There may be northern Chinese cafés more anonymous-looking than 101 Noodle Express, but I haven’t found them yet: a bleak mini-mall storefront adjoining a bowling alley, a photocopied menu taped in the window, a troupe of waitresses who, during slack hours, peer anxiously into every Nissan that crawls through the parking lot. The key bit of interior décor is a big, beribboned calendar page from last August, a promotional item from a Hong Kong metallurgist picturing a pale Chinese beauty dressed in perhaps the least revealing bathing suit in human history. Plus there is the matter of the restaurant’s drab name, which promises little more than gray Chinese pasta, stale stir-fries and grisly little dumplings. You could drive by the place a thousand times (I probably have) without easing up on the gas.
But 101 Noodle Express is home to the Shandong-style beef roll, a splendid object of desire, a massive, bronzed construction that commands its platter like two sliced El Tepeyac burritos laid side by side. The beef roll is based on 101’s spectacular Chinese pancakes, brawny, wheaten things crisped in oil — as chewy as rare flank steak underneath their thin, golden crust. The pancakes are rolled around slivers of stewed beef subtly flavored with spices, seasoned with a sprinkling of chopped scallion tops and fresh cilantro. The inside of the beef roll is smeared with a sweet, house-made bean paste with an ethereal, almost transparent top-note, a bean paste that bears the same relationship to ordinary hoisin sauce that a Michelin-starred chef’s duck demi-glace might to a slug of canned brown gravy. It is a simple composition, and yet not; ordinary street food, but raised to the transcendent level of a great carne asada taco or a Modena housewife’s very best homemade tortellini. The menu at 101 also lists a chicken roll, presumably made in exactly the same way, but in the eight or so times I have been to the restaurant I have never felt it necessary to try one, nor have I ever seen one on another customer’s plate.
The “house pan fried cake,” on the other hand, those same pancakes cut into slabs and stir-fried with onions, bits of pork and vast quantities of bean sprouts, is totally satisfying in a trashy way, like some vastly caloric Chinese version of nachos.
101 Noodle Express isn’t undiscovered, exactly. The waiting crowds on weekends are often big enough to fill up a sign-up sheet posted outside the door, and the restaurant is a favorite of a man known to me only as Jerome, who is the best-regarded connoisseur of Chinese food among the regulars on the Los Angeles boards at Chowhound.com. (I can’t tell you how many times I have happened upon a new joint in Monterey Park or El Monte that felt like a real discovery only to find that Jerome had beaten me to the place by a week or two.) In all my visits to 101, I have never heard a customer order in anything but Mandarin, or had a waitress say a word to me in English that didn’t happen to be “7-Up” or “Coca-Cola,” but the menu is pretty thoroughly translated into English, and it is easy to acquire the three dishes that everybody in the restaurant seems always to get: the beef roll, a lovely if orthodox bowl of hot-sour soup, and a house specialty called “De Zhou chicken,” a tan, tender bird that has been simmered with soy sauce and spices and is served at room temperature in all of its plain, wrinkly splendor. A variant of this dish, called Shan Dong chicken, is arranged over a bed of lightly pickled cucumber and spackled with a truly fearsome amount of chopped raw garlic.
The menu is basically a more rustic version of the one you may be familiar with from the Mandarin Deli chain, a roll call of northern Chinese cold dishes — pressed tofu, tendon moistened with house-made chili oil, garlicky seaweed salad — and rough-cut noodles tossed with things like sesame sauce, braised eggplant or murky bean sauce. The northern sausage is especially good, a thin-sliced sort of Chinese salami studded with cumin seeds, and the shrimp broth that comes with the won ton is sharply flavored with chili and the essence of toasted shell.
There is a pretty extensive roster of dumplings at 101, distinctly handmade things that couldn’t be more different from their glossy cousins at the more famous Din Tai Fung. These are soft-skinned things filled with forcemeats of minced sole, lamb or pork flavored with “wild vegetables,” delicate yellow chives or strong, assertive chopped leek tops. I like the gooey, sweetish dumplings stuffed with pumpkin and shrimp, which taste almost Piedmontese. But still, Piedmont, schmiedmont — at 101 Noodle Express, it’s all about the beef roll.?
101 Noodle Express, 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 300-8654. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Lunch for two, food only, $14-$22. Recommended dishes: fish dumpling, beef roll, house fried pancake, Shan Dong chicken.