A bowl of noodles is a hallowed thing. As much as it is sustenance, it is also a conversation between yourself and your food, a call and response between flavor and reaction. For many of us in this new wave of modern food exploration, we seek out the best while eating in packs, sharing dishes, rotating bowls and trying as best we can to consume as much variety as possible. Something is lost, though, when we eat a bowl of noodles this way. It is meant to be personal, the flavors and textures subtly changing from one minute to the next, left with your own choice of whether to add condiments, which ones and how much. A bowl of noodles, like a vision quest, is a journey that should be ventured alone, followed through from beginning to end. When you finish a great one, you should feel accomplishment, satisfaction, and ideally, a glimmer of enlightenment.
But as there are seemingly infinite noodles in our great city, we've simplified our top ten list down to something a bit more manageable: Asian and inexpensive. Why seven dollars? Because seven, it turns out, is the new five. Whether its from inflation or recession, many of our favorite cheap bowls have been kicked up a dollar or two in the past couple of years.
10. Cold Soy Noodles from Ma Dang Gook Soo
This is a special bowl of noodles, albeit one that is not, we assure you, for everyone. The thick, nutty, and sometimes painfully cold soy broth takes a moment to get used to, but those properties also keep the noodles well coated and able to maintain their bite. The flavors are subtle, and the portion is dauntingly large, but its mellowness allows you to find delicacy in ingredients which would usually be overwhelmed by most other foodstuffs. If desired, you can also sprinkle some salt to bring those nuances to the front. 869 S. Western Ave., Koreatown, (213) 487-6008.
9. Lamb Noodle Soup from JTYH
These knife cut noodles are rustic, tender and comforting. The slight gaminess of the lamb adds that touch of funk that makes you feel like you could be eating them in some small village in the Chinese countryside, wondering how you got to be so lucky. It is not a precise dish, but rather, a natural one, to be appreciated in much the same way you would an ugly baby with a beautiful smile. 9425 Valley Blvd., Rosemead. (626) 442-8999.
8. Tom Yum Noodle from Pa-Ord Noodle
"Thai spicy or American spicy?" she asks when you order. "Liver OK?" "Peanut OK?" Your answer to that first question will primarily indicate what kind of war you want to fight with your bowl of noodles. Thai medium, for example, is not for the weak, and you will feel it on your lips, and later, in your stomach. But the important thing with a dish like this is to strike the proper balance for yourself. The bounty of textures will range between tender, crunchy and chewy; the flavors a robust wave of spicy, sweet, salty and savory.5301 Sunset Blvd., #8, Hlywd. (323) 461-3945.
7. Dan Dan Noodles from New Chong Qing
Cold sesame noodles, in most incarnations, are at least moderately enjoyable. But the dan dan noodles at Sichuan hotpot specialist New Chong Qing are complex, comforting and deeply addictive. Spicy, nutty, bright and fresh, they have a soft but resilient texture. The portion is not large, but the price ($3.99) makes you consider a second bowl, even if you've already ordered a giant hunk of fish to go into that bubbling, spicy hotpot off to the side. 120 N. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel. (626) 309-0836.
6. Shio Ramen from Foo-Foo Tei
Ramen is perhaps the original noodle bowl that Americans fell in love with. Because of this, everyone already seems to have a favorite, and one that they think trumps all others. Some prefer thick, porky broths, others prefer a soy sauce base flooded with MSG. But then there is the shio ramen at Foo-Foo Tei, tucked away on a street in Hacienda Heights that doesn't at all seem like it should contain a restaurant. A delicate broth made from chicken, salt and kelp enhances all the ingredients contained within, but doesn't overpower. Bouncy noodles, crisp bok choy and some of the best pork chashu you'll find in the city. 15018 Clark Ave, Hacienda Heights, (626) 937-6585.
5. Zhajiang Mian from Malan Noodle
Some dishes don't translate particularly well to the non-adventurous eater. Others simply don't look the part. Zhajiang mian unfortunately does neither, which is a real shame because it has a flavor that just about anybody would fall in love with. Fermented soy bean paste fried with ground pork and served atop thick handmade noodles: it is dark, dense, and makes a squishing sound when you eat it. There are many variations around town, some Korean and some Chinese, but Malan's has a gorgeous simplicity. Salty sauce adhering to fresh, chewy noodles and garnished with something crisp and green. 2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., #B Hacienda Heights, (626) 369-5602.
4. Bun Thit Nuong with Egg Roll from Golden Deli
Left alone, the cold rice vermicelli served alongside the subtly fishy, carrot-garnished sauce, tastes like a light, charming spa food. But then you add in charbroiled pork and crunchy, perfectly fried spring rolls, and you'll wonder why anything else even bothers to exist in the universe. It is pork fat, supported by deep fried pork, cared for by delicate noodles -- like a rock star who finally found that perfect companion, able to create, but also managing to avoiding total self-destruction. 815 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. (626) 308-0803.
3. Boat Noodles from Sapp Coffee Shop
Is there is a better thing to eat on New Year's morning -- your stomach a hateful, noxious cauldron of excess and despair -- than a bowl of Sapp's boat noodles? For those afeared of things like pig blood, beef tendon, tripe and liver, it is possible this bowl is not for you. Or, you could do the honorable thing, and accept your destiny, allowing those ingredients to seep their splendor into the thick, complex broth, then drink from it, and let it transform your body into something far greater than it was before. 5183 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 665-1035.
2. Mentai Oroshi from Ichimiann
Sapp's boat noodles are raucous, loud and soulful. The soba at Ichimiann are not. They are meditative, cultivated and precise. The noodles are handmade each morning, and have a bite to them that you won't find most anywhere else. Their udon are actually a delight as well, but the best dish on the menu may be the mentai oroshi, served cold with thin soba. The concentrated broth, the dollop of marinated roe, dried seaweed and fresh aromatics, all work to highlight the noodles themselves, enhancing them while also giving them room to shine. 1618 Cravens Ave., Torrance, (310) 328-1323.
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1. Dac Biet Pho Bac from Pho Minh
Is it possible that, for the best bowl of noodles in the city, the noodles are not even the star? If you've been eating at most other pho shops in Los Angeles, Pho Minh's can seem a bit bland by comparison. But don't be fooled. There is no MSG, and the broth is developed with a slow, careful simmer, infused with Vietnamese cinnamon and finished with fresh ginger. The meat is tender, changing with the heat of the broth as the minutes tick away. The noodles are important of course; they are what make it a meal rather than just a bowl of liquid. But oh, what a liquid it is. 9646 Garvey Ave. South El Monte, (626) 448-8807.