View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Tasty Noodle" slideshow.
Tasty Noodle House is the prototypical Asian restaurant stuck in a corner of the prototypical San Gabriel mall, a few glass-topped tables, a couple of flat screens tuned to the soaps, a half-dozen pretty food photographs posted in the picture window outside. Golden Deli, which is the strip-mall superstar in this part of the world, is just a couple of storefronts to the east. The other restaurants in this complex have shifted identities so many times that I can no longer remember what they were when I first started coming here — I've reviewed at least two or three restaurants in the Tasty Noodle space alone.
I started coming back to the storefront last year after reading a note on the place by the excellent Louise Yang, who blogs at nakedsushi.net. She made note of Tasty Noodle's knife-shaved noodles and delicious Tianjin buns, and I probably went back to the place five or six times for a pastry I'd never encountered anywhere else, a crisp pancake, nearly as flat as a 45 rpm phonograph record, stuffed with a juicy, garlicky filling of finely minced beef: a kind of Shandong hamburger.
But when I returned with Anne Fishbein a couple weeks ago, ready to show her the wonders of this bun, it was nowhere on the menu, which had morphed from a photocopied sheet to a beautifully printed document. The booths — had there been booths before? — were upholstered with elegant patterned fabric, and the tabletops were no longer sticky. The name of the restaurant was the same, at least in English, but the familiar dishes had been replaced by things like sea snails and panfried jellyfish head, and there was a new manifesto at the bottom of the menu that proclaimed the chef's allegiances to the virtues of slow cooking, well-sourced ingredients and dishes cooked without MSG.
What could I do? I ordered lunch. And I was blown away in a way that I haven't been in a Chinese restaurant for years, not by the chef's extravagant flavors but by his restraint.
I was put off a bit by the waitress' reluctance to bring out soy sauce and chile to go with the panfried pork bao, but the buns were perfectly fluffy and crisp, and the filling was as well-salted as good charcuterie — this was clearly less careless service than the dumpling equivalent of a sushi chef barking "no soy sauce.''
A stew of riblets, vegetables and transparent noodles brought out on a tabletop burner looked almost unbearably healthy, like something you might see on a chipper midmorning cooking show, but the tomato and pickled cabbage were cooked just through, the broth was clear and bright, and the gray bits of meat, which nine times out of 10 would have been boiled into gristle, were as tender and full of juice as good Viennese boiled beef. Dumplings stuffed with pork, shrimp and sea cucumber were almost painfully delicate; a cold dish of slivered cucumber with pork and vinegar showed a Michelin-starred chef's attention to detail.
I was back the next day for crunchy, almost ethereal slabs of sliced jellyfish head marinated in chile and black vinegar, for nearly raw strips of potato sautéed with jalapeño peppers, and for beef-stew noodles — the noodles themselves were lumpy and clearly handmade, although the stew didn't quite have the thump-in-the-chest wallop I've come to expect from that dish. There was an odd soup with ground pork, pickled cabbage and what appeared to be Chinese spaetzle. There was a near-amazing cold dish of vinegar-marinated pork and slippery, transparent noodles as thick as universal fan belts, and a really fine stir-fry of Jell-O–soft sea cucumber, jellyfish and shrimp. You probably could have shuffled the thin, crisp scallion pancakes and dealt them like a pack of cards.
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As the days passed, the chef's style came into focus. He likes the sour, delicate taste of lightly pickled napa cabbage, which makes its way into a surprising amount of the dishes; you are likely to see freeze-dried tofu, glass noodles, cloud-ear mushrooms and jellyfish almost everywhere; he loves the smoky, subtle taste of tiny Dalian dried shrimp, the squiggly texture of slow-cooked invertebrates and the sharpness of fresh oyster. There are a number of Szechuan and Shanghai-style preparations on the menu, and the quality of the organic bird almost made the "explosive'' chicken work, but the emphasis is clearly on the northern food here.
A casserole of that pickled napa with pork belly and frozen tofu turned out to be a greaseless Chinese equivalent of choucroute, deep and satisfying but not at all heavy; a plate of sea snail — conch — with jellyfish and fungus was about as good as stir-fries get, slightly smoky from the wok, lightly garlicky, cooked with the benefit of oil and soy sauce but barely touched by their presence. Hot and sour soup is magnificent — it turns out that a touch of braised sea cucumber is what the soup has been lacking all this time — and the fresh oyster soup is even better.
The cooking at Tasty Noodle House, which I know now is a refined version of the famous seafood-intensive cuisine of the northern port city Dalian, is superb. It's challenging and austere. And although the chile-heads and the noodle buffs are probably going to want to head elsewhere, I like it very much.
Tasty Noodle House: 827 W. Las Tunas Ave., San Gabriel. (626) 284-8898. Open Fri.-Wed., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Soups, $5.99; dumplings and buns, $6.99; noodles, $5.99; main courses, $5.99-$24.99. Recommended dishes: oyster soup; panfried pork buns; jellyfish head marinated in Chinese vinegar; oyster, cabbage and pickled napa dumpling; pickled napa, pork rib and vermicelli stew; sea snail panfried with jellyfish.