JYTH Restaurant has long been a favorite among seekers of handmade noodles in Los Angeles. It's one of the few restaurants in Los Angeles that makes Shanxi knife-shaved noodles (dao xiao mian 刀削面), and chef Shi Peng does it with a thin metal blade he made himself.
The restaurant has been part of the Los Angeles noodle scene for more than 20 years,
but its rise to fame was escalated by a Weekly feature back in 2009.
Shi picked up the craft in the States while apprenticing under the original owner of JYTH's predecessor, Shanxi Dao Xiao Mian.
Squid Ink sat down with Shi and manager Phillip Fu to talk about noodle-making and their business three years after its rise in fame. We even got video of Shi knife-shaving the ball of dough. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Where did you learn how to make knife-shaved noodles?
Shi Peng: In America. I was a chef in China doing Western cuisine, but I learned how to make knife-shaved noodles from the previous owner at Shaanxi Daoxiao Mian, our predecessor. I've been making dao xiao mian for 25 years now. Our owner was one of the first people to make dao xiao mian in Los Angeles. He was a university professor. Then I was promoted after our boss retired. Our current menu has more menu items than our menu before. Before, our stuff was pretty plain. We really only had scallion pancakes (cong you bin 葱油饼), green chive pancake (jiu cai he zi 韭菜盒子） and dao xiao mian.
SI: What does JTYH mean?
Phillip Fu: JTYH is the name of this plaza. Our name, if you look closely at the sign, is Heavy Noodle II. Our Chinese name is still Shanxi Dao Xiao Mian. The name Heavy Noodle came about because of L.A. Weekly. Jonathan Gold called us Heavy Noodling in an article. We're the second generation of Shanxi Dao Xiao Mian. Twenty years old we were in Alhambra, then Monterey Park for 10 years. Then, when our owner retired, we moved here.
SI: Is there a difference between your old location and your current one?
PF: When we moved to this location, although our space did not increase, our brand and menu selections really improved. We began to pay more attention to the noodle quality. Honestly, the dao xiao mian before wasn't that great, so we changed it. Our brand really got better over time. Gold was also a heavy influence on our success. He came in half a year into our opening at this location. We had no idea who he was. Now we have a lot of Westerners who walk in with a newspaper and order based on the article. They tend come in on weekends because that's the only time they can get past the traffic.
SP: Yeah. Before our customer base was mostly Taiwanese. Taiwanese people really enjoy beef noodle soup.
SI: Give us a brief rundown on the history of Shanxi dao xiao mian.
PF: I actually looked this up online a while back. The Mongolians had just conquered China, and in order to prevent any further uprisings they confiscated everyone's weapons, including their cutlery. The conquerors only allowed one kitchen knife per neighborhood, so people would have to take turns using the knife. One day the knife got stolen and a man resorted to using a thin sheet of metal that he had picked up on the street. So he took it home, and started slicing dough with it. He realized it wasn't bad, spread the word, and that's how dao xiao mian originated. It's very simple. It's not machine-heavy. The dao is just a long and thin metal piece. There's a lot of versatility to the blade. You can cut the noodles really long, short, fat or skinny.
SI: What about the cooking process? What sets your cooking methods apart from everyone else?
SP: We use plain flour and don't add anything else. We use a machine to knead the flour and then we cut the dough. Cutting the dough requires quite a bit of technique (技术 ji shu) -- you can't cut it too thin or too thick. The consistency has to be just right and give a little bit of resistance. If you cut it too thin, it'll be too soft. It won't have the right consistency. After that you just need a big flame and a boiling point of water. The technique lies in how the dough is cut and how it sets.
PF: The "Q" (al dente in Chinese) factor depends on skill. You need practice.
Turn the page for more of the interview, and the video...
SI: What goes into a good bowl of noodles?
SP: In my opinion there are three components. First is the noodles. Second is the soup base. And third -- the ingredients, like the lamb or beef. We buy the prime cuts of meat from the market. We'll get the pig head, pig bones, cow tendon and cow bone and stew them for a while to get the flavor and a certain type of consistency for the broth. We don't use MSG at all. The cooking time is also important.
SI: Since you've made the headlines, there's been a diversity of customers that pass through your doors. What does each demographic tend to prefer?
PF: Taiwan people like beef noodle soup. Foreigners (lao wai 老外) get stuff they understand. They usually just order what's in the articles. They don't really explore the menu.
SP: Foreigners prefer moo shu pork, items with egg, minced pork, chow mein and of course, soup noodles. They also really like the steamed buns (bao zi 包子).
SI: What are some underestimated dishes that you feel deserve more orders?
PF: Our lamb ribs (羊排) and the pan-fried buns (shen jian bao 生煎包) are signature dishes of ours that people tend to overlook. Our buns take a while to make and, unlike other places, they're bigger and we give customers more per order. Other places will give you eight. We have 10 buns in one order.
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Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Clarissa Wei blogs about Chinese food and tweets @dearclarissa.