Chu‘s Mandarin Cuisine
There is a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the window of Chu’s Mandarin Cuisine. Arnold has one arm around Frank Chu‘s shoulders, one beefy hand upon a pillow of dough. He has presumably just watched Mr. Chu transform a similar pillow of dough into a thick coil of hand-pulled noodles, and he is smiling. If you were about to eat a bowlful of Mr. Chu’s hand-pulled noodles, you would smile too. The noodles are long, spaghetti-shaped strands, springy things with a full, wheaty flavor and an extraordinary bite. They are perfect vehicles for Mr. Chu‘s oily black-bean sauce. They are delicious cold, piled with bits of squid and jellyfish, tossed with sesame and hot mustard. They are good served in a strong pork broth underneath a floating fried pork chop. And although Mr. Chu is skilled at preparing the noodles and dumplings and soups and cold dishes of Chinese “deli” cuisine, his restaurant’s Mandarin-style stir-fries are exemplary too. 140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 206, San Gabriel; (626) 572-6574. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m.--3 p.m., and for dinner 4:30--10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $8--$15. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. MC, V.
Mah Nogughi and Tadaghi Mayeda, Kotohira‘s udon masters, are two of the few people in the United States who still make udon by hand: thick, white and long, diminishing to squiggles at the ends, clean in flavor, with the bouncy resiliency of elastic ropes. Whether dunked in fish soup or anointed with curry; hot in a bowl or cold on a mat; or dry in a bowl and garnished with ginger, green onion and wisps of freshly shaved bonito -- however you have them, the noodles, with their sweetness set off by the clean, smoky smack of the dried bonito, are among the most delicious things you have ever eaten. 1747 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 323-3966. Open Wed.--Mon. 11:30 a.m.--9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $10--$16. Beer and sake. Lot parking. MC, V.
While there may be better noodle shops in L.A., the Mandarin Deli remains the standard by which such shops may be judged. The key to ordering noodle dishes here is to specify the handmade noodles, which means you’ll get wide, thick, square-cut noodles, something like fettuccine on steroids. They taste much better in rich pork stock or in a searing chile‘d broth than the spaghettilike noodles you’d normally get. So much for noodles. The real reason to come to Mandarin Deli just may be the fish dumplings, airy, steamy things filled with a loose, fragrant mousse of whitefish and chopped greens that could serve as a $19 specialty at any high-priced Pacific Rim restaurant in town, except these are better. 727 N. Broadway, No. 109, Chinatown; (213) 623-6054. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8--$12. Takeout. No alcohol. Validated lot parking. Cash only.
At Mishima, pencil-thick udon noodles have a solid, wheaty taste and the al dente “bite” of good Italian pasta. Soba -- thin buckwheat noodles -- are firmer, almost chewy, and have an earthy pungency of their own that sings through Mishima‘s tart, clean soy broth. (You could probably eat an entire bowl of any of them and ingest less fat than you would from eating a single French fry.) The house specialty, tanuki soba (or udon), tempers the severity of the plain noodles-and-broth with tiny Rice Krispies puffs of fried tempura batter. Curry soba (or udon) is spiked with white-meat chicken and has its broth thickened with yellow Japanese curry, the mild, turmeric-heavy kind you find mantling curry rice at Japanese lunch counters. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 473-5297. Also in L.A. and Torrance. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $15--$20. Beer and wine. Validated lot parking. AE, DC, Disc., JCB, MC, V.
Sanuki No Sato
At Sanuki No Sato, udon noodles come in all the standard flavors: topped with crisp buttons of tempura batter in a plain soy-enriched broth, or with chewy bits of rice cake, or with exquisitely slimy Japanese mountain yams. Yukinabe udon -- served in a hot, rustic-looking iron kettle and buried beneath half an inch of grated daikon, a sprinkling of grated wasabi and a ferociously spiced cod-egg sac -- is refreshing in spite of its bulk, an exotic bowl of noodles you could eat every day. At lunch, there is the sanuki bento, a multicourse banquet served in a lacquered box, a testament to Japanese engineering: I have seen buffet tables with less food on them. 18206 S. Western Ave., Gardena; (310) 324-9184. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13--$36. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, DC, JCB, MC, V.
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SHOW ME HOW
The ramen here is almost everything you dream about when you rent Tampopo from the video store: vast bowls of yardslong noodles, freckled with golden specks of toasted garlic, immersed in a superheated, vaguely southern Japan--style broth made with chicken, pork and beef. To one side comes a serrated pinwheel of fish cake; in the middle are simmered bamboo shoots. Topping everything, on a floating raft of bean sprouts, is a stack of thin pork slices, a little salty but with a clear, concentrated taste as if it had been simmered in strong stock. And maybe the perfect thing to eat with a bowl of ramen is a “ball” of sushi rice, about the size and shape of a peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in sheets of toasted seaweed and thinly filled with Japanese pickles, shaved bonito or salmon eggs. 15462 S. Western Ave. (in Tozai Plaza), Gardena; (310) 323-7882. Open daily 11:30 a.m.--4 a.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9--$20. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.
If the handmade soba is less than spectacular -- the restaurant stretches the buckwheat out with wheat flour, and the result is somewhat more resilient than soba really should be -- it is at least very good, gamy and chewy, in a powerful broth of soy and dried bonito, garnished to taste with things such as fish cake, Japanese greens, or crunchy bits of batter that have strayed away from frying shrimp in the tempura pot. Best of all is the zaru soba, plunged straight from a boiling kettle into a basin of ice water to cool, heaped on a bamboo tray, served with a sprinkling of toasted seaweed and a soy-citrus dipping sauce. When you want your noodles straight, no chaser, cold soba is the way to go. 11820 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 473-9757. Open daily for lunch noon--2:40 p.m., and dinner 6--10:30 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $12--$14; dinner for two, food only, $14--$35. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. AE, DC, MC, V.