View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Dan dan mian at Chuan Yu Noodle Town: Controversial Sichuan Street Food.”
Dan dan mian may be one of the most controversial entries in the Chinese culinary canon, a simple preparation, the classic Sichuan street food, whose intricacies can tear families apart and bring close friends to blows. Subverted, it becomes something like the sesame noodles beloved by almost everybody who grew up on Chinese takeout in New York. In its purest form, perhaps in the Sichuan city Chengdu, it is spartan: dry noodles tossed with dried chile, the pickled mustard leaves called ya cai, a spoonful or two of ground pork and a bit of vinegar. Some families add sesame paste; others consider that an abomination. Some restaurants will serve it mild upon request; others find it vulgar unless sluiced with sludgy chile oil and plenty of tingly Sichuan pepper. Light soy, dark soy, or both? Lard or peanut oil? Wine or no wine? Slightly wet or totally dry? As with cassoulet, fried chicken and barbecued spareribs, some questions will never be resolved.
Pretty much any non-Cantonese restaurant in town will have a version of dan dan mian, even if it doesn't show up on the menu, and it is as ubiquitous in Taiwanese cafés as it is in the usual Sichuan joints. But if there is a place in the San Gabriel Valley that could be said to be a dan dan mian specialist, it is probably Chuan Yu Noodle Town, a year-old Sichuan noodle shop, hidden on a block also home to the original location of the taquito drive-through Pepe's. When you walk into the storefront and settle at one of the five tables, dan dan mian are the only words the proprietor-slash-waitress is really prepared to hear. And you will be happy with your bowl, bright red, mined with Sichuan peppercorns, ya cai slippery, fried peanuts extra crunchy, noodles dense but not unpleasantly so, sesame paste sparingly applied.
You can order other things at Chuan Yu, dutiful versions of kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork, of course, as well as ma po tofu, and a nice if desultory take on the classic water-boiled fish. You're probably better off with the plain pressed tofu cut into slender ribbons and dressed with a splash of chile oil, or a plate of that salty, tart Sichuan pickled mustard green. You wouldn't be wrong to order cold, hacked chicken in chile oil, or a plate of “crossing the bridge” dumplings, floating in a bland chicken broth that is meant to be enhanced with a slug of the hot, vinegary chile sauce served in a little bowl alongside. “Chongqing spicy and sour stick” is a fascinating dish — lengthy oblongs of fragile, translucent jelly with more chile and vinegar that melt away on your tongue.
Yibin “burn” noodles is a southern Sichuan dish I've read about but never seen before, gritty, spicy and wonderful; dry noodles with chopped nuts, dried chiles and another dose of chile oil. Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Sichuan Cookery, suggests that the dish may have gotten its name because the oil-soaked noodles resemble wicks from oil lamps.
Chuan Yu Noodle Town, like a lot of restaurants of its type, isn't quite set up for non-Chinese customers. The food photographs on the walls are labeled in Chinese, the newspaper reviews on the tables are from the China Daily, and the waitress, although she is extremely nice, seems to have an English vocabulary of about a dozen phrases, none of which will be sufficient to describe the Yibin burn noodles. Many of the customers will be in and out of the restaurant before you have settled on the Chongqing spicy and sour stick instead of the Chongqing sour and spicy yam stick — this is a Sichuanese snack shop, almost the equivalent of an In-N-Out Burger without the drive-through lanes. You could order almost everything on the menu (and I have) and feed 10 people for about 60 bucks.
The one thing you probably shouldn't leave without trying is an unpromising-looking dish of pork belly steamed with ground sticky rice, which comes to the table resembling an upended bowl of oatmeal frosted with unsmoked bacon — it may be the sole unspicy thing in the restaurant. If you try to ignore its presence on the menu, where a photograph of it looks a little like a mountainside paved with eel, the waitress may stand by the table, stabbing the menu with her forefinger until you give in.
She is right to insist, I think. There is a world of flavor within that deflated hemisphere, thick fingers of fat pork belly cooked nearly to gooeyness, a layer of ground rice transformed into strata of meaty, elastic dough, and underneath everything chunks of sweet, meltingly soft Chinese pumpkin that have absorbed all the flavors of the steam.
I don't want to oversell the dish — you've probably had similar things at the half-dozen Hunan restaurants that have popped up in the neighborhood in the last few years — but there is a lovely symmetry to the textures that is worth exploring. I ended up being talked into it four out of the first five times I visited Chuan Yu Noodle Town, the exception being a hot afternoon when I wanted to be left alone with a book, a cold Coke and a bowl of dan dan mian.
CHUAN YU NOODLE TOWN: 525 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 289-8966. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. Cold dishes, $1.95-$4.95; noodles, $4.95-$5.95; larger dishes, $6.95-$7.95. Recommended dishes: Sichuan pickles (cabbage); Chongqing spicy and sour stick; Chongqing dan dan mian; hot sauce cross bridge wonton; steamed pork belly with ground sticky rice.