Sunday, November 7, 2010

Using your noodle

One of the benefits of living in a town with a Pulitzer Prize winning food writer is that whenever his column comes out, you can actually go to the restaurant he reviews!

If Jonathan Gold limited himself to reviewing haute cuisine or cutting edge restaurants, we'd have to wait months to get a reservation. But Gold covers all of L.A.'s food scene, from the snootiest sushi chef to the lowliest taco truck. In his book, "Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles" he says that his interest in sampling L.A.'s ethnic restaurants began when he decided as an experiment to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard between downtown and the beach at Santa Monica.

In this week's column in the L.A. Weekly, Gold writes about a little Sichuan noodle shop in Alhambra called Chuan Yu Noodle Town. You can go to the link and read what he says about it, and see a slideshow of Anne Fishbein's great photos.

We've been planning our weekend adventures around food and taking hikes. So when we read Gold's review, we chose Walk Number One from Charles Fleming's "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles," laced on our hiking shoes, and headed east. Our first stop was Chuan Yu Noodle Town.

Nothing like some carbs to get you in the mood for hiking.

It's a tiny little place with a handful of tables and a glass-fronted display case of foods to go. As Gold describes it, it's like a fast food joint - one step up from street food, Sichuan style. There were photos of food on the wall, with Chinese descriptions. The menu had the same photos and descriptions, but with brief English translations beneath. The waitress - friendly and helpful as Gold describes - spoke almost no English. We indicated the items we wanted on the menu, and she mimed and pointed and smiled - sometimes approving our choice, other times discouraging us from ordering too much.

In the end, we ordered two different kinds of noodle dishes, a dish of steamed pork belly Gold raved about, and a plate of pickled vegetables.

The first thing that came out was the pickles. These were really good, brightly sour with a little tingle of chile, but not too much. Not as fermented as kim chee, vinegary and crunchy.

My noodle dish was dan dan mian - a classic street food from the city of Chengdu, the name translates to "peddler food." Noodles are served in a spicy broth that also includes mustard greens, Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and minced pork. It's garnished with scallions and peanuts, and dosed to taste with hot chile oil.

Gold says that everybody has their own version of dan dan mian - some like it hot, some like it plain, some like it dry and others like it sopping in broth.

Mine was awesome. When it was served to me, it looked delicious - pale noodles topped with vegetables and all the various ingredients. But what was surprising was how it all melded together. What began as a clear broth bathing white noodles soon turned into an thick, peanuty brown soup, with richly golden noodles dripping oily bits of minced pork. The longer I ate it, the more it changed, becoming more earthy, more flavorful, more intense. Each roasted peanut crunched with a burst of flavor. Yum.

[The Man I Love] chose Yibin noodles, served with sliced ham. These were drier, and the ham lent a good smoky taste. We each swapped helpings back and forth. Both were delicious.

The dish that was most impressive, though, was the unattractively named steamed pork belly with ground rice. I wish I knew its name in Chinese. Gold describes it as resembling an upended bowl of oatmeal garnished with bacon. I disagree (for once) with Mr. Gold.

To me, it looked like a Chinese version of a classic English steamed pudding - and oddly enough, the combination of soft, rich steamed pork, mellow browned ground rice, and the sweetness of the pumpkin served beneath the pork reinforced that impression with me. It tasted, for all the world, like the richest, most intensely flavorful molten gingerbread cake - that is, if a gingerbread cake were made with pork.

The four dishes we ordered, plus a Coke, cost us $20.00 - and we brought home enough for another meal. Despite our best efforts to seal the packages up, the rich aroma of spicy noodles filled the car so much that after our walk and a stop-off at a Pasadena bar for refreshment later, the valet said it made his mouth water.

Jonathan Gold provides a guidepost to L.A.'s hidden food treasures. I've chronicled in this blog the many times I've followed his advice. It's always been a good experience.

Who are the food adventurers in your town? What are the tasty secrets? They could be traditional dishes of your city's established communities, or they could be favorites brought by newcomers. Who finds them and spreads the word? It might be a professional food reviewer, a writer or columnist, but it could also be a co-worker, a family friend. Or it could be you. Next time you drive past that interesting little cafe.....stop in.

And share your experience.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Noodles are served in a spicy broth that also includes mustard greens, Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and minced pork.

I used to buy fresh mustard greens at the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. While some people find them overly pungent and spicy (aka my family), I think they're an excellent salad ingredient. Sometimes, I'd make them up to 50% of the leafy portion.

Anonymous said...

That looks and sounds so very good -- all of it!

We have a couple of interesting and tasty spots not too far from my home:
1) a Greek deli, where the owner makes all of the tempting desserts himself and the gyros are the best I've ever had, and
2) a "crab shack" owned and run by the daughter of a man who used to sell fresh fish and crabs out of the back of his truck in that same small town.

Vallen said...

That pork belly and the dan dan noodles look like heaven on a plate.

Gilly said...

Oh, Aunt Snow, you live in a totally different world from me! All that food looks so delicious, and so strange!

Maybe it wouldn't be strange in a large city, or in London, but I'm not there!

I'm drooling!

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

That pork looks amazing--and I love any type of squash, especially pumpkin.

I don't eat there anymore because it's just too fattening, but there is a literal hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that makes a quesadilla to die for.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Who are the food adventurers in your town?


I love mustard greens, and broccoli rabe... gotta love the pungent veggies.