The beef roll — that inspired scallion pancake topped with slow-braised beef, scallions, cilantro and sometimes cucumber, then rolled up enchilada-style — works every inch of the tastebuds, mashing up layers of fatty, salty, crunchy and savory in ways that can only be rewarded by another bite. So why is it rarely spotted outside the city limits?
Served in Taiwanese and Northern Chinese restaurants across L.A., the beef roll is of unknown provenance, though some food experts believe it’s a West Coast invention. Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan, which publishes in March, theorizes that the beef roll sprung from the “canon of the typical Taiwan breakfast food.” Mornings find Taiwanese flocking to soy milk stands, which also sell breakfast items such as you tiao (crispy cruller sticks), dan bing (egg crepe), cong you bing (scallion pancakes, which can be topped with a fried egg) and shao bing (a layered flatbread, which Erway has had with marinated, finely shredded beef and green onions).
Her guess is that the Taiwanese tradition of layered, fried, savory, hand-held items has been conjoined with snacky traditions in the United States to create what L.A. knows as the beef roll. “It’s like a sandwich or burrito or fajita, so people in America really respond to it,” she says.
L.A. Chinese food journalist and San Gabriel Valley expert (and Weekly contributor) Clarissa Wei agrees. She says that what’s referred to as the Shandong-style beef roll is a version of jianbing juan, a crepe-like pancake roll that typically includes egg, green onion, carrots and cucumbers, plus salty bean paste.
The beef roll’s epicenter is 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra (with branches in Arcadia, Culver City and Irvine), where giant rolls of crispy pancake are stuffed with tender beef that mingles with a touch of ever-so-sweet sauce and fistfuls of cilantro and scallions.
Just across Valley Boulevard, at the even more sparse and starkly lit Flavor Garden, the beef roll differs on multiple fronts. Here the pancake tends to be thinner and less oily than at 101, and instead of shredded beef the meat is sliced like lunchmeat and served lukewarm. As a result, the sauce, beef and cilantro-green onion topping come together in a beef roll that veers toward sandwich territory.
The Taiwanese-leaning ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle on the Westside serves some of L.A.’s best beef rolls, especially if pure, fat-laden goodness is the objective. Though not as large as some, what these rolls lack in size they make up for in heft. The pancake wrapping is greasy enough to get one’s fingers dirty, and it nearly melts into the generous serving of piping-hot beef that's redolent of ginger. A trifecta of cucumber, green onions and cilantro acts as a balancing agent. The overall effect is not unlike that of a the perfect burger, where bun, cheese and toppings coalesce into one glorious bite.
101 Noodle Express: 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra 91801; (626) 300-8654; 101noodleexpress.net
Flavor Garden: 1269 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra 91801; (626) 284-3549.
ROC Kitchen: 2049 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles 90025; (310) 235-2089.