malan hand-pulls noodles
These noodles are especially tasty when handmade, as the inevitable variations and imperfections soak up surrounding flavors and offer subtly different textures in each bite. Fortunately, the San Gabriel Valley is a noodle lover's playground, with plenty of restaurants serving up noodles cut or pulled by hand.

At JTYH Restaurant in Rosemead, a typically nondescript noodle house with a glass facade, a handful of tables and a clear deli case up front, the cartoon chef logo depicts the house specialty: dao xiao mian, or knife-shaved noodles, a style associated with Shanxi Province in Northern China.

In making knife-shaved noodles, a cook grabs a hefty block of dough in one hand and a wide, flat blade in the other -- something you'd sooner expect to see in a Home Depot than a kitchen. With dexterous flicks, he slices strips of dough directly into boiling water, leaving them just long enough to cook through. He then deposits the wide, frayed noodles into, say, a milky lamb soup with stewed meat, slivers of mushroom, wilted spinach leaves, sprigs of cilantro and a few slabs of tomato.

The noodles are thin and tender without being overcooked, and surprisingly delicate -- almost papery. In addition to meat and seafood soups, the noodles are available in stir-fries and with toppings, such as ground pork, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions and baby bok choy (dan dan-style).

Lamb soup with knife-cut noodles at JTYH

Kam Hong Garden, a slightly stark, fluorescent-lit cafe in Monterey Park, offers its own take on dao xiao mian, with thicker, chewier noodles than JTYH. In a bowl of deeply colored but deceptively light beef soup (which benefits from a spoonful of ground chili, provided tableside), the slippery, rough-hewn noodles pair nicely with chunks of braised beef and some greenery for brightness.

Both JTYH and Kam Hong also offer la mian, or pulled noodles, from which Japanese ramen derived. But the full hand-pulled experience is perhaps best had at Malan Noodles, a bright orange-and-blue outpost of a Chinese chain in Hacienda Heights.

Lamb soup with pulled noodles at Kam Hong Garden

When an order arrives in the spare open kitchen, the cook grabs a hunk of dough, rolls it on a floured counter and begins stretching it at arm's length. He yanks it, doubles it on itself, tugs it and redoubles it with all the dexterity of a cat's cradle expert, until what was once a clump has become individual threads. After tearing off the ends, the cook slings the noodles into boiling water.

The noodles can be had in small, medium or large widths, in flat bands or round strands, or even triangular lengths. Unlike their knife-shaved counterparts, pulled noodles are long and smooth; the round shapes are especially bouncy. In the namesake Malan beef soup, they arrive in a clear, fragrant, pho-like broth redolent of star anise, with spears of daikon radish and flecks of green onion on top.

Zha jiang mian at Malan Noodles

If soup won't cut it, there are cold dishes and chow mein; another favorite preparation zha jiang mian, or as the menu puts it, "noodle brown sauce." Here the springy, toothsome noodles are dressed with minced pork and tofu in a fermented bean sauce, then showered with shredded cucumber for a bit of crunch. All stirred together, it's a hearty bowl, pleasantly slick with sauce and good to the last slurp.

JTYH Restaurant
9425 Valley Blvd.
(626) 442-8999

Kam Hong Garden
848 E. Garvey Ave.
Monterey Park
(626) 280-9318

Malan Noodles
2020 S. Hacienda Blvd.
Hacienda Heights
(626) 369-5602

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