There are probably three essential things you need to know about Michelle's Pancake, an upstart cafe tucked into the back corner of an unassuming San Gabriel Valley mini-mall.
One: American-style flapjacks aren't on the menu.
Two: "Pancakes" here refer to griddle-baked Chinese savories ranging from flat, crispy-edged breads and tiny stuffed pillows of handkerchief-thin sheets of dough to flaky rounds enclosing a meaty filling.
And three: Michelle's sole waiter will graciously describe the ever-changing specials written in Chinese calligraphy on neon-bright papers tacked to the wall.
That said, the restaurant's 38-item menu offers plenty of variety. But the principal attraction for the hungry gastronomes who surge through Michelle's doors is the kitchen's finesse with classic specialties of northern China's wheat-eating tradition.
Bite into the crisp, almost sheer, yeast-leavened skin of a walnut-size beef and carrot baozi (No. 2 on the menu) and a mini torrent of deeply flavored viscous broth fills your mouth -- unless the juice gets misdirected onto the table.
The most civilized way to evade such a gaff is to eat baozi as though they were the Shanghai-style soup dumplings xao long bao: Nibble a hole in the skin, then suck out the juice before munching down on the rest of the Lilliputian bun.
Identical in form, the juicy pork and squash-filled pancakes with their twisted topknots (No. 5) look like a Baby Bear version of the much larger steamed and filled bao that Michelle's also makes. But the grilling of the thin, elastic baozi skins transforms them, creating a texture beneath your teeth that's both springy and crunchy. Yet another rendition of baozi (No. 1) brings to mind miniature puffy tacos with the exterior dough folded to expose a bit of the chopped shrimp and egg filling.
Along with these dainties, several heartier and altogether different pancakes illustrate the spectacularly inventive ways Chinese chefs have dreamed up to use a simple mix of wheat and water.
Floppy pastry-like scallion cake (one of the better versions in town) hangs over the edge of its Frisbee-size platter. It combines the flaky qualities of a flattened croissant with the tensile strength of Malay murtabak. Wisps of sheer, slightly crackly dough feather off the exterior of a toothsome disk that's so rich it's as satisfying as a piece of meat.
A heartier flatbread, reminiscent of Indian pratha, accompanies smoked pork. You rip off ragged-edged swatches of the multilayered round to wrap up thick slabs of lean meat rimmed with a generous border of translucent, quivery fat that anoints every bite with smokiness.
The same pancake is the classic wrapper for Shandong-style beef roll, the burrito-like construction enclosing slabs of spice-braised brisket. Although the roll garnered its fame at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra, Michelle's meatier version -- which is an off-menu special (written on a wall banner that a waiter will translate for you) -- is definitely a contender. Points off could be taken for its use of commercial hoisin sauce as a garnish, but the magnificent roll is still a must-order dish.
As some palate-cleansing counterpoints to these wheaty items, a selection of standard northern-style appetizers resides in a glass-front refrigerator case: seaweed salad perfumed with nutty roasted sesame oil and tofu salad fashioned from pressed, julienned bean curd that mimics fine noodles. And Michelle's jasmine tea, as bright as the cafe's sun-filled room itself, is particularly suited to the richer foods.
Longer than Michelle's pancake list is its catalog of sturdy northern-style dumplings served boiled or nestled into a skillet and steam-fried, pot sticker-style. Just as pizza lovers advocate for either thin-crust slices or deep-dish pie, dumpling devotees fall into separate camps: For some, it's all about the filling; for others, the well-made exterior takes precedence.
Michelle's dumplings belong to the latter faction. The pot sticker-style codfish dumplings, however, would please either group. Filling each of these chewy-crisp pockets is a whole chunk of fish surrounded by a slender layer of leek-pork forcemeat that melds into the crunchy crust.
They are a treasure unto themselves.
And that's probably another essential thing you should know about Michelle's Pancake.