One strange thing about eating a lot of Chinese food in Los Angeles is that you become blase about places that would be restaurant Meccas in Chicago or New York, oversaturated as we are with grand seafood palaces or joints serving exemplary New Wave Shanghai cuisine. China Islamic is a small, sweet restaurant in the western corner of Rosemead, with the usual upscalish lime-green decor and faux marble, with window cutouts that resemble minarets and fish tanks whose inhabitants are not destined to be eaten.
If you haven’t bothered to reserve, you may have to wait a half-hour for a table. And although China Islamic may be only the second best Muslim Chinese restaurant in the area--Tung Lai Shun, in the great Chinese mall up the road, might edge it out on points--it can be almost better than anyplace else. Islamic Chinese food, nomad-influenced and ultra-popular in Beijing, is a hard thing to burn out on.
But where China Islamic restaurant is a stronghold of Muslim-style Chinese cooking, it also prepares many of the standard suburban-Chinese dishes--egg rolls, sizzling-rice soup, kung-pao shrimp--sort of lackadaisically, but according to the Muslim dietary laws. China Islamic may be the only Chinese restaurant I’ve ever seen where Pakistani customers sometimes outnumber the East Asians.
The green-onion pancakes are pretty nice, chewy crepe-like things in contrast to the usual fried Frisbees; the intensely flavored steamed vegetable dumplings are fine.
Still, almost as soon as you walk into the restaurant, you are asked if you want sesame bread (you do), which is a thick disk of flatbread made to order, the size of a Chicago-style pizza, crust baked to a shattering crispness that encloses a dozen layers of steamy, scallion-flecked bread. Most people seem to order sesame bread here instead of rice, making little pocket sandwiches, dragging it through sauces, daubing it with a little vinegar and chile and eating sesame bread straight. Sesame bread, probably the spiritual descendant of the stone-baked flatbread of ancient nomads, is sort of the center of this cuisine.
There are a number of cold dishes that go very well stuffed into the sesame bread, cool smoothness contrasting with the bread’s crunchy heat, cool, translucent slices of pressed beef tendon that start out the texture of hard rubber but melt into a rush of beef and garlic; “home-style” roast chicken, fragrant with spice, a little greasy, a little like perfect picnic chicken; strips of rich, tender beef tripe flavored with a tincture of chile and soy, mercifully ungamy--for the first time I can remember, a tripe dish was the first thing to disappear from the table. There is a swell ox-tripe salad, tossed with slivered cucumber, hot mustard and a delicious, slippery flat noodle made from pulverized mung beans; the version of the salad made with slivered white-meat chicken instead of tripe is perhaps even a little better.
Vegetables include ong choy fried with chile, green-pea leaves sauted with garlic, string beans charred in a very hot wok with a pungent mix of dried fish and black beans. There is a nice dish involving wedges of bean curd deep-fried, then braised in a sauce of ground beef and hot chiles.
Like other Muslim restaurants, China Islamic has a minor specialty in lamb, sliced thin and quickly fried with green onions, garlic and crunchy bits of fresh ginger; fried with the thick, resilient homemade noodles called “dough slice chow mein”; served in a cloying “sa cha” sauce. Lamb stew warm pot is an enormous thing, served seething in a clay vessel the diameter of a basketball hoop, with thick, murky broth, cellophane noodles, cabbage and the most extraordinary lamb red-cooked on the bone, chopstick-tender and pungent with soy and star anise.
* China Islamic Restaurant
7727 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (818) 288-4246. Open Thursday-Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. (Closed Wednesdays.) No alcohol. Takeout. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. Reservations recommended on weekends. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$22.
Eat your way across L.A.
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