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You'd Better Like Lamb 

Omar's Xinjiang Halal Restaurant is far from the usual Chinese

Thursday, Dec 2 2010
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "You'd Better Like Lamb: Omar’s Xinjiang Halal Restaurant."

The first thing you should know about Omar's Xinjiang Halal Restaurant is that it's pretty far removed from what you might think of as a Chinese restaurant, from the gleaming samovars used to serve the tea to the tapestry of Mecca hanging on the wall. Half the people around you will be eating with their hands instead of with chopsticks, and the name of a dish called "finger lamb" has less to do with the cut involved — boiled mutton shoulder with carrots — than with the part of your own anatomy you are expected to use to eat it. The restaurant's dry, musky scent — cumin, burnt chiles, charred meat — is as different from the usual sweet aroma of soy sauce and fried garlic as night is from day.

"I'm sorry," says Mrs. Omar when you walk through the door. "At this restaurant there is only lamb."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Hand-pulled noodles with beef and vegetables

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Xinjiang cooking has become almost mainstream in Los Angeles, at least the most common form of it: grilled lamb kebabs served, by the piece or by the dozen, on superheated steel skewers that could brand the careless for life. One hears of unrest in the Xinjiang area of far western China, which is much closer to Turkey than it is to Beijing, and of its flowing style of dance, but it is sometimes hard to get past the tangible sensation of molten mutton fat, of cumin, of ground chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, available, unlike news of the region, at restaurants all over town. We have long had restaurants devoted to the food of China's far west. I remember a plate of dried mutton I brought back from San Gabriel for my then-colleague Charles Perry, an authority on Central Asian food, who took but a single bite of the dish. "Undeniably authentic," he said, spitting it into a nearby trash can.

But there has never been a local restaurant quite like Omar's, a few tables squeezed into what used to be the Taiwanese noodle joint MaMa's. It specializes in Islamic Uyghur cooking, a cuisine that more closely resembles the cooking of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan than it does anything you might think of as Chinese — Central Asian cooking approached from the East rather than the West. When you eat Mrs. Omar's Uyghur cooking, you begin to understand the interconnected nature of the world.

I have never before been in a restaurant that serves its homemade drinking yogurt only when the weather is warm enough to ferment outside. It's some of the best yogurt I've ever tasted — I'm waiting for Indian summer.

Omar's has a large menu, with all manner of food prepared in many different ways. You will not be tasting most of it — as in Xinjiang itself, I suspect, most of the food is only theoretically available, and you will be pointed instead to the half-dozen Uyghur dishes, which are pretty much what you want to be eating here anyway.

There are those mutton kebabs, of course, four to an order, which you probably should get with a plate of garlicky cucumbers, or perhaps a vegetable salad, the juicy mess of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers common all over the Middle East. You can sometimes get grilled lamb chops too, crisp and supremely fatty, dusted with a pleasantly choking amount of cumin and chile.

The "meat-loaf sandwich" turns out to be the Uyghur equivalent of a sambusek: a flat, fried pastry, big as a phonograph record, stuffed with minced lamb and carrots. The trick, as with a pizza, is to eat it before it becomes soggy. I really liked the Xinjiang zhufan, a cumin-saturated rice dish stunningly similar to an Uzbek plov, topped with bits of lamb and sweetened with shrunken, caramelized slivers of long-cooked carrots.

You will inevitably get the noodles, beaten and pulled to order in a kitchen annex just off the dining room: long, thick ropes of noodles the size of telephone cords, cratered and irregular, and so chewy that you will be unable to get them onto your plate without the help of scissors to cut them to manageable length. You will be brought the dish of noodles, and then a bowl of lamb stir-fried with vegetables to pour over them. The stir-fry is OK. The noodles are terrific.

Is there only lamb? Usually. But you may luck into a night when Big Plate Chicken is on hand, what seems like a whole bird — chopped into mysterious pieces, grilled and simmered with vegetables and a big handful of numbing Sichuan peppercorns. For an extra four bucks, you can get Big Plate Chicken with handmade noodles as thick as leather straps, and you should; the noodles, which absorb the salty, spicy sauce, will disappear long before you get through the chicken, and probably can be used as emergency restraints if something untoward should happen outside. (The dish is pretty close to what's called "Uyghur noodles" at Malan in Hacienda Heights.)

Dreams of fragrant, sweet masala tea may impel you to order creamy milk tea after dinner, but what you'll get is a big, communal pasta bowl of tea, served with soup spoons and as salty as the ocean. If you are expecting something like masala tea or sugary Hong Kong milk tea, you may well spray the stuff out of your nose. Approach it as a kind of tea-flavored soup: You may find it not just tolerable but actually delicious.

Omar's Xinjiang Restaurant: 1718 New Ave., San Gabriel. (626) 570-9778. Open Wed.-Mon. for lunch and dinner. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Kebabs, $3.99-$6.99; large dishes, $7.99-$14.99. Recommended dishes: lamb kebabs, hand-pulled noodles, meat-loaf sandwich, Big Plate Chicken.

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