Silk Road Garden opened last year in a busy shopping center populated with Chinese restaurants. If you're keen on assertively seasoned hand-pulled noodles with distinct Chinese flavors, you won't find it here. The aromas of pork, caramelized soy sauce, smoky ginger and garlic, oil and spices heated beyond the flash point, and the musky charred scent of well seasoned woks are entirely absent. Instead, you have the distinct scent of grilled lamb, slow-cooked meat broths, baked dough and cumin of Central Asian cooking.
At Silk Road Garden, Uyghur and Muslim tapestries and photos of Xinjiang cultural life adorn the walls. Small shelves are lined with wooden Uyghur dolls reminiscent of Russian matryoshka.
Open less than nine months, proprietor Asker Abuduxkur is still training his staff and will continue to add dishes. Ququra (alternatively spelled "chuchura"), soup made with thumb sized dumplings, isn't available yet, though it's on the menu. But manta, ququra's fist sized cousin, bursting with juicy minced lamb and onions or pumpkin, are available.
If you're familiar with Uyghur dishes, you won't find the names transliterated into English. The English side of the menu is mostly descriptive, in a literal sense. For example, "meat and vegetables stuffed in homemade pastry" is actually göx nan or meat stuffed naan bread. The same dish is called "meatloaf sandwich" at Omar's Xinjiang Halal in San Gabriel City.
Uyghurs eat läghmän (hand-pulled noodles) daily, almost always for lunch (naan is the starch of choice for dinner). Making fresh hand pulled noodles is a tradition found in every household. At Silk Road Garden, you will find at least three renditions of hand-pulled noodles. The regulation issue läghmän with lamb sauce is pulled thinner here than at Omar's, though no less springy and chewy. The lamb sauce is dappled with slices of meaty pine mushrooms, torn caps of wood ear mushrooms, smashed tomatoes and bits of fresh ginger, all strewn with red and green bell peppers and smothered in a slippery red sauce.
Erjezi or ding ding saomian are läghmän cut into small pieces and served with a stir fried sauce of vegetables and meat. Big plate chicken with flat ribbon noodles -- a fairly recent Uyghur restaurant invention catering to Chinese tastes -- is available in three portion sizes with flat ribbon noodles.
Uyghurs tend to favor fat-tailed lamb above all animal proteins. The fat of which is used in sauces and polo (rice dishes in the pulao and pilaf family -- think of it as Xinjiang butter. The lamb kebabs here are marinated in the Turkish manner, with a bit of yogurt or lemon juice, but sprinkled with a spice blend that was uniquely born of Silk Roads trade: ground cumin, sichuan chile flakes and peppercorns, black pepper, and salt. They're well seasoned and tender with bits of charred lamb fat.
Besides Uyghur dishes, Silk Road Garden serves popular Chinese Muslim foods such as yellow noodles (which are served cold) and lamb soup with vegetables.
Abuduxkur, who has only lived in America for four years, says he is still learning how to promote Uyghur cuisine to a broad American customer base. His entire kitchen staff is from Xinjiang. Abuduxkur speaks Uyghur, Mandarin, and Russian fluently and conversationally proficient English. Although he has several years of experience as a restaurateur in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, for his first restaurant venture in the States, he felt safer being near a tried and true customer base: Chinese. Muslim-style hand-pulled noodle shops are extremely popular throughout noodle-loving China, where they're also made by Hui Muslims, most notably in Lanzhou.
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Susan Ji-Young Park has written three articles for Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Follow her on Twitter at @SParkThis. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.