There are few things in life better than a bowl of authentic and properly-constructed handmade noodles. Even in the San Gabriel Valley, it's hard to find a noodle place with the real thing, made by a seasoned chef trained in China. We've encountered some: Kam Hong Garden from Shanxi, Sweethome Grill from Henan, and Shaanxi Gourmet from Shaanxi. Noodle making is a dying art form; chefs who can properly make a bowl of mian stand out.
The classification of Chinese noodles, a Northern China (bei fang 北方) specialty, gets complicated. Handmade can mean a lot of things: hand-kneaded, hand-pulled, hand-torn or knife-cut. The knife-cut variety (dao xiao mian 刀削面） originates from Shanxi, and is made by shaving off a kneaded piece of dough with a small blade. The hand-pulled version (la mian 拉面) is a Lanzhou delicacy and is crafted by repeatedly stretching the dough. Noodles need to be kneaded for long periods of time to get a chewy consistency.
Note that handmade noodles aren't just limited to Lanzhou and Shanxi. Shaanxi (a different province than Shanxi), Henan and Xinjiang have their own version of handmade noodles as well. The common denominator: They're all provinces in Northern China.
Despite the technicalities, we've scoured the city and rounded up the 10 best Chinese handmade noodle restaurants in Los Angeles. We took into account the quality of the dishes, the "Q" (al dente in Chinese) factor of the noodles and the overall atmosphere of the restaurant. Turn the page.
10. Tasty Dessert:
Sometimes known as "Benser," Tasty is a Hong Kong restaurant chain that serves up knife-cut noodles ($6.99) as a supplement to its freakishly long dessert menu. It's located in the trendy Life Plaza on Valley Boulevard, and attracts a new-wave crowd of younger Chinese immigrants. The noodle is thicker than at most dao xiao mian joints, and the chef combines the eclectic flavors of Hong Kong into his fried noodle selections. The vegetarian hand-shaved noodles, for example, are sauteed with firm tofu (dou gan 豆干), bean sprouts and red pepper -- a combination that's reminiscent of Hong Kong udon noodles. The chef comes from the Hunan province and hand-shaves the noodles himself. Cash only. 250 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-282-8263.
With three locations in Los Angeles, 101 Noodle Express is a Chinese chain restaurant known for its hand-torn noodles and beef rolls. You can't go wrong with the beef or lamb soup. 101 doesn't skimp on portion size -- each bowl comes with large chunks of meat. Try the lamb noodle soup for $8.49. Note that the restaurant did not start out specializing in hand-torn noodles: It introduced the menu item back in 2010. 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-300-8654.
At Malan, you can specify the thickness of your noodles. There are seven noodle sizes: small round, medium round, large round, small flat, medium flat, large flat and triangle. We give them points for being the most versatile. Go for the specialty, the Malan beef soup noodles ($6.95). The restaurant is actually a chain store that originated in Lanzhou in 1995. The Malan noodles themselves are a specific noodle genre invented by a man named Mao Baozi in the Qing Dynasty. The chain store currently has 439 locations worldwide. 2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights; 626-369-5602.
Turn the page for #7, etc...
China Islamic, with its mirrored walls and dark wooden chairs, serves up cuisine from Xinjiang -- a northwestern province in China known for its Muslim influences. (That's owing to the area's geographic proximity to Arab countries.) The dao xiao mian can get a bit heavy, so bring a couple of friends. Be sure to venture onto the other menu items, like the lamb hot pot and green onion lamb. As for the knife-cut noodles, the sauteed versions are a saucy mixture of the meat of your choice, plus bean sprouts and cabbage. The noodle texture is sufficiently "Q," and the restaurant is one of the few places in Los Angeles where you can see a good number of Indians, Arabs and Chinese dining under the same roof. All the meat is halal. 7727 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead; 626-288-4246.
Omar's specializes in Islamic Uighur cooking, with a heavily lamb-centric menu. (Pair the hand-pulled noodles with a lamb kebab, and you'll have a hearty meal that will have you wishing you'd worn bigger pants.) It's the texture of the noodles that keep patrons coming back. Their chewiness is a reflection of the effort the chefs put in to knead the flour and stretch it before cooking. The hand-pulled noodles go for $12.95 -- a large enough portion to comfortably feed three. 1718 New Ave., San Gabriel; 626-570-9778.
The management at Mandarin Deli comes from Northern China and makes one of the most memorable dao xiao mian in the area. The beef noodle soup ($5.95) is a combination of tender beef cubes, scallions and pickled radishes in a fragrant soup base. Mandarin Deli definitely attracts an older crowd of Chinese immigrants, but it's a no-frills, cheap restaurant managed by a sweet lady by the name of Ms. Miao and owned by a Mr. Tsang. The noodles, from $5 to $7, are on the thicker side of the knife-cut noodle spectrum. Cash only. 728 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; 626-289-2891.
Turn the page for #4, etc...
Shaanxi Gourmet is a rising star in the SGV food scene, and although the menu is completely in Chinese with absolutely no English translation, it offers one of the most eclectic Chinese menus out there. Just bring a Chinese-speaking friend. There's no Americanized Chinese fare here, and the chefs stick strictly to Xi'an (the capital of the Shaanxi province) street food. The lamb hand-torn noodles ($7.20) are thick and chewy, which is an interesting contrast to their thinner handmade, or shou gong (手工), noodles. They also have pao mo (泡馍), a Chinese version of gnocchi, made with pieces of unleavened wheat bread with slices of lamb. The chef of Shaanxi has been cooking for 22 years and hails directly from Xi'an. It's all about authenticity here. 8518 Valley Blvd., Rosemead; 626-288-9886.
JTYH, also known as Heavy Noodle II, has one of the best Shanxi dao xiao mian craftsmen in the area -- although he's not even from Shanxi. Chef Shi Peng, who hails from Tianjin, made his own blade and has been under the toque for 25 years. He picked up the craft in America under the former owner of the now defunct Shanxi Dao Xiao Mian. The standard beef noodle soup has pickled vegetables, cilantro and large cubes of meat. For a dry alternative, the three ingredient noodles contain an even mixture of seaweed, egg, carrots, cabbage and pork. "There are three things that make good dao xiao mian," Shi said. "Noodle quality, soup base and ingredients." The broth at JTYH is made with a pork and beef base. "We don't add any MSG," Shi emphasizes. 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead; 626-442-8999.
Kam Hong Garden is fronted by a Shanxi chef who pulls out all types of noodles: The menu has hand-pulled, hand-kneaded and knife-shaved varietals. But it's the texture of the noodles at Kam Hong that puts them in the forefront of the noodling scene. They're "Q" and aren't overpowered by the broth or sauces. "Everyone's methods in noodle making is different," the owner says. "But we make our own noodles." The tomato and egg version ($5.75) is a welcome addition for noodle lovers who aren't so fond of meat. You can't go wrong with Kam Hong -- there are 50 different noodle flavors on the menu. 848 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; 626-280-9318.
Turn the page for our #1 pick...
1. Sweethome Grill:
Though the establishment has been open for just three months, it's the intricacy of the broth at Sweethome Grill that caught our attention. Noodle soups can be cumbersome to eat after a while, especially since they're so heavy in carbs and loaded with spice. But somehow the people over at Sweethome make them just right. The chef, who hails from Henan, has been cooking for 20 years and is classically trained in the art of noodle making. (He immigrated to the United States in 2005; according to owner Alex Ho, all the employees are from Northern China.) Sweethome Grill's standard beef hand-pulled noodle soup ($5.59) is a complicated mix of long, chewy strands of thick noodles paired with lily (jin zhen cai 金针菜), sweet potato noodles (hong shu fen 红薯粉), cilantro and seaweed (hai dai 海带). The noodles are long and the ideal balance between soft and chewy. The broth is stewed with lamb, chicken and beef bones for 10 hours before it's served -- which gives the broth its unique flavor. 402 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 288-0099.
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Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Clarissa Wei blogs about Chinese food and tweets @dearclarissa.