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You might feel a momentary sense of dislocation when you first stumble across Ning Jie, in the San Gabriel Mission District. Ning Jie is next to the centuries-old Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, located in a preciously faux-adobe shopping district. It's probably the only place in San Gabriel you wouldn't expect to find a Chinese restaurant, but here it is -- a pure Beijing outlier, serving distinctive regional specialties and street food.
It's where owner Raymond Ning makes his rich lamb noodle soups, fragrant wine-filled fish casseroles, cumin-encrusted grilled quail eggs on a stick and the beefiest crispy pancake this side of Beijing.
Ning's is a small, clean, relaxed restaurant. The walls are covered with cat-themed decor. Ning cooks, and his wife, Shirley Xiang, runs the front, though a lot of late nights, it's just him.
He'll be smoking outside when you show up. He follows you in, takes your order, then wanders back into the kitchen and starts chopping and sizzling, bringing out the dishes one by one.
The skewers come out fast, listed under "B.B.Q." on the menu: all manner of meat, encrusted with cumin and chile powder, stuck on a stick, and grilled. There are crispy chicken wings, wonderfully crinkly, creamy mushrooms and more. Grilled quail eggs are firm on the outside and still gooey at the yolk. The best B.B.Q. item may be something called "chicken frame" -- a whole, small bird, chopped up into little bits for maximum nibbliness and covered in a second skin of toasted cumin.
There's a distinct touch of bachelor in Ning's cooking. This is comfort food made by some skinny dude who cooks offhandedly, beer in one hand and sauté pan in the other..
If you ask Ning what his favorite dish here is, he'll immediately reply: niu loui xian bing, beef pancake. This is a massive dumpling filling, about the size of a fat hamburger patty, sealed inside a crispy, chewy Chinese pancake -- think scallion pancake, without the scallions. If you cut into it, a torrent of fragrant beef juices will spill out onto the plate and de-crisp the pancake. What you're supposed to do is pick up the thing with your fingers, bite a hole in the pancake, and slurp out the juices before you chow down on the rest.
The menu is divided into several sections. The "specials" section is mostly famous Beijing-style restaurant dishes. The section written only in Chinese is for home-style dishes. Many of their best dishes are displayed in pictures on the walls, hanging out between the cat paintings. If it's dark, brown and filled with a jumble of unidentifiable bits, you probably want it. Fish casserole is hunks of fish, long-cooked with wine, soy and sugar, until it turns into a dense, caramelized, syrupy essence of fish. Lamb noodle soup is similar -- brown and beautiful, it's an experience of deep meatiness, with toothsome noodles that up the experience. It's so dense, it's just one step short of becoming a stew.
They have maybe the coolest amuse bouche in town, yan pi dong -- lamb skin aspic. It's slices of firm jelly, filled with loops of lamb skin, and covered with numbing, tingly Sichuan chile oil, and it's an excellent introduction into a wonderful world of unexpected textures. It typically comes out free for new visitors, but if they don't feel like it that day, you'll have to order it off the wall.
One of the best dishes is huo bao zi ran ji xin, stir-fried chicken hearts that are carefully sliced into a flower-like shape and spiked with a lot of cumin. The onions are still crisp and a little sweet, and the chicken hearts are perfectly tender, with flecks of char. The whole dish glows with wok hay -- the fresh energy of immediate impact with a hot wok -- and smells of cumin, chiles, pepper and toastiness.
On late, warm summer nights, the most perfect dish is cucumber with Beijing sauce. This is cold, crisp cucumber, chopped and covered with sesame oil and pungent garlic. The peculiar balance of fermenty punch and cool zippiness is all you need.