The Big Pull
Photos by Anne FishbeinMalan Noodles is like a fast-food restaurant from another galaxy, a blank, gleaming space festooned with posters bearing its abstracted red-bowl logo and marked every few feet with signs reading “Warning: Hot Soup.” Thumps issue from the open kitchen, where cooks yell at each other in Spanish and Mandarin, whirl great ropes of dough over their heads like nunchucks, and slam them onto the stainless-steel tables as if they were trying to smash an enemy into pulp. A glass deli case at the front displays not apple pies and McFlurry sundaes but platters of chile tripe, pickled bamboo shoots and soy-simmered tofu with black mushrooms, cucumbers sluiced with chile and garlic, stuffed jalapeno peppers that may be the spiciest thing you will taste all year. The most common side order is not French fries but a plate of translucent mung-bean lozenges translated on the menu as “Cold Starchy.” Malan is a local outpost of the biggest homegrown fast-food chain in China, an empire of scrubbed floors, quick service and gleaming bathrooms, standardized menus and cheerful advertising designed to compete directly — in Beijing, at least — with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The restaurant is a subsidiary of China Blue Star, a petrochemical company based in the city of Lanzhou, famous both for its pollution (which is among the worst in the world) and for the excellence of its hand-pulled noodles. It’s as if Texaco had decided to open a chain of diners specializing in barbecue and chicken-fried steak, or if Shell ran a global string of herring stands. The concept of fast food is clearly different in Beijing than it is in the United States. A few seconds after you order your noodles from a checklist, a guy in the open kitchen picks up a hank of dough, bangs it against the counter a couple of times, then whips it through the air in a frenzied yet precise manner, stretching it to arm’s length and beyond, doubling and redoubling it until it almost magically falls into a skein of noodles, which he then cuts and scrapes and flings into a pot of boiling water just long enough to cook them — not al dente, exactly, but to a kind of resilient chewiness that sucks up sauce or broth like a sponge, long, irregular cylinders of pure flavor. You can get your hand-pulled noodles fine as angel’s hair or thick as telephone cords, flat or round, or even, should you request it, triangular. (“This tastes very triangly,” said a friend.) Most people order these hand-thrown noodles submerged in the allegedly Lanzhou-style beef soup, a tan broth tinged with the house’s cinnamon-intensive five-spice blend, garnished with scallions and pale Chinese leeks, and hiding a few slices of brisket. The beef-soup noodles are neither as nuanced as Vietnamese pho nor as spicy-hot as the Taiwanese beef-soup noodles you can find at Temple City’s Dai Ho, but it is a formidable bowl nonetheless, sturdy and warming, full-flavored but not overwhelming. Chachiang mien, called “noodle brown sauce” on the menu, may be familiar from its various incarnations in Chinese-Korean restaurants (or from the late Chu’s Mandarin), but Malan’s version is more delicate than the ones altered to the Korean palate, tossed with a pork sauce made salty and slightly tart with bits of fermented bean curd rather than drowned in tar-thick brown jam, lightly gingered, fragrant with onion, wholly satisfying — although if you order it with the thick noodles rather than the medium, you will inevitably flip sauce across the room. Neither the cold noodles with chicken nor any of the varieties of chow mein show off the unique qualities of the pasta particularly well. Still, one of the best dishes at Malan, translated as something like “special spicy chicken,” is an Islamic specialty from the northwestern mountains near Afghanistan, a hacked-up bird rubbed with a salty paste of fermented beans and fresh chiles, sautéed with leeks, onions and a few dozen cloves of simmered garlic, and tossed with odd, extra-wide noodles that have a disconcerting resemblance to universal fan belts. These noodles are denser than any you have encountered before, and long enough to wrap a couple of times around your waist — I would guess that a single one of these noodles are the equivalent of a box or two of spaghetti. And the serving is enormous, easily enough to feed four hungry people with leftovers for lunch the next day. Given a good recipe and a skillful guy behind the counter, this kind of hand-pulling may be the single most economical way for a restaurant to turn flour and water into profit, but there is a luxury in these noodles, the effort of hands, an element of craftsmanship, a kind of mojo. If this is what fast food is capable of, let a hundred flowers bloom. Malan Noodles, 301 N. Garfield Ave., #B, Monterey Park, (626) 572-8900. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking in rear. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$17. Recommended dishes: spicy cucumber; noodles with brown sauce; special chicken with belt noodles. Also at 2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights, (626) 369-5602.
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