Are you looking for dan dan mian? Because everybody knows where to get the best dan dan mian — or at least they did until Chuan Yu Noodle Town, the tiny, sticky-table dive that specialized in the stuff, abruptly shut down around the first of the year. Dan dan mian, of course, is on the menu of any restaurant with even vague pretensions toward Sichuan cuisine — a simple, intensely flavored dish of noodles heaped with dried chile, pickled mustard, fried peanuts and a bit of vinegar. There is almost always a handful of crumbled pork in the bowl — it is the soul of the dish — but most places, even the hard-core ones, will leave it out if you ask them to. Sesame paste? Probably, although it is pretty much optional.
I like dan dan mian dialed up to 11, reddened with tons of oily chile sludge and zapped with enough fresh Sichuan peppercorns to leave my gums numb for a week, but there is a lot to adore about the dish even if you don't want to emerge feeling as if you've visited Odin's dentist's office. (What does Odin know about dan dan mian? His idea of a good time probably runs more toward lutefisk and mead.)
Chuan Yu's dan dan mian was everything I wanted in a bowl of noodles. Then, unaccountably, it was gone.
There is a lot of churn among San Gabriel Valley restaurants, where veterans have watched certain locations turn over half a dozen times in the last 15 years, and have seen some restaurants pop up in such random new locations that it seems as if they are attached to vast underground rhizomes stretching 20 miles from Monterey Park to Rowland Heights.
You can find a lot of places serving dan dan mian — Chuan Yu wasn't irreplaceable, like the Islamic-Chinese cooking at the former Tung Lai Shun or the Yangzhou-style dumplings at the old Silver Wing. The loss was more of a bummer than a tragedy. Somehow we motored on.
So when my friend Louise took me a few weeks ago to Lucky Noodle King, a slightly larger sticky-table Sichuan dive next to a restaurant famous for its version of Taiwanese sweet-potato porridge, I wasn't expecting much more than a plate of dumplings and some fried chicken, maybe some spicy eggplant. I think Louise was most excited about a big poster of Chairman Mao — which had been taken down by the time I got there — and the spicy beef noodle soup. (Louise will always get the spicy beef noodle soup. It's kind of her thing.)
The Chongqing-style chicken was kind of mediocre, actually, fried at too low a heat. I liked a dish called "crazy flavor eel," small lengths of filet crisped in oil and dusted with an abundance of Sichuan pepper, although the main sensation was sweetness. There were pot stickers. There was a plate of giant, wrinkly, reconstituted fava beans sauteed with garlic and chile.
How did I end up with Yangzhou fried rice? I'm not even sure. But carrying it to the table was the woman I remembered as the proprietor of Chuan Yu; her husband peered out from the kitchen. And within a few seconds, I was looking down at a magnificent bowl of dan dan mian — the very bowl I'd been yearning for, but even better, because it was made with what seemed to be fresh noodles instead of dried, a bowl whose slippery, living texture was finally as intriguing as its 220-volt taste.
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Chuan Yu hadn't really closed — it had expanded into a larger space a couple miles to the east.
In the next several visits there were a chile-reddened "fagara pot" of fish, beef and shrimp that cried for more Sichuan pepper, and a plate of cold, poached chicken with enough Sichuan pepper to stun a water buffalo; a spicy dish of shredded pork stir-fried with batons of dried tofu, and a mild dish of garlic tops sauteed with salty, house-smoked Chinese bacon; Sichuan wonton scarlet with chile oil, and slithery, translucent Chengdu-style rice noodles with sour pickled cabbage. The twice-cooked pork — bacony slivers of chile-rubbed belly stir-fried with vegetables — was wonderful; steamed, sliced pork belly draped over a mash of rice and pungent fermented vegetables may have been even better.
And the last time I was in, the Chong-qing fried chicken was nearly as good as I'd ever had: buried in a fragrant hillock of fried dried peppers and nearly vibrating, like the magic crocodile tongues in James and the Giant Peach, with the happy tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. If I hadn't been sober at the time, I could have sworn that I saw the crunchy little nuggets wriggling deeper into their vermillion mountain of heat.
LUCKY NOODLE KING: 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel | (626) 573-5668 | Open daily 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. | Cash only | No alcohol | Difficult lot parking | Takeout | Noodles $4.50-$6.30; hot pots $9.99-$12.99; hot dishes $6.99-$12.99 | Recommended dishes: dan dan mian; cold chicken with chile; steamed, sliced pork belly; twice-cooked pork.