I spend a lot of time eating in the San Gabriel Valley, always learning and ever amazed by the breadth at hand: Beijing duck, Uighur lamb polo, Sichuan ginger rabbit, Hong Kong-style steamed fish, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, on and on and on.
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Over the last month, I’ve seen a clear drop in traffic in restaurants and shopping centers in the SGV. Fear is the cause, fueled by concerns around the coronavirus. As of this writing there are more than 30 confirmed cases in the United States. It’s wise to be cautious, but as my colleague Frank Shyong put it in a recent column, “People are openly wondering if it’s safe to eat at Chinese restaurants, as if a virus could be transmitted through flavors. Chinese people and anyone who could be mistaken for Chinese are being treated like potential carriers of disease.”
Now would be an excellent time to visit your favorite restaurants in the SGV. If you’re looking for some fresh inspiration, last week I reviewed Xiang La Hui, a Sichuan newcomer where the water-boiled beef, toothpick lamb and the stew called mao wue wang are standouts. I have three more recent openings for you — each serving dishes that illuminate regional culinary traditions, each place deserving of your business.
New Qingdao Restaurant
The building at the northeast corner of West Valley Boulevard and South 2nd Street in Alhambra has housed many restaurants over the last 30 years, including Happy Table and Gourmet Island. Its latest owners swoop rewardingly into two northern/northeastern territories not as commonly represented in local Chinese restaurants.
Qingdao is a port city in the Shandong province; it sits on the edge of the Yellow Sea across from Korea and is known for seafood specialties prepared with subtlety. Just to the north, separated by a strait, begins the Dongbei region, once known as Manchuria. Its borders stretch as far as Siberia. My friend raised in China pointed out some dishes typical of the Dongbei: corn stir-fried with pine nuts, braised pork with preserved vegetables (pickles and sour flavors are common in its chilly climate) and caramelized sweet potatoes.
She asked the server in Mandarin to choose items in which New Qingdao’s kitchen particularly excels.
He directed us to a gentle, homey combination of soft tofu, shrimp and squid, shot through with crisp slices of celtuce and scallion greens. Each bite was a shifting collage of textures. Blocky, translucent “noodles” made from mung-bean starch soaked in a bath of soy sauce and sesame oil, jolted by bits of browned garlic. The sweet corn paired with the pine nuts was the frozen variety (peas and cubed carrots also threaded through the mix), but I was happy to try it once.
Best were the Qingdao-style fish jiaozi. The restaurant offers two kinds: pale green dumplings filled with cod, and a mackerel variation dyed black with squid ink. My friend asked nicely if we might order half and half of each and the server said yes. The wrappers were thick and unevenly shaped, but the dough had just the right amount of give and both kinds of fish tasted fresh; the flavors bloomed even more with a few drops of vinegar.
I’ve been here twice, and the restaurant has been quiet both times. Maybe bump this to the top of your list to check out?
203 W. Valley Blvd., (626) 872-6677.
Zhou’s Guilin Rice Noodle
Guilin is a city in China’s southern Guangxi province that’s most famous for its scenery: Arrowhead-shaped mountains jut from the land among lakes and snaking rivers. The city is also known for its rice noodles — an extension of the rice terraces that are integral to the landscape and local culture.
Zhou’s in Monterey Park joins a few SGV-area restaurants focused on Guilin-style noodles. Here they come dry or in soup, with garnishes of red chile and pickled green beans. The biggest decision is the toppings: sliced beef, pork belly, hog maw, pork liver, fried egg and tofu skin among them. Our server nudged us to start basic: Combination No. 1 (beef and crispy pork, which is skin fried to the texture of croutons) for dry noodles and the No. 7, with roasted beef, for soup.
If you’re at all curious about China’s regional noodle variations, Zhou’s will be a gratifying addition to your SGV dining itineraries. The light broth in the soup tingles gently with spice — pho’s more retiring cousin. A small bowl of broth comes alongside the dry noodles; if you dine solo I’d probably start with Combo No. 1 to most directly experience the chewy-soft, medium-thick strands. I ordered a side of pork belly to add at will, and its richness was a welcome presence.
Small side salads round out the menu. Before delivering them to us, we could see our server hack garlicky cucumbers in the kitchen through the dining room door.
Wall murals and grainy woods decorate the small, modern space. At a recent lunch the smattering of customers sat absorbed in rice noodle bowls, occasionally glancing up to watch the mounted television. It was tuned to a Chinese-language station; the segment was about the construction of face masks and how to properly wear one.
206 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park.
1919 Lanzhou Beef Noodle
“Spicy?” asked the server as the final question to my requests for two soups. But the tone in her voice made it more of a statement than an inquiry. I was having my soup spicy, as intended.
First, though, there was the matter of choosing which of the nine variations of lamian — hand-pulled wheat noodles — I wanted. There didn’t seem to be wrong choices here. Options ranged from angel hair to regular, thick, flat, prisma (a twisted variety) and wide. Regular for the soup with sliced beef shank, please, and wide for the soup with melting hunks of braised beef shoulder and greens.
Beef noodle soup is a ubiquitous breakfast dish in Lanzhou, capital of the central Gansu province. Its position along the Yellow River made it a vital center on the Silk Road trade routes, which likely accounts for the far-flung mix of spices in the clear broth: Sichuan peppercorns fire up with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, ginger and white pepper. The chile oil my server rightly urged cast a scarlet sheen over the soup’s surface.
I watched the cook quickly stretch the dough for my noodles behind glass; my meal was in front of me less than five minutes later. The regular-width noodles had textbook bounciness. Their wider counterparts were frillier and toothier, and, though they’re less orthodox, I preferred them.
1919 Lanzhou Beef Noodle opened in Arcadia last fall; for comparison try Lan Noodle, also new and a mile away. I showed up at 1919 Lanzhou at 11:45 a.m. on Wednesday, and it was empty. I worried for the place as I sat waiting for soup. As soon as the clock hit noon, though, the place filled so quickly and completely that one woman nodded at the empty seat at my table; I gestured for her to please join me. The server began to jog through the small room. I was glad I’d arrived at a moment when she could offer me some welcome guidance.
148 E. Duarte Road, Arcadia, (626) 447-8686.
— Speaking of the SGV’s unending goodness: On this week’s episode of the Bucket List, Jenn Harris takes us out for Taiwanese fried chicken in Arcadia and Alhambra.
— Patricia Escárcega wrote a fantastic piece profiling three taqueras in the male-dominated business of tacos.
— Ada Tseng has the word on chef Imran Ali Mookhi and his Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen, a halal, farm-to-table restaurant serving Indian, Pakistani and Afghan cuisines in Fullerton.
— Ben Mims talks about chef Bryant Terry’s new cookbook “Vegetable Kingdom” and shares a recipe for spinach and kale grit cakes with a creamy Creole sauce.
— For your weekend baking inspiration: Genevieve Ko’s sweet potato bread.
— Jenn also tells you who’ll be cooking at Coachella this year.
— I have a review of Bar Restaurant in Silver Lake. Hate the name, but dig the modernist French cooking.
— Also: L.A. Times Food Bowl is back for its fourth year! The festival takes place the entire month of May. Tickets for all events go live in early April; tickets are live now for the Launch Party: Collaboration Lab (last year included mashups like Shibumi x Spago) on Thursday, April 30, and for Food Bowl’s Night Market VIP tasting sessions.