If you’ve kept up with Chinese cooking in the San Gabriel Valley, you’ve likely heard of the beef roll, a steroidal composition of fried Chinese pancakes, cilantro and great fistfuls of thinly sliced meat wetted with sweet bean sauce and formed into something like a Chinese burrito the size of your arm. A specialty of Shandong, half a day’s drive north of Beijing, a proper beef roll may be big enough to feed a family of four but is also oddly delicate; it may taste of crisped pastry and clean oil but also projects the muscular minerality of the braised meat. The San Gabriel Valley boasts many good beef rolls, but the best are generally acknowledged to come from 101 Noodle Express, a cramped, narrow storefront adjoining a shuttered bowling alley, a place whose general dinginess tends to keep away a lot of the people who might enjoy the beef rolls, the pumpkin-shrimp dumplings, and the cold noodles with cucumber and bean sauce.
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In Arcadia, near the Santa Anita racetrack and a pancake’s throw from the famous dumpling parlor Din Tai Fung, there’s now a 101 Noodle Express with actual amenities — nothing that would send hearts fluttering in Beverly Hills perhaps but banquettes that look as if a fabric swatch may have been involved; tabletops that don’t adhere to your elbows; and air conditioning that won’t make you wish for the relative comfort of a sticky Taipei August. The décor runs toward large photographs of the specialties, but they’re nice photographs, glistening and detailed, and might come in handy when you’re trying to decide between the oxtail noodles, the gamy, innard-intensive lamb noodles and the reddish spicy-beef noodles. (The dish 101 Noodle is famous for among the local Chinese community, De Zhou chicken, is not pictured, which is just as well. As delicious as it is, the gray, withered bird, which resembles the Ghost of Chickens Past, is not something you want to see blown up to poster size.)
Do you want the Shandong chicken? Of course — it’s best of breed: roasted, hacked into random parts, and arranged over what seems like equal parts cucumber and garlic. Do the dumplings stand up? A pan-fried dumpling stuffed with minced pork and wild greens was so crisp and pressurized that one bite sent juices spurting halfway across the room. A meal at 101 Noodle without a beef roll is as unthinkable as a lunch at Langer’s without pastrami.
1025 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 446-8855