If San Gabriel and Monterey Park are the more established centers of Chinese-American culture in Los Angeles, Rowland Heights, to use a strained analogy, can feel like the Wild West. Many popular restaurants in San Gabriel have even grander branches located here -- New Capital Seafood, for example -- and fans of divey Taiwanese breakfast have watched the Yi Mei-Ye May restaurant dialectic bounce back and forth between Atlantic Boulevard and Colima Road for the better part of a decade. It's a place of constant flux, essentially, a place where chef changes, remodels, openings and closings seem to happen on a near daily basis.
This brings us to Chuan Ma Noodle House, a restaurant in the Hong Kong Plaza that specializes in a specific style of super-spicy Sichuan snacks. On appearances alone, Chuan Ma resembles one of the 1,000 teahouse/snack shops in town, with signs advertising boba milk tea, sour-salty lemonade drinks and plastic bowls of shaved ice with names oddly derived from Disney characters.
But if you've ever been to the popular Sichuan restaurant No. 1 Noodle House, located just two blocks west in an adjacent plaza, a place best known for its dan dan mian, cold noodles slathered with sesame paste and a wallop of ground chile paste, you'd soon realize that the menu not only resembles the one at No. 1 Noodle House but is, in fact, practically identical. This peculiar development has not gone unnoticed -- especially among some of L.A.'s Taiwanese-American food bloggers and Tony Chen of SinoSoul.
Sometime in the last year, the proprietress of No. 1 Noodle House decamped and started this new, small space along with her children, selling the original location to new owners. Lovers of spicy food should rejoice at the news, though; the Chuan mother's cooking has become even more potent and captivating in this sleeker but smaller location.
After your barley milk tea arrives (you'll need its throat-soothing powers), you'll receive a small bowl of crunchy pickled cabbage and another of what tastes like honey-roasted peanuts covered in dried chile. The sting of chile, humming gradually underneath the sweet and salty nuts, sets the tone for the meal ahead -- you don't so much savor the food here as survive it.
There are fried pork chitterlings flavored with whole chiles, fat juicy wontons bobbing in a hellfire sauce of chile oil, spicy Chinese sausages diced onto a pseudo-charcuterie plate and bowls of vinegar-doused wood ear mushrooms spiked, of course, with more chile. The hot pots are pretty dumbfounding, too, featuring everything from fish to Chinese yam to frogs legs simmering in a brick-colored soup base. Don't adjust your computer screen; almost everything here has some sort of reddish hue.
Most customers come for the noodles, long strands boasting that bouncy tensile quality known as "QQ." There are thick, wobbly, knife-cut noodles and thin, clear, vermicelli noodles, as well as the standard spaghetti-style, wheat-based kind. You can have them in a sour and spicy broth, or fortified with beef rib, or served "dry style" topped with a heap of chile-imbued ground meat.
The most bewitching combination, though, especially when the blacktop outside is hot enough to melt flip-flops, is the bowl of liang fen, fat jellied noodles nearly transparent in color and made from mung bean starch. The ultra-slippery noodles soak in a kind of vinaigrette made from sesame, black vinegar and chile paste, and are chilled just enough to provide refreshment along with that searing kick. Even in triple-digit heat, you've got to get your daily allotment of chile in somehow.