If you need further proof that the Chinese restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley is reaching ever more impressive heights, say hello to the newest member of the kitchen staff at Shanxi Noodle House. It's about 3 feet tall, has one arm and knows how to wield a blade. And like most machines, it's really efficient at its job.
Some context: China’s Shanxi Province is known for its huge variety of noodles, particularly the thick, knife-shaved variety called dao xiao mian. At Shanxi Noodle House, a restaurant that opened in December inside a City of Industry strip mall, you'll find a wide range of those bouncy, starchy noodles, plus some other unique regional dishes.
The restaurant itself continues the San Gabriel Valley trend of slightly more upscale spots dedicated to specific regional fare. The restaurant has conceptual decor (designed to mimic a traditional Shanxi "cave dwelling") and a nicely uniformed wait staff. It also boasts one of the more lavish printed menus this side of Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village, where the photo-heavy menu is as thick as the September issue of Vogue. Inside, there are informative paragraphs on Shanxi provincial culture and history, describing everything from dough sculpting to "Shanxi pasta." Most impressively, there is an open kitchen that allows diners to watch the chefs – and the robot – prepare knife-shaved noodles to order.
The robot itself is imported from China, of course, where noodle-shaving robots are apparently not uncommon. When asked if the robot – decorated with a mannequin's head, a chef's hat and a rubber hand – has a name, one of the staff members laughed, remarking, "Nah, we don't name things in China."
The machine operates fairly simply. A large loaf of dough is placed on a flatboard, a button is pressed and the robotic arm spins rapidly, shaving off little strips of noodles with a sharp knife that resembles a vegetable peeler. The noodles fly upward, landing in a basket or pot of hot water where they're then collected by (human) chefs. It's not exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's a start.
But even if you've come just to get a glimpse of #NOODLEBOT, there are dishes at Shanxi Noodle House that are well worth the visit (and completely unheard of in the area). Try the Pingyao-style marinated beef, an appetizer that originated in the ancient walled city of Pingyao in central Shanxi Province but might remind you more of pickled corned beef. There's also steamed Pingyao-style "crepes" made from buckwheat flour. "Crepes" probably isn’t the best translation for the dish, which is more similar to the mung bean starch noodles popular at Sichuan-style restaurants. The pan-fried pancake made with jujube, Chinese red date, is intriguing, too.
There’s Shanxi-style orecchiette (cat’s ear or mao er duo), and, of course, there are those knife-shaved noodles that Shanxi is known for. In fact, an entire section of the menu is dedicated to Shanxi-style wheat noodles and another is dedicated to "health grains," a reference to the use of oat and buckwheat flours in the province. Steamed oat flour rolls are known as honeycomb noodles (youmian kao lao lao) for reasons that become obvious once they arrive on your table. Here they come stir-fried in a house special sauce made of tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers. If you're not into that, maybe beef soup with millet, or sea buckthorn (a tart, bright orange berry) and corn chowder?
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Another dish not often found around these parts is wotou, a hollow, cone-shaped Chinese cornbread that is served here with filet mignon (at least, when they have it in stock). Which brings us to the downside of Shanxi Noodle House. Many of the most intriguing items on that lavish menu are whited out. The staff explained that this was due to the difficulty of importing ingredients for some of the more unusual dishes – a problem they hope to remedy in the future.
Between this and being told other items are unavailable, ordering can occasionally range from frustrating to maddening. Their to-go menu, however, is far more reflective of the items they're able to deliver. For the time being, plan on a second, third or maybe even fourth choice for lunch. Then relax and watch the robot do its thing. All part of life's rich pageant, you know.
Shanxi Noodle House, 18219 Gale Ave., City of Industry; (661) 839-8806.