Twenty-five years ago, back when most Northern-style Chinese cooking was still being prepared by Cantonese guys who couldn’t have found Tianjin on a map, the original Mandarin Deli was a revelation, a Chinatown dive that introduced Los Angeles to the wonders of chile-soaked tripe and soup dumplings, hacked chicken and hand-cut sesame noodles, pressed tofu and garlicky seaweed salad. The pot stickers were especially good — long, crisp things that came nestled together like baby puppies, bursting with the flavors of pork and hot oil. There are probably 200 restaurants in Los Angeles County now that subscribe to this formula for Shandong-style snack food by way of Taipei, but Mandarin Deli was the first, and one of the most influential Chinese restaurants in the canon of Los Angeles restaurants.
After its first run, Mandarin Deli was never quite the best noodle shop in Los Angeles, although it was certainly the one that I went to the most, and there was a long time in the early 1990s when Mandarin Deli served as my personal equivalent of the Mendoza Line: the .225 batting average that baseball fans use to separate major leaguers who are viable from those who are not. If a second-wave Chinese restaurant had at least one dish that was better than its Mandarin Deli equivalent, then it made it into the column. If not, there was no reason to make people schlep to Artesia or Rosemead when they could just cruise by the Mandarin Delis in Little Tokyo or Northridge.
Earthen Restaurant, a newish noodle shop in one of the inevitable 99 Ranch mini-malls, is even farther, way off in Hacienda Heights. Earthen is an attractive place, done up inside with flagstones and modern Chinese art like a $2 million living room in Scottsdale, and on Saturday afternoons you will see more Stanford gear on the regulars than anywhere outside Palo Alto. Though Earthen is a bit more expensive than its competitors — a bowl of noodles pushes $7, simple stir-fries average $10 — it follows the formula exactly: noodles, steamed dumplings, pot stickers, chachiang mein.
It is also wildly popular. In this neighborhood, where excellent Chinese restaurants are perhaps even more concentrated than they are in San Gabriel, Earthen is the place that always has a line: Chinese guys in really expensive tennis shoes staring longingly at the number on the crumpled Post-it note in their hand, little kids dashing into the bakery next door, teenagers wondering whether they have time to get a boba drink at Tea Station before their number comes up.
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And as you are finally led through the restaurant toward your table, past families and dating couples and dudes stoking up before the game, you may notice that every single table has ordered essentially the same dishes: scallion pancakes, cold Shandong-style chicken that sings arias in the key of raw garlic, noodles (more dutiful than delicious), and pot stickers, leavened by the occasional order of spicy pork or stir-fried ong choy. If Mandarin Deli sets the Mendoza Line for Chinese delis, Earthen is in line for the MVP — possibly for the cold platter called Three Shredded Delicacies alone: cool bits of shrimp and sea cucumber and (sorry!) fake crab tossed with enough hot mustard to dress any five sandwiches at Philippe.
The pot stickers, eight nestled ones to an order, are the quintessence of fried food, flat and slightly charred where the dumplings seared in the pan, soft and rounded underneath, wrapped around a juicy, ginger-fragrant mince of pork and scallion. The thick-walled steamed shrimp dumplings taste mostly of fresh green vegetables; steamed fish dumplings, stuffed with an herb-scented whitefish mousse, are delicate as quenelles. The house vegetable dumplings are what some delis call “leek pies,” big pan-fried turnovers filled with a mass of leeks cooked down with eggs to a soft, oozing mass. The green-onion pancakes, when they are on — occasionally they have been sodden — are crunchy and wispy as Moroccan waka, three transparent layers of dough studded with bits of scallion and laminated into a chewier substance in the middle, pancakes that sing of oil but somehow manage not to ooze even a drop: wondrous, lacy things.
If you can live with the carbon imprint, Earthen is worth the drive.
Earthen Restaurant, 1639 S. Azusa Ave., Hacienda Heights, (626) 964-1570. Lunch Wed.–Sun. 11:15 a.m.–3 p.m.; dinner Wed.–Sat. 4:30–9:15 p.m., Sun. 4:30–8:45 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $17–$27. Recommended dishes: house chicken, green-onion pancakes, pork pot stickers, fish dumplings.