Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 3), we'll be bringing you periodic lists of some of the best things we've found to eat and drink around town. Ice cream sandwiches and bowls of tsukemen, fish tacos and dan dan mian, cups of boba and glasses of booze. Read on.
It may be placed in the snack category, but dan dan noodles, however small the portion, require a fair amount of commitment, given how many pungent ingredients a bowl can contain -- from dried red chiles to the alarmingly copious pour of chili oil. Even the garnishes, crushed peanuts, minced garlic or sautéed ground pork, come packing with flavor. It's not really the kind of meal meant to be eaten in polite company -- not that some of the better meals are enjoyed otherwise. An order made is a gauntlet thrown.
Noodles made in the dan dan style tend to be cooked on the softer side, unlike a knife-cut or hand-pulled noodle. Whereas thin noodles and the presence of chiles are requisite, the average bowl may not include peanut or sesame sauce, a sticking point that more than one Sichuan native will emphasize. You can expect most bowls of dan dan noodles in the San Gabriel Valley to be cooked to order -- anything less than that would be hard to accept, even as traditional notions of hot food may have shifted.
For our search, we looked from west to east in SGV, simply because of the demographics -- more Chinese folks have settled in the area than in other parts of Los Angeles. As it would turn out, we found no less than three great bowls of dan dan noodles within close proximity of one another in Rowland Heights. It's good for locals and even more so for those who live farther away, as another bowl can found just around the corner, if one place is closed -- or if you're still hungry.
4. Chuan Ma
Chuan Ma is run more like xiaochi (loosely translated as snack) shop than a noodle house. A range of iced teas, milk optional, offered alongside beloved Sichuan fare speaks to the kind of well-meaning attitude we might associate with, well, a mama interested in feeding you your favorites. Lined up on one wall, there's a gallery of small bilingual posters, each presenting a menu item complete with food photo. There's the noodle soup with Szechwan-style beef ribs and Szechwan-style cold noodles. Next to the array, there are about seven small signs in Chinese, untranslated and indicating house specialities like marinated duck head and water-boiled fish. If any doubt remained of Chuan Ma's Sichuan roots, there's the grey plastic bin filled with chopped dried chiles you might find on your way to the unisex restroom. Dan dan noodles are available in small or large sizes. You'll get to customize your order even further, as you'll be asked how spicy you'd like them. Each bowl of noodles is blanketed with peanut sauce before a mix of chiles, ground pork, crushed peanuts, chopped scallions and a few slivers of pickled mustards are added on top. If you dialed up the spice on your order, you may want some iced milk wintermelon tea for a respite in between bites. 18438 Colima Rd., Ste. 31, Rowland Heights; (626) 888-6318.
There are no outward indicators, save for its name, to prepare you for a near 360-degree glossy wallpapered mural composed of a hodgepodge of green scenery from jungle to Northern California sequioa. The ambiance nonetheless recalls a wayfarer's station near the bottom of Mount Ermei, a setting in which you'd imagine sipping tea next to allies and foes if you're a wuxia hero or heroine. Enough Sichuan dialect is spoken here to complete the impression. You'll be inspired to look into the buffet case of cold appetizers, placed a little disjointedly to the left of the entrance, for some accompaniment while you wait for hot food. Neither peanut nor sesame sauce is used in dan dan noodles here. It's characteristic of the style found in Chengdu, you'll be informed; the addition of a sauce, either peanut or sesame, usually typifies the approach of the Taiwanese waisheng, post-1949 emigres to the island. Any nuttiness you may taste comes from the chile seeds, already muted in heat after a long spell of air-drying in massive batches. Shufeng Garden serves its dan dan noodles as if you're a houseguest, specifically a young houseguest. The boiled bok choy hearts scattered on top is a trick from a Chinese parent's playbook to make you eat your greens. Despite swimming in red chili oil, the heat is mild and against the norm, the noodles hold up well -- maybe even better -- when they get cold. 18459 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights; (626) 839-7589.
A quick glance around Lucky Noodle King, the small joint inside an older L-shaped strip mall on Valley Blvd., is telling. Even without much reference by label, you'll know this is a Sichuan restaurant. If you visit around the early afternoon, you might find a cook at a table near the kitchen, slowly picking through a large plastic bag full of red chile peppers. There is a line of menu pictorials across the top of the wall. Then there's the fragrance of peppercorns. Lucky Noodle King's dan dan noodles will arrive liberally covered with a ground pork sauce, not unlike how a Bolognese sauce might top a bowl of spaghetti. A healthy scoop of minced garlic and a smattering of crushed peanuts lie just underneath the sauce, followed by noodles. More so with this version of dan dan noodles than others, it'll serve you well to be patient and mix noodles with sauce evenly. 534 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 573-5668.