Dear Mr. Gold:
My husband and I are taking a long weekend in Los Angeles in a few days. We're going to 101 Noodle Express for the beef roll. How are their dumplings? Should we skip them there and go to Din Tai Fung instead for Xiao Long Bao?
—Carolyn, San Francisco
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101 Noodle Express definitely has great Shandong-style beef rolls — I live a 25-minute drive away, as opposed to six hours, and even I crave them sometimes. The pancake is so crisp, the special bean sauce so pungent, the simmered beef so soft, so fragrant. A single order, which is the size of two East L.A. burritos, will feed four with enough for leftovers the next day. Since 101 popularized the beef roll a few years ago, versions of the dish have spread all over the San Gabriel Valley, especially to breakfasty Taiwanese joints, and to the wonderful shaved-noodle emporium JTYH in Rosemead, but I submit that the beef roll at the original 101 Noodle Express is still the one you will dream about.
Still, although 101 is technically a dumpling specialist, you may find its interpretations — shrimp-pumpkin dumplings, pork-with-wild-vegetable dumplings, minced-sole dumplings — a bit cloddish and thick-skinned, if delicious. Delicate dumplings are apparently not what they do in Shandong. (Their chicken, on the other hand, either the wrinkly De Zhou chicken or the hacked chicken with cucumber, is great.) You will find arguments both for and against the XLB — soup dumplings — at Din Tai Fung, but as much as you may prefer the examples at J&J, Giang Nan or Shanghai Minitown, it is hard to argue against Din Tai Fung's dominance.
But why compromise? The Arcadia branch of 101 Noodle Express may be a tiny bit less sharp than the original Alhambra location, but your elbows won't stick to the table, the dining room is comfortably air-conditioned ... and Din Tai Fung is right across the street.
101 NOODLE EXPRESS: 1025 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 446-8855