If you were to head eastward along the Pomona Freeway, about two dozen miles or so from downtown, eventually you would find yourself in the vast hinterlands of Rowland Heights, a strange land where the parking lots seem to stretch for miles and the shoebox-sized stores, specializing in any type of imported goods you could possibly imagine, are stacked in plaza minimalls and supermarkets like Russian dolls.
If San Gabriel and Monterey Park are the more established centers of Chinese-American culture in Los Angeles, Rowland Heights, to use a strained analogy, can feel like the Wild West. Many popular restaurants in San Gabriel have even grander branches located here -- New Capital Seafood, for example -- and fans of divey Taiwanese breakfast have watched the Yi Mei-Ye May restaurant dialectic bounce back and forth between Atlantic Boulevard and Colima Road for the better part of a decade. It's a place of constant flux, essentially, a place where chef changes, remodels, openings and closings seem to happen on a near daily basis.
This brings us to Chuan Ma Noodle House, a restaurant in the Hong Kong Plaza that specializes in a specific style of super-spicy Sichuan snacks. On appearances alone, Chuan Ma resembles one of the 1,000 teahouse/snack shops in town, with signs advertising boba milk tea, sour-salty lemonade drinks and plastic bowls of shaved ice with names oddly derived from Disney characters.
But if you've ever been to the popular Sichuan restaurant No. 1 Noodle House, located just two blocks west in an adjacent plaza, a place best known for its dan dan mian, cold noodles slathered with sesame paste and a wallop of ground chile paste, you'd soon realize that the menu not only resembles the one at No. 1 Noodle House but is, in fact, practically identical. This peculiar development has not gone unnoticed -- especially among some of L.A.'s Taiwanese-American food bloggers and Tony Chen of SinoSoul.
Sometime in the last year, the proprietress of No. 1 Noodle House decamped and started this new, small space along with her children, selling the original location to new owners. Lovers of spicy food should rejoice at the news, though; the Chuan mother's cooking has become even more potent and captivating in this sleeker but smaller location.
After your barley milk tea arrives (you'll need its throat-soothing powers), you'll receive a small bowl of crunchy pickled cabbage and another of what tastes like honey-roasted peanuts covered in dried chile. The sting of chile, humming gradually underneath the sweet and salty nuts, sets the tone for the meal ahead -- you don't so much savor the food here as survive it.
There are fried pork chitterlings flavored with whole chiles, fat juicy wontons bobbing in a hellfire sauce of chile oil, spicy Chinese sausages diced onto a pseudo-charcuterie plate and bowls of vinegar-doused wood ear mushrooms spiked, of course, with more chile. The hot pots are pretty dumbfounding, too, featuring everything from fish to Chinese yam to frogs legs simmering in a brick-colored soup base. Don't adjust your computer screen; almost everything here has some sort of reddish hue.
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Most customers come for the noodles, long strands boasting that bouncy tensile quality known as "QQ." There are thick, wobbly, knife-cut noodles and thin, clear, vermicelli noodles, as well as the standard spaghetti-style, wheat-based kind. You can have them in a sour and spicy broth, or fortified with beef rib, or served "dry style" topped with a heap of chile-imbued ground meat.
The most bewitching combination, though, especially when the blacktop outside is hot enough to melt flip-flops, is the bowl of liang fen, fat jellied noodles nearly transparent in color and made from mung bean starch. The ultra-slippery noodles soak in a kind of vinaigrette made from sesame, black vinegar and chile paste, and are chilled just enough to provide refreshment along with that searing kick. Even in triple-digit heat, you've got to get your daily allotment of chile in somehow.
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