Today, we examine xian bing, dough disks about the size and weight of a shuffleboard puck, tawny brown, slightly domed, mottled on the surface with a pebbly pattern that resembles Chinese characters from across the room, but up close looks more like Braille.
This particular xian bing, stuffed with ground lamb and served four to a plate, is the specialty of Beijing Pie House, a cramped restaurant in the usual sort of Monterey Park minimall. The main item of décor is what appears to be a big clock on a wall behind the counter, although it seems to have been stripped of its hands. The queue stretching outside the restaurant is longer than it seems, because there is an odd preponderance of people rocking to radio jams in the parking lot, leaving only the scissors-paper-rock losers to secure their place in line, and inside the vestibule, dudes glare at the parties lingering just a little too long over their beef noodle soup. Even the most patient of the people waiting loses it just a little when an old lady ducks under his arm and puts her name ahead of his on the list. And the tables are close enough together, and the flow of customers steady enough, that nobody hesitates to reach over to swipe the jar of chile oil on your table, or to exchange their squirt bottle of white vinegar for your cruet of the good black stuff. It is understood that you will do the same when your order of dumplings comes.
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You'll probably start your meal with a cold appetizer or two, perhaps a plate of sliced celery spiked with soaked peanuts that act as little star-anise bombs, or a little sliced loaf of bean curd with soy sauce and slivered scallions, or a platter of oddly tasteless cold beef tripe with toasted chiles. There are dumplings, although the soup dumplings, xiao long bao, are on the stodgy side, and the pan-fried leek-with-pork dumplings are stiff and bland. You will get an order of the thick, handmade noodles, possibly in a thin, spicy beef broth; more likely as zha jiang mian: served plain and lukewarm in a bowl, ready to be tossed with slivered cucumber, bean sprouts and a tarry, pitch-black bean sauce enhanced with specks of meat.
If you like the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra, one of the signal dishes of the San Gabriel Valley experience, you may find the beef roll at Beijing Pie House to be slightly austere. The beef itself is tender and elegantly prepared, smeared with a delicious bean sauce, resembling something plucked from a French pot au feu more than it does rough Chinese street food; but it is wrapped in a thin, delicate crepe instead of the brawny, oily pastry you'll find at the uptown rival, like a beef roll you'd enjoy late in the afternoon, served with a pot of tea. You will like the "Homeland Meat Cake," which sounds like the kind of fantasy Dick Cheney used to conjure up to cheer him through the long, lonely nights in his undisclosed location, but is actually a crisp, multilayered pancake of vast area, stuffed with thin sheets of a pink meat you don't want to think about too carefully and sliced into wedges.
But we know why we're here. And as promised, xian bing are hot when you pick them up, finger-scorchingly hot, like a potato snatched straight from the embers, and the texture, although you sense a faint crackliness, is thin, warm and pliable, like skin. The menu warns you that it's hot, and the waitress warns you that it's hot, and the woman at the next table warns you, too, but there is probably nothing that can prepare you for the act of biting into a too-hot xian bing, when a jet of pressurized soup, as volatile as the steam from Old Faithful, arcs over your shoulder and drips harmlessly down the plate glass behind you. Fancy a duel? Let's specify xian bing at dawn.
Beijing Pie House | 846 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park | (626) 288-3818 | Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. | Cash only | No alcohol | Lot parking | Takeout | Pies, noodles and pancakes $4.99-$7.99 | Recommended dishes: lamb pie, Homeland Meat Cake, Beijing-style noodles (chachiangmian)