My first restaurant column for The Times, written when I was still a music writer who answered his phone "Guns N' Rosesdesk," was about the concept of single-dish restaurants, places like Lawry's, Shiro and Philippe, whose menus may be as long as a remix of "November Rain" but which might as well serve just the one thing they are famous for. I was writing then about El Parian in the Pico-Union district, still the best place to go in Los Angeles for a bowl of Jalisco-style birria, but the single-dish principle is universal. As a waiter at the original Palm was once reported to have said, "Sure, I'll bring you a menu. But first, tell me how you'd like us to cook your steak."
The Asian swath of the San Gabriel Valley is, of course, a hotbed of single-dish restaurants, from the spicy fried lobster at Tan Cang Newport Seafood to the Beijing duck at Beijing Duck House, the spring rolls at Golden Deli and the roast catfish at Phong Dinh. Din Tai Fung in Arcadia is where you go for xiao long bao, soup dumplings, although the menu lists dozens of other things; 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra is where you go for flaky, crunchy beef rolls, although it opened as a restaurant dedicated to the cult of De Zhou chicken, a famous dish from Shandong.
Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House is a tiny new restaurant in a San Gabriel mini-mall, a few steps from the only restaurant in town serving a proper version of Nanking duck, and right next to Luscious Dumplings, an insanely popular noodle shop beloved for its crusty pan-fried dumplings. In the first months of Hui Tou Xiang, it was not unusual to experience a 45-minute wait at the established restaurant while the newer place sat empty. The first time I visited Hui Tou Xiang, tipped off by blogger Louise Yang, at least three people asked me if I'd wandered in by mistake; whether I had just given up on the line next door.
It was no mistake. I originally pegged Hui Tou Xiang as a xiao long bao specialist, because like a lot of non-Chinese who frequent the San Gabriel Valley, I have become accustomed to ordering soup dumplings almost everywhere I go. (Sometimes I wonder whether XLB have become to Chinese restaurants of the current decade what kung pao chicken was to the 1970s.) A poster-size image of XLB in the window equals soup dumplings. A mural of the Shanghai skyline on the rear wall also equals soup dumplings, although it turns out that the family that runs the place is fromChina's north, and not from Shanghai at all — as you will intuit when you are brought a plate of sweetly pungent house-made kimchi.
They really are good soup dumplings, by the way, tender and swollen with hot broth, plumped out with fresh crabmeat, although in retrospect they may not be the soup dumplings of a specialist. The filling is delicious and gingery, but more compact than fluffy. The dumpling skins are not perfectly elastic, which means that there are always one or two casualties in an order of 10 — you could inspect a hundred steamersful at Din Tai Fung without spotting a leak — and they are rolled out flat rather than thinned out at the edges, so that the little nodes at the top of the dumplings, where the skin is pleated together, tend to dry out a bit in the steamer. I'm not sure I don't prefer Hui Tou Xiang's XLB to the bland but technically superior versions at Din Tai Fung or Dean Sin World, and I have never been able to stop by without ordering a steamer or two, but they are not the restaurant's reason for being.
Neither, I suspect, are the bouncy, beautiful noodles, which are hand-kneaded and sent through a machine in back, served cold with shredded cucumber and a dense, fragrant sesame paste, or hot in broth with braised meatballs or big chunks of slow-cooked pork rib, although you will scarcely see a table without a bowl or two of them. The cold, sliced pork shank and the cold, fried tofu skin are excellent appetizers, although you'll find their like in most Taiwanese noodle shops; the wontons in red oil are a tick less complex than their equivalents in local Sichuan restaurants; and the delicious "pork Italy melon dumplings" sound exotic — I was thinking something like prosciutto with cantaloupe — but turn out to be steamed pork dumplings enhanced with a bit of zucchini.
All of those are fine. But what you are here for are the titular hui tou, an invented name for … Chinese blintzes, more or less: dumpling skins burrito-wrapped around thumb-sized lozenges of pork minced with onions, flattened into oblongs, and pan-fried tawny brown. The pork juices become pressurized, and when you breach the crisp skin with your teeth, they jet across the table or right down at your lap.
(It is an unwritten law that food writers are supposed to ignore the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of restaurant criticism; that we are supposed to concentrate on what is in front of us rather than trying to intuit how a review might affect a particular restaurant, but this is probably a good place to note that Hui Tou Xiang is an extremely modest place, with just a handful of tables, and you might consider visiting at an off hour rather than all showing up for dinner Saturday night.)
Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House
Good soup dumplings, noodles and other dishes, but hui tou, like Chinese blintzes stuffed with pork, are the reason for going.
704 W. Las Tunas Drive (near Mission Drive), San Gabriel, (626) 281-9888, huitouxiang.com
Appetizers $2.95-$4.95; noodles and dumplings, $6.50-$6.95.
Open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times