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Review: At the SGV’s restaurant of the moment, it’s all about the beef noodle soup

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A spread of dishes, including the signature beef noodle soup (top center) at Yang’s Kitchen.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A right-place-right-moment spirit animates Yang’s Kitchen. The fast-casual, counter-service operation, which opened in August, could go barely noticed on a stretch of downtown Alhambra already crammed with restaurants: A Korean barbecue joint, a beer pub, a sushi bar, a cigar lounge and a diner that slings burgers, omelets and burritos all stand steps away.

But the community is here for this newcomer — above all for the beef noodle soup. Chris Yang, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, simmers neck, knuckle and shank bones for 36 hours; the result is collagen-rich and pure in its beefiness. He adds coriander and Sichuan peppercorn to the broth. They’re used with such restraint you have to close your eyes and scan for their presence, like dredging for a childhood taste memory.

Yang and chef-partner Joseph Marcos developed the noodle recipe; the strands resemble whole wheat fettuccine, stretchy-soft and flecked with bran. Chrysanthemum greens thread through each bowl, as do lobes of braised brisket and shank cuts from Santa Carota, a ranch near Bakersfield that’s becoming known for its carrot-fed cattle.

Slurp a spoonful or two of the broth to savor their craftsmanship. Then stir in the condiments: fermented mustard greens, finely chopped with garlic and ginger, and scarlet, oily chile crisp. Now the soup’s flavors erupt.

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Beef noodle soup, with condiments and vegetable side dishes, at Yang’s Kitchen.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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For inspiration Yang looks to Taiwan, where beef noodle soup is a sovereign dish, but his version dials the spice way back compared with, say, the roiling fireball served at the venerable Dai Ho three miles up the street. This finespun take characterizes Yang’s aesthetic; the soup anchors a short, globally informed menu that feels wholly personal in conception and utterly universal in its comforts.

Yang is 29 years old. He said he’s been thinking about opening a restaurant since he met his girlfriend, Maggie Ho, general manager and co-owner of Yang’s Kitchen, a dozen years ago when they were both attending nearby San Marino High School. After college Yang cooked for Bryant Ng at the Spice Table in Little Tokyo, absorbing Ng’s fluidity with cultures and cuisines; when Spice Table closed, the couple went on to work at Ng’s Cassia in Santa Monica.

On the weekends, lines at Yang’s Kitchen frequently back up to the door throughout the day. The space rehashes pervasive design elements: white subway tiles, blond woods, cracked concrete floors, dangling lights, soaring tongue-and-groove ceilings. They’ve endured for a reason. Even when it’s busy — even when Ho has to police the dining room, making sure squatters don’t claim tables before their party has ordered — the soft-focus atmosphere unfurls the senses.

The food has a similar effect. Yang’s heritage is Chinese, Ho’s background is Taiwanese; the menu dips into Italian, Japanese and Californian influences. The couple routinely name-check their sourcing: They use flour milled by Pasadena’s Grist & Toll for noodles and scallion pancakes; they buy vegetables through Food Roots, a network of local farmers. Modern fusion cooking, priced to accommodate quality ingredients, has not had much traction in the area previously; Yang’s approach has cracked the code, particularly with a younger generation of local diners.

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Yang’s Kitchen’s co-owners Joseph Marcos, Maggie Ho and Chris Yang.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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The beef noodle soup is Yang‘s Kitchen’s early tour de force; lu rou fan, Taiwanese pork over rice, soothes almost as deeply. Yang braises the meat with onions, garlic, apple and a whisper of dried tangerine peel into a gravy he piles over nutty-sweet Koshihikari white rice with a soy egg (its jammy yolk seemingly lit from within), ringlets of fried shallots and more of the mustard greens relish. The braised pork — flavored with the same shallots and greens — becomes the sauce for hand-rolled strozzapreti, blanketed with a fine dusting of Parmesan cheese to decisively thrust the flavors in an Italian direction.

Cold sesame noodles have the familiar slip and slide, dressed with cucumbers, pickled carrots and peanuts for varying degrees of crunch that keep each forkful compelling. The optional and very California additions of sliced chicken breast and avocado give the dish more heft, as do smart, easy-to-like sides of miso-marinated cucumbers and roasted root vegetables.

For effortless variety, there’s a complete meal, channeling Japanese breakfast sets, that includes a choice of fried chicken leg, broiled salmon or (not to be discounted) a block of soy-braised tofu served with purple-ish multigrain rice, pickles, half a jammy egg and a bowl of tomato-seaweed soup that is basically liquid umami.

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Yang’s set meal with fried chicken leg, one of three protein options.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Yang and Marcos spent months tweaking their maverick rendition of the scallion pancake: They paint the dough with Strauss butter before it’s coiled, rolled out and griddled. Whole wheat flour imparts a dark russet color and a sturdy flakiness. They use the flatbread as the foundation for open-faced wraps meant to be folded like tacos. I favor the one that pulls the soup’s braised beef into service, robed with ponzu-amped pico de gallo, pickled carrots and onions; eat it fast while the pancake remains hot and pliant.

I’m less fond of the pancake heaped with chicken salad in a cloud of shiso pesto aioli, crowned with a nest of alfalfa sprouts with avocado and roasted cherry tomatoes (and a melted shellac of white and yellow cheeses if that’s your thing). It’s unwieldy to eat, and the sum of its parts time-travels too far back to 1980s SoCal clichés. This crew, I’m certain, has more leading-edge ideas to express.

Gentle, culture-leaping themes of nostalgia play out tangibly in Yang’s cooking, though, and the restaurant’s one dessert is a clincher: Strauss milk soft-serve scattered with cornflakes boosted from powdered sugar, milk powder and salt. I always have a moment of regret when the cup arrives in its swirled glory. I’m already full of noodles or rice (or both), someone’s eyeing my table, it’s time to move along. Then the ice cream tastes like the sugary bowls of cereal I lapped up every morning as a kid. I’m elsewhere for an instant. I scrape the cup clean.

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Maggie Ho helps customers at the ordering counter.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Yang’s Kitchen

112 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 281-1035, yangskitchenla.com

Recommended: Beef noodle soup, braised pork rice, Yang’s set meal with salmon or tofu, milk soft-serve with corn flakes

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Prices: Noodle dishes $10-$13.50, wraps $12, other dishes $9-$14, dessert $5

Details: Credit cards accepted. No alcohol (but homemade kombucha and aqua aguas frescas). Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.


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