The Taiwanese noodle shop is a peculiar animal, devoted to noodles, thick soups and a never-ending selection of small refrigerated appetizers. There will usually be a deep-fried item or two, and a fairly comprehensive roster of boba drinks. (Boba at this point is probably as emblematic of Taiwanese cafés as egg creams are of Jewish delis; most dedicated boba shops in the San Gabriel Valley will also have a small selection of basic Taiwanese snacks.) Taiwanese noodle shops, ultracheap, ultrabasic purveyors of fast, homestyle Chinese food, have in the last year multiplied from a mall outpost or two to a major craze, with slammingly busy new restaurants across the San Gabriel Valley.
If you are used to the gentle freshness of Hong Kong Cantonese cooking or the sweet, mellow flavors of Shanghainese cuisine, the funky directness of Taiwanese cooking may come as something of a shock. Soups and stews are overlaid with a dozen different reeks, from fermented bean curd to powdered fish, hot chiles to fish sauce to boiling vinegar. Taiwanese cooking embraces extreme saltiness, excesses of white pepper, and internal organs of odd and various sorts. There is a pungent smokiness to much of the food that is reminiscent less of smoldering oak or hickory than of the blue, sharp aroma of fresh cigarette smoke. Squid, which is used in small quantities as a flavoring the way pork may be in Hong Kong–style restaurants, is boiled hard to a state well beyond chewiness, where the creature begins to reveal the sulfurous nature of its soul.
The new noodle shops are loud. The noodle shops are boisterous. The noodle shops at their best reproduce the aromatic tumult of a Taiwanese street market.
The most popular of the new Taiwanese noodle shops is probably Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle in San Gabriel Square, a branch of a popular Taipei restaurant poured into a large, bare mall space stripped to the walls and furnished with Formica-veneered picnic tables. On a weekend afternoon when the rest of the mall’s restaurants are sleepy, Ay-Chung is as mobbed as a train station at rush hour, a long line snaking out the door, hungry patrons hovering over tables that look as if they’re about to clear, customers rushing past with bowls of soup, and a crew of young men who attempt to superimpose order on chaos while bringing out errant plates of fried chicken and picking up chopstick wrappers before they hit the floor.
When you get to Ay-Chung, the protocol is to go to the back of the line, study the paper menu that will be thrust into your hands somewhere along the way, and spit out your order the second you reach the cashier — if you’re not ready, the counterperson will look at you with a mixture of pity and disgust, and the person behind you will barge right ahead. After you order you are given a ticket, and a young man in a crew shirt will try to find you a space at a table. When the food is ready, somebody will shout out your number, although you will usually have to make a couple of trips back up to the counter to gather your meal. Chopsticks and spoons are on a ledge toward the middle of the room. The super-hot house chile sauce, flavored with salt and vinegar, will be on each table.
The system, to put it mildly, is not designed with the non–Chinese speaker in mind. Ticket numbers are called out in Mandarin, and few of the women behind the counter speak enough English to elucidate the difference between fish-stew rice-noodle soup and fish-stew bean-noodle soup. Somehow, it all works out anyway.
“It’s like McDonald’s,” a counterwoman says. “Very fast, and no tip.”
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Every table at the restaurant will have an order of the “vegetable in boil,” which is usually water spinach seasoned with a little chile; a plate of fried squid; and a plate of tiny oysters fried in a pancake of slippery batter and eggs. The cold appetizers are nice: slivers of pressed tofu or sliced pig’s ears drizzled with thick soy. I like the rice plates, which include a fried chop or luscious stewed belly pork with two different kinds of Chinese pickles, half a tea-steeped egg, and a bowl of soup.
Really, though, Ay-Chung is all about the mien hsien, skeins of superfine vermicelli made of wheat, rice or bean flour, tossed into a glutinous broth flavored with soy sauce, bonito flakes, vinegar, chile and plenty of garlic, a big bowl of pungent goo that hits your palate like a slap — the noodles register more as a thickening agent than as an individual ingredient. You can get the mien hsien with slabs of fried fish, with squid, or with a mellow meat stew. The mild, sweet noodles with stewed goose are wonderful, especially if you pump it up with a spoonful of chile.
But in Taipei, the original Ay-Chung is reputed to serve only one dish. And that dish here, called house special noodles when it is called anything at all, may be the only example of its kind in Los Angeles — mien hsien spiked with little chunks of pork intestine, chewy, meaty things that pack a lot of flavor, and not necessarily the flavor that you might expect. Unless you specifically inquire, you may not realize what is actually in the house special noodles until you’ve visited the restaurant half a dozen times.
Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle, 140 W. San Gabriel Blvd., No. 208, San Gabriel, (626) 280-7099. Open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $4–$12.