View more photos of these dishes in the Noodle Island slideshow.
Noodle Island is the most genteel noodle shop in the San Gabriel Valley, a mini-mall storefront transformed into a fortress of calm, made over with thickets of bamboo and washes of faded-rose paint, apothecary jars of exotic teas and plush, dark booths. The kitchen staff wear close-fitting black shirts that could pull double duty in a nightclub. The clatter of pots, the shouted orders, the crash of dirty dishes must happen somewhere in the open kitchen, only partially screened from view by towering vegetation, but the action is as imperceptible from a few feet away as the soft rock on the stereo or the music of slurped broth.
Most Hong Kong–style noodle shops, at least in California, are loud, sticky joints decorated with hanging pig carcasses and hand-scrawled wall signs announcing unfathomable daily specials; places to go for late-night platters of garlicky vegetables, boiled innards and bowls of MSG-intensive soups. Noodle Island is the other kind of noodle shop, specializing in long-simmered chicken broth, dishes with carefully cooked meats and organic mushrooms — noodle soups gentle enough to coddle a stomach against its depravities of the night before. Noodle Island lies smack in the middle of one of the most competitive Asian restaurant neighborhoods on the planet, a noodle’s length from places like Golden Deli, Luscious Dumpling, Kingburg Kitchen, Nanjing Kitchen and Shanghai Minitown, but its steamed chicken and its noodles — and its crunchy salt-and-pepper fried chicken wings — hold their own.
The first thing you should probably know about Noodle Island is that it takes a lot of care with its basic steamed chicken, a plump bird cooked just to the point beyond pinkness, as delicious and full of juice cold as it is hot, a chicken that actually tastes like chicken whether it is chunked into a broth or served cool and plain. The restaurant makes a big deal of its chicken seasoned with “ancient” ginger, a plangent, slightly pungent form of the rhizome. The shredded chicken with ancient ginger sauce, tossed with scallions, is a brilliant way to start a meal here, a light dish that somehow becomes more compelling the more you eat it — the salty, ginger-saturated slivers at the bottom are even harder to resist than the lightly dressed slabs at the top. The red-onion chicken, served in a metal-lined wooden pot, has all the funky sweetness of good Chinese home cooking.
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Noodle Island opens at 8 a.m. for breakfasts of porridge and sweet buns supplemented with ultrastrong milk tea, but if you get there much past 9, the day’s batch is likely to be exhausted. The marquee dish here is probably the restaurant’s version of “crossing the bridge” noodles from the far-southern Chinese region of Yunnan, a soothing dish of rice noodles in a rich chicken stock, to which slivered ingredients are added to poach in the heat of the broth. (The options at Noodle Island range from Certified Student rice noodles, with two additions, up to Second Runner Up rice noodles with seven, and Champion rice noodles with eight.) You tick off your preferred additions — squid balls, meatballs, vegetables, organic mushrooms, pork and sliced chicken, among other things — on a little printed checklist. But no matter which combination you order, no matter how much of the house’s chile or flavored fish sauce you sluice into the broth, it all comes out deep but a little bland, pure chicken flavor without the zinging, high-pitched MSG umami blast you may have become used to.
You will not be surprised to learn that the best noodle dish here, better even than the plain chicken noodles and the spicy glass noodles in a Malaysian-tasting curry, is the ancient ginger-chicken soup, whose pure, refreshing blast of ginger carries through to the bottom of the bowl. Noodle Island’s cooking is Hong Kong–style, but you could be forgiven for intuiting a certain Malaysian influence in the cumin-rich curry; the tart-sweet pickles that resemble Malaysian acar; and the presence of Hainan chicken rice, a south-Chinese island preparation that has become almost the signature dish of Malaysia.
Hainanese chicken rice is a simple thing in concept but difficult in execution, a sort of loose Chinese risotto sizzled in a pan and simmered in chicken stock. Locally, great chicken rice is hard to find, even at places like the Savoy and the Litz, which supposedly specialize in it. The Noodle Island version is a little unorthodox — among the customary three sauces served with it, the fiery sambal has been replaced by a sweet sauce; and the sweet Malaysian soy sauce has been replaced with what tastes like regular Chinese dark soy — but the traditional scallion-ginger oil is superb; and the execution of the rice is impeccable, glistening with chicken fat and fragrant with ginger, every grain plump and separate yet chewy; and the steamed chicken is exquisite. It might not win competitions in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, but for California, the chicken rice is great. My little boy insisted on going to Noodle Island five days in a row for chicken rice. And I let him.
Noodle Island, 800 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 284-6600. Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$18. Recommended dishes: salt-and-pepper chicken wings, ancient ginger chicken, ancient ginger-chicken noodle soup, Hainan chicken rice.