Bamboodles: Packing a Rod 

Master Kenny Chen practices the ancient Chinese art of bamboo-stick noodles

Wednesday, Feb 25 2009

View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Packing a Rod" slideshow. 


You may have huddled around the display kitchen at Din Tai Fung to check out dumplings in the making, or watched the noodle fabrication at the old Chinatown Mandarin Deli. The Latino guys throwing skeins of dough at the Chinese noodle shop Malan are really something to see. But the floorshow at the new Cantonese noodlery Bamboodles is entertainment of a different caliber: a glassed-in booth, a cloud of flour and a slight Chinese man, muscled under his loose-fitting shirt, bouncing on a thick, hollow length of bamboo that juts from his crotch like a monstrous phallus, working a pillow of dough wedged beneath the cylinder somewhere near its opposite end. Chef Kenny Chen, referred to by every Bamboodles employee simply as “The Master,” is at work.

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN - The Master's balls

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The Master bounces to the left, then double steps quickly to his right, dancing, flamingo-hopping on one leg, compressing the dough, developing the flour’s protein content, with an intensity that suggests he is demonstrating a new piece of Pilates equipment rather than just making lunch. When the pillow is flat and supple, he hops off, refolds the dough, and climbs onto his pole for another round. At some point, The Master will take the dough into the rear kitchen to be squeezed into a long, thin sheet of pasta, and at another juncture he will dust the sheet with flour while wrapping it around a length of cloth-covered bamboo, retightening it into something resembling a Torah scroll. Another machine slices the dough into thin, square noodles about the length of Yao Ming, which The Master cuts into wriggling fist-size bundles that project the eerie illusion of life. It’s an impressive ritual, even if you do fear for The Master’s reproductive health.

Bamboodles, the first American outlet of a small chain originating in Guangdong Xinhui, is one of the new breed of noodle shops in the San Gabriel Valley, sleek and architected rather than slapped together in the closest restaurant-supply store, nicely air-conditioned, more or less English-speaking, and decorated with old blown-up black-and-white photos of practitioners of the ancient Cantonese art of bamboo-stick noodles. In the Hong Kong fashion, beverages include milk tea, milk coffee and tea and coffee mixed. There are inexpensive little appetizers of celery with boiled peanuts; seaweed mingled with shreds of raw potato; and simmered bean sprouts tossed with pressed tofu. As at any respectable Hong Kong–style café, the art-directed menu is illustrated with photographs, and the specialties are laid out in a bewildering number of combinations and configurations, tiny print indicating which dishes are made in limited portions, and a loving description of a dish of abalone with mushroom lo mein that seems to be as hard to luck into as a winning lottery ticket. (I’ve never managed to taste the dish, and I’ve asked every time I’ve been in.)

You will see on quite a few tables lengths of bamboo filled with steamed rice and a judicious scattering of spicy stewed spareribs or sliced Chinese sausage with preserved pork belly. A couple of dollars gets you a plate of carefully steamed vegetables, perhaps Chinese broccoli cut into almost surgically even lengths, served with a little dish of oyster sauce. Bamboodles has a minor sideline in dumplings, made with skins flattened to gossamer thinness by The Master, and they tend to be quite good, bite-size juice bombs bursting with pork and flavor — I especially like the ones with pork and minced celery, although the delicately crunchy pot stickers have their fans.

But you’ve come for the noodles. And although it would be delightful to report that The Master’s sweat results in noodles whose firmness and bite eclipse every bowl of lo mein you’ve ever encountered, and that 2,000 years of Chinese history comes through in every bite, this isn’t quite the case. There are a lot of good noodles in this neighborhood, and while Bamboodles’ are up there with the best, they may not be quite life-changing, the bounce, the wheatiness — especially of the noodles served cold — are actually a bit less profound than they tend to be in good northern noodles hand-thrown in the more conventional way.

Still, the spicy-beef noodles, a Chinese comfort food served in a hundred local restaurants, are pretty extraordinary here, made with a strong beef broth, flavored with star anise, ginger and just enough chile to bite, and full of fat beef cooked down until its texture is more cloudlike rumor than flesh, and the mild wonton noodles, served in a clean master broth, are quite good.

The noodles tinted black with sesame are flavorless and a little claylike in consistency, but the forest-green spinach noodles are wonderful — I loved them served as lo mein, garnished with a half-dozen garlicky shell-on shrimp. The restaurant’s specialty is probably the noodles served in a strong broth with slices of fat pork that have been braised in green tea, like a great Cantonese equivalent of the Japanese tonkotsu ramen that was probably inspired by the Cantonese dish to begin with — pork noodles as seen in a hall of mirrors. Epiphany or not, the green-tea slice-pork noodles make one hell of a lunch.

Bamboodles; open Thurs.-Tues., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout; raw noodle takeout late afternoons. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, $13-$20. Recommended dishes: Green-tea slice-pork noodles; spinach lo mein with garlic shell-on shrimp; celery dumplings. 535 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 281-1226 or www.bamboodlesrestaurant.com.

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