My new favorite restaurant isn’t a restaurant at all, and it only serves one dish
This week’s recommendations will require a leap of faith. If you’re willing to wait in line for your food or to possibly sit in traffic for a restaurant with no set menu or hours, then you’re in luck. I promise it’s worth the risk.
Shan tofu noodles from Asia Supermarket
My new favorite restaurant isn’t really a restaurant, and it doesn’t have a name. And my favorite dish there is the only one served, a large plastic bowl of warm, yellow goo.
It’s the small prepared food stall just inside the door of the Asia Supermarket in Alhambra, opposite the row of cash registers. On Monday, Covina resident Grace Labya started selling Shan tofu (also know as Burmese tofu) and noodles, next to the guy who makes sushi.
The tofu is a dish from the Shan state in Myanmar, where Labya’s family is from.
“All the families know how to cook this,” she said during a recent visit. I found her eating a bowl of her own behind the counter. “It’s my family’s recipe. A very known dish.”
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This is not the soy-based tofu you may be used to. It’s made from yellow split peas and chickpeas, which gives it a distinct yellow hue.
You can order the tofu on its own, with noodles or just noodles. The tofu with noodles is the move. Labya placed a nest of rice noodles in the middle of a bowl, then ladled the warm tofu over the top so that it encased the noodles in a pale yellow primordial goop. Each bowl gets a heaping spoonful of ground chicken in a rust-red sauce. Then Labya moved to her collection of toppings, neatly arranged in repurposed plastic jars. A spoonful of fried minced garlic, some spicy bean paste, roasted peanuts and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro.
She reached for a jar of chile oil then looked me over.
“I don’t know if you like to eat too much chile,” she said, then filled a small cup on the side.
Mildly offended, I laughed and made a mental note to approach the sauce with caution.
She then filled a small container with “sour salad,” a cabbage and pickled mustard greens slaw she serves alongside the tofu.
The toppings sit atop the tofu, so you’ll need to give your bowl a good stir. The creamy tofu has a mild bean flavor and a consistency like pudding. It is the ideal conduit for the ground meat, chiles and garlic. It all fuses together to create an umami-packed sludge you can eat on its own or with the noodles.
Labya doesn’t have set hours. Just know that if you arrive after 3:30 p.m., you’ll likely miss her. As a consolation, the market frequently stocks containers of pickled tea leaves and Mohinga (with the soup neatly packaged and separated from the noodles, eggs and fried lentil crisps) from Jasmine Market & Deli in a refrigerated display near the registers.
The waffles from Howlin’ Ray’s
On a recent Friday, seated at a table inside the new Howlin’ Ray’s restaurant in Pasadena, I tweaked my neck trying to get a peek at the next table. A server greeted the couple with a box, and shortly after, they lit up like they’d just won the lottery. What did he just give them and how could I get one?
Unlike the original Chinatown space, there is ample indoor and outdoor seating at the Pasadena restaurant. You order at the counter and grab a seat. Like its predecessor, there is a line perpetually wrapped around the side of the building.
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A few minutes after my chicken wings arrived, I received my own surprise box. Inside were four perfectly brown waffle quarters showered in powdered sugar with a glob of butter slowly melting into the tiny squares. On the side was a cup of maple syrup. The restaurant was testing and handing out free samples of its latest waffle recipe, gearing up for the return of one of its most popular items.
Howlin’ Ray’s is known for its Nashville-style hot chicken. Next to Kim Prince’s Hotville, it’s one of the best in town. But before the pandemic, the Howlin’ Ray’s kitchen crew operated a waffle machine repair shop in their Chinatown kitchen. Each weekend, hundreds of people lined up for the weekend-only special of chicken and waffles, and each weekend, one or more of the seven waffle irons would break down due to the constant crush of orders.
“It was like a Nascar pitstop,” chef Julian Sanchez said during a recent call. “You have to swap it out really quick because so many people wanted waffles and the last thing we wanted to do was run out or tell them we couldn’t make anymore.”
When the restaurant halted indoor dining due to COVID-19, the waffles stopped. With a batch of new waffle irons (that took 7 months to procure) finally in the new Pasadena kitchen, the waffles return this week.
“I grew up in South Central L.A., so I’m used to chicken and waffles at places like Roscoe’s and the Serving Spoon in Inglewood,” Sanchez said. “I’m glad that it’s finally coming back because that was the best part of the weekends, and the smell of the waffles and the melting butter was like being at Disneyland.”
The Howlin’ Ray’s waffles are a fine golden brown and served hot. They do not get denser or thicker as you approach the middle. The entire waffle is like the outer edge that spills out from the iron, creating a halo of crunch. Like a crisp, fragile cookie that easily shatters but with a rich, pronounced butter flavor and just a whisper of cinnamon. They’re light enough to order as a side with your fried chicken sandwich, to dip in the syrup or an order of Comeback sauce. If you’re eating at one of the tables outside and a gust of wind blows through, hold on to your waffles.
The waffles are available with chicken, as a side or as an off-menu (if you know you know) sandwich called the JoJo that incorporates a boneless breast and a slice of cheese between two waffles dressed with butter, sugar and maple syrup. Sanchez says the goal is to bring the waffles back on weekends and maybe eventually serve them daily.
Restaurants featured in this article
Howlin’ Ray’s Pasadena, 800 S. Arroyo Pkwy, Pasadena, (213) 935-8399, howlinrays.com
Hot food bar inside the Asia Supermarket, 910 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 281-9772
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