Kobe beef, which is to say American Wagyu beef, changed the meaty face of cuisine in the United States: a master race of cattle, developed in Japan, whose meat was tenderer, tastier and far more marbled than most of our native breeds, hinting at the spectacularly pale Kobe beef of Japan from which it descended.
Wagyu beef made it possible for Americans to eat even fattier beef, a promise surely enshrined in the Constitution. It enabled investment bankers to drop $200 on a rib-eye instead of a pikerish $70 or $80. It was steak to nibble with $250 California cabernets, steak worthy of a hostile takeover or a billion-dollar derivative sale. The parts of the Wagyu cow that didn’t demand gigantic steak house premiums started to make their way onto izakaya menus, into expense-account cheeseburgers and into $12 sliders. Kobe beef is both signifier and signified.
Wagyu steaks are delicious, of course, almost impossibly meaty and tender, although when sampled next to the magnificent Japanese A-5 Kobe steaks at Cut, the mere extraordinarily expensive steaks tend to fade in comparison to the breathtakingly expensive ones.
And it turns out that Wagyu beef may not always be miraculous.
Wagyu is a bit of a bust in shabu shabu: The expensive fat melts away in the superheated broth, leaving you with a tough goldfish net of connective tissue should you let it cook even a few seconds too long.
Wagyu burgers are invariably soft and pale — when you grind the meat, the marbling expresses itself basically as excessive fattiness. The mushy sliders are even worse. When you visit a butcher shop, you quickly find out that Wagyu brisket, round and chuck are rarely worth the surcharge. Wagyu Korean barbecue is not nearly as good as Korean barbecue made with regular prime beef.
Which brings us to Noodle Guy, the newest Vietnamese noodle shop in the San Gabriel Valley, a slick, brightly lit storefront a couple of doors north of Noodle King, a cheerful outpost of pho.
Noodle Guy is kind of hip for a pho restaurant, furnished with lacquered wood, art on the walls and big flat-screen televisions permanently tuned to the Lakers. The logo, obsessively posted throughout the restaurant, pictures a chubby manga dude whose tongue is captured mid-slobber, in anticipation of the noodles dangling from his chopsticks. The tables are filled with teenagers. The guys waiting tables may or may not be graduate students at UC Irvine. Even the soup bowls are kind of nice, or at least nice enough to make it clear that they were not the single cheapest bowls available at the restaurant-supply store that day. I’ve been in four or five times, and my elbows have yet to stick to the table, which is probably a record when it comes to local noodle shops.
A casual glance at the Noodle Guy menu reveals little to differentiate it from the dozens of other Vietnamese noodle shops in the area, from the wide selection of pho dishes, to the broken rice served with fried shrimp cake, grilled beef and shredded pigskin tossed with ground rice. The fried spring rolls, cha gio, aren’t quite up to the high standard set by Golden Deli or Saigon Flavor, but they are good enough, served with a heaping herb plate that includes a few different kinds of Vietnamese basil, astringent rau ram and mint.
You may have had better banh xeo, a turmeric-yellow rice-flour crepe stuffed with sauteed bean sprouts, but Noodle Guy’s version is wonderful: scented with coconut, chewy, yet delicately crunchy. Also good is banh hoi, noodle mats to be wrapped into lettuce bundles with chopped cha gio, grilled pork and Vietnamese pickles. Pho comes in all the various configurations, garnished with rare beef, tendon, simmered brisket or every conceivable part of the cow.
What is not on the menu, but which half the people in the restaurant seem to know about anyway, is the pho with Kobe beef, thin, raw slivers of the luxury meat that poach in the heat of the broth, floating among herbs, sliced chiles and slivered onions. And what you might never have expected is that pho may end up being among the highest and best expressions of Wagyu beef. The flesh firms but never quite cooks through, and its tenderness and richness are accentuated rather than overwhelmed by the cinnamon, clove and charred onion in the mild beef soup — the taut-cello-string beefiness really comes through.
If you need another shot of flavor, a chile/dried-fish condiment, very much like an Indonesian sambal, is served with the Wagyu pho.
And while Hoa Huynh, the owner of Noodle Guy, might prefer you didn’t order the Wagyu pho at all — the cost of the meat apparently makes the dish a loss leader — you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. The sauteed filet mignon can wait until next time.
NOODLE GUY | 1257 Valley Blvd., Alhambra | (626) 284-1868, noodleguy28.com | Lunch and dinner daily | MC, V | No alcohol | Lot parking | Takeout | Pho $5-$9 | Recommended dish: kobe beef pho