The San Gabriel Valley is really souped up, that is, if you're thinking of Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which is everywhere. How do you know which version is the best, or at least really good? You check with people who come here on business but are based in Taiwan. They know the taste, and it's fresh on their palate.
My consultants recommended two restaurants for a Taiwanese beef noodle soup fight. They are Won Won Kitchen, a home style place in Temple City so small that some equipment has to be stored in the dining room. The other is Liang's Kitchen in Arcadia, part of an ambitious chain that extends from San Diego to northern California and over to Forest Hills, New York. A giant and a puny contender, in other words, but in matters of food, size doesn't always count.
Each place puts the same basics in their bowls: beef chunks, beef broth, noodles and bok choy, plus a scattering of chopped pickle. Each offers a chile sauce to spice the soup to taste.
Won Won could win on the basis of its green ceramic bowl alone. It looks so traditional, much more so than Liang's shiny, utilitarian metal bowl. Won Won's broth is meaty but light, and the meat is very tender, not a tough cut that has to cook for hours until it loses its flavor. You get subtle hints of anise, cinnamon and ginger as you eat.
Won Won's table condiment is a winner too, a mixture of red chiles and pickle that tastes so good you can eat it straight. It's made fresh regularly, without preservatives.
The machine-made wheat flour noodles are narrow, a little wider than linguine. An option popular with dieters is to have bean threads instead. In either case, the price is the same, just $4.95 for a bowl big enough to share.
Liang's Kitchen in Arcadia is much larger and less personal, and its soup costs more, $6.25. It also offers more options — a clear soup instead of meaty dark broth, beef noodle soup with only broth, no beef chunks; dry beef noodle without the broth, and beef noodle with tendon.
For the food fight, though, it was only fair to try the same version as that tested at Won Won Kitchen, with dark broth and beef chunks.
Higher price, chain style cooking, a less interesting serving bowl and a plain hot sauce with only dried chiles could make Liang's the loser. But these aren't crucial. What the Taiwanese look for is strongly meaty broth that blends many flavors, good-tasting beef and noodles with great texture.
And Liang's is a heavy hitter on all counts. Its broth is intensely meaty, much more powerful than Won Won's. The beef is fine. And the noodles are better than fine. They're handmade and satisfyingly chewy (Won Won's are soft), and you can choose between thick or thin.
And so Liang's Kitchen–the Arcadia branch at least–wins the Taiwanese beef noodle soup food fight.
Won Won Kitchen: 9461 Las Tunas Drive, Temple City. (626) 287-5500.
Liang's Kitchen: 1027 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. (626) 462-0815.
Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.TableConversation.com, www.EatMx.com, @food and wine gal and Facebook.