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When the Bao Breaks 

Hot buns at Noodle House

Wednesday, Nov 1 2006
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The waitresses at Arcadia’s northern-Chinese Noodle House tend to be comfortably bilingual, as long as your concept of “bilingual” encompasses speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese. In Arcadia, perhaps the most traditional of the Chinese suburbs, that’s just the way they roll.

Still, if you are resolutely monolingual in English, you can just wave toward the signs advertising soy milk, pan-fried buns, onion pancake, leek pie and fluffy dough sticks — the restaurant’s specialties — painted on a narrow window sign outside. You can look at the menu. You can study the photo illustrations on the wall. Or you can wait for Linda the cook to bound out from the kitchen, paper hat perched jauntily on her head, and tell you what you are really going to eat. She uses a broad range of gestures and smiles and work-scarred fingers jabbed at the menu, if few actual English words. She is happy you are here. She wants you to eat well. She will feed you seaweed salad and sweetened iced tea flavored with dates. If you point to a menu item she disapproves of, she will gently move your gaze to something she wants you to try instead and give you the thumbs-up when you relent. She is always, always right.

If it is before noon, you will probably get soy milk, a bowl of warm, ghostly liquid dosed with probably more sugar than is good for it. Thin as supermarket 2 percent, with a chalky, beany flavor that half of Chinese cuisine may be devoted to masking, soy milk anchors a rich northern-Chinese breakfast as milky tea does an English fry-up. The automatic accompaniment is a long, twisted cruller fried to order, unless you are persuaded to get the Tianjin pancake instead — the same cruller smeared with bean sauce, sprinkled with scallions and wrapped in a thin pancake that is in turn washed with scrambled egg, like a Bombay-style frankie. A cruller burrito may seem a bit much at 7:30 in the morning, but with soy milk the pancake is exactly right. The combination of salty and sweet, crunchy and chewy, coronary-inspiring yin and artery-clearing yang is just this side of perfect. And with a Taiwanese turnip cake, a corn cake or a flaky sesame pastry stuffed with long-simmered beef, you will have discovered Arcadia’s answer to the Grand Slam breakfast. If you miss the bacon, you can try the pungent house-smoked chicken legs, which are as powerfully smoky as any double-smoked slab of Nueske’s.

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It is never too early at Noodle House for the delicious fried bao, fluffy, steamed pork buns sizzled until their bottoms crisp up like eggs fried in oil and the jellied juices of the pork heat and melt until they are pressurized enough to rocket across the table the moment that your teeth breach the substance of the dough. The buns, a lucky eight of them, are served browned-side up, arranged into a bao fairy ring connected by a gauzy scrim of batter. You detach a bun and dunk it into a bowl of spicy garlic-infused soy sauce. The sauce-saturated pastry assumes a soft, mousseline texture; the soy mingles with hot porky essence; the buns seem to hop into your mouth one after another as if propelled by an alien force.

Oddly, although the restaurant is called Noodle House, pasta may be the least of its virtues. The chefs hand-cut thick, delicious noodles, like muscular linguine, but immerse them in bland pork broth or spicy beef stew far less intense than that at the Taiwanese noodle shops in the area. The exception is the house-special crab noodles, or rather what I imagine the crab noodles might be: The one time I tried to order them, the noodles were awesome, socked with scallions and chiles, but they were cooked with shrimp instead. (I may well have agreed to the menu change in response to a flood of well-meaning Chinese words. A thumbs-up from Linda is a difficult proposition to refuse.)

There are also scallion pancakes, crunchy and oily and just undercooked in the middle to give them a sort of chewy, bagel-like density, and there are Shanghai-style fried rice cakes — chips sliced from a log of dough and stir-fried with bits of pork and vegetables. (If you want to split the difference, you can order pan-fried cake, which is slivered Chinese pancakes stir-fried with vegetables like the rice cakes.) Leek pie, which is variously called “pie w/ leeks” and “green chive pie,” is basically a thinner version of the pancake formed into a rough turnover and stuffed with soft, oniony masses of thin glass noodles, eggs and sautéed Chinese greens, a pastry that generates its own sauce. You may never go back to dim sum again.

Noodle House, 46 W. Las Tunas Dr., Arcadia, (626) 821-2088. Open Tues.–Sun. 7 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $11–$20. Recommended dishes: sweet soy milk; fried steamed buns; Tianjin pancake; chive pie; cold smoked chicken.

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