"I've seen a chef at Mr. Chow make these," said my friend the Beverly Hills gourmand, as we hovered over bowls of la mian, the hand-pulled noodles at Kam Hong Garden in Monterey Park.
The noodles' squiggly, uneven texture cradles little rivulets of meaty sauce and absorbs flavor-laden broth like no factory-made pasta ever can. Just moments ago, these springy strands were a blob of dough that a cook stretched and tossed like a yo-yo until they separated into the wheaty-tasting lengths in our bowls.
The handiwork here might be a barometer for the perceptible shift in this neighborhood's noodle landscape -- call it a house-made noodle renaissance. Several dumpling shops and northern Chinese restaurants nearby now make rolled flat hand-cut noodles in their own kitchens.
Just a stone's throw from Kam Hong Garden, over on Valley Boulevard, is the stylish noodle cafe Bamboodles, part of a small chain from Xinhui in southern China that opened late last year. You can watch its resident noodle master -- in flamboyant Benihana style -- working inside a small glassed-in atelier that juts into the dining room.
Back at Kam Hong Garden, the kitchen turns out four distinct noodle styles, including hand-pulled la mian. The thumb-length flat dao xiao mian are shaved to order from a stiff log of dough the size of a man's forearm into a vat of boiling water; the ribbon-style wheat noodles, bai mian, get rolled and cut with a heavy-duty machine that's stashed behind the dining room service counter; and then there are the linguine-size noodles sliced from da bing, a thin, slightly crisp griddled pancake, which have a richness of their own.
While Kam Hong's noodles possess a hefty chewiness ideal for the robust soups and sauces preferred in northern China's colder climate, Bamboodles' style characterizes the south's delicate refinements.
Bamboodles' signature bamboo stick noodles attain their springy texture after repeated pummeling and squeezing of the dough with a bamboo pole the size of an elephant's trunk.
Fastened to the wall at one end, the pole hovers above the worktable like a giant garlic press. The chef mounts its outer end, teeter-totter style, hopping up and down to get maximum compression. Like croissant pastry, the dough is folded and layered repeatedly until it's ready to be cut by a machine in the kitchen.
Sorting out the menus at these places has its challenges. At Kam Hong Garden, all the noodle types -- theoretically at least -- can be interchanged among the various sauces, soups and stir fries, but our waitress advised the best pairings.
The dao xiao mian, supple, slightly bouncy in a light garlic-infused lamb broth, comes graced with wisps of still-crisp greens. Spicy seafood soup makes another satisfying backdrop. The noodles' chewiness gets pleasantly amplified when they're stir-fried with pork or chicken and unctuous satay sauce.
Hand-pulled noodles may be traditional in soups, but we found them even more toothsome in the rich house-special sauce of ground pork seasoned with bean paste and in the Shanxi-style meat sauce with chunks of pork. The slightly crispy da bing (listed as Shanxi fried pancakes) crackle in their stir fry of julienned pork or beef and bean sprouts.
Bamboodles makes its noodles in a rainbow of flavors: spinach, carrot, black sesame, plain and the extra egg-rich Hong Kong style that has a firmer bite. Each may be ordered almost any style: in soup, as la mian (on the menu as lo mein) with a topping, or cold with a sauce and accompaniments.
However, we couldn't persuade our waiter to serve us the extra eggy noodles cold with the green tea-braised pork or even as la mian topped with garlicky grilled shrimp or with the marinated ground pork zhajiang sauce. "Those noodles are best in soup," he insisted.
They were spectacular anyway in the Hunan-inspired spicy beef stew, which the menu advises is limited to 100 servings a day.
For all the emphasis on noodles, the house special dumplings are fantastic. Each tiny bite, slightly bigger than a jawbreaker, lives up to the menu's description of "juicy." The skins are lingerie sheer yet elastic enough to restrain the slightly viscous liquid that squirts into your mouth at first bite.
For that sensual pleasure, we can probably thank the prowess of Bamboodles' noodle master.