March 16, 2010

16 Mar

7 am

1 NuGo protein bar

7:15 am

McDonald’s

1 small coffee

11:30 am

Tasty Noodle House

pork belly, Napa cabbage and glass noodle stew

4 pieces char sui bao (pork buns)

green tea

It’s been over a year since I last ate in San Gabriel Valley, and that’s a major oversight on my part. Some of the best Chinese cooking in the world can be found in this sleepy suburb. I used to go regularly right out of college and there was a time in my life where I had several special occasion gatherings in the banquet halls of Harbor Seafood or Mission 261. And when my dad came out to visit, we’d head out and try to find our next favorite eatery. Even then, it was impossible to make a dent in the list of places we want to try. San Gabriel is a long expanse of mini-malls, and each one might have two or three of the best dishes you’ll ever eat. There are hundreds and hundreds of different restaurants in a few small towns. But just as quickly as you found a place to remember, it might disappear or move without warning. My favorite restaurant from years back, Green Village, was originally in San Gabriel valley, opened and closed twice, then popped up in name only at Rowland Heights, with the actual chefs rumored to be at another restaurant. My dad simply preferred dumplings and lion’s head soup at Mei Long Village and went there regularly. He knew what he liked and didn’t need to spend any more time following restaurants he didn’t know. Me, I tried to go somewhere new every time. The only place I’ve gone more than once is Din Tai Fung, where I try and stop for carryout dumplings if it’s convenient.

Since picking a place to eat in San Gabriel can be daunting, there are two ways to go about it: choose a place with a big crowd or consult a guide. I went to Tasty Noodle House, a newish (they changed chefs recently) restaurant in the same mini-mall as Golden Deli, because Jonathan Gold gave it very high praise. I almost didn’t go here though. It was one of the few times that Golden Deli didn’t have a wait and it took a lot of willpower to resist one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in LA. But I made my way into Tasty Noodle’s tiny dining area with expensive, lacquered tables and booths. The cooking at Tasty Noodle is austere too. When the waitress first brought out the pork belly, cabbage, frozen tofu and noodle stew, I instinctively reached for chili sauce. It looked so plain. But I realized that there were no condiments to be seen anywhere. You have to request it, the better for the proprieter to discourage you. I can see why they don’t want customers to gild their food with sauce. The flavors are very sharp and focused, and the broth had a clear pork and cilantro flavor. The pork belly slices tasted like pork even though it was boiled. Freeze-dried tofu is an interesting trick. It’s dense, spongy and has enough heft to stand up to the other flavors it soaks up. I would’ve added a bit of hot sauce if I could, but it didn’t matter. This relatively simple dish was compelling beyond it’s means.

I had the same initial reactions to the pork baos. They looked a bit dry and didn’t have the slight crust of other pa-fried buns. But the first bite revealed an impossibly light and fluffy bun. It was a cloud bursting with a subtle flavor of pork and scallions. I only ate four during lunch due to the sheer quantity, but I later devoured the rest at home. Portions here tend to be large and I had a lot of leftovers, but I also wish I could’ve ordered more. Scanning the menu, there were a lot of pork, jellyfish, sea cucumbers and cabbages. Judging by my first impressions, Tasty Noodle revels in subtleness. Flavors are focused and not too strong. It’s more about the interplay of flavor and texture. Nothing here will overwhelm your senses or flair your nostrils with spiciness. If eating at a Cantonese of Shanghai restaurant is like watching a James Cameron movie, Tasty Noodle has a subdued complexity like a Yasujiro Ozu film.

3:30 pm

1 banana

6 pm

Mr. Baguette

“special” banh mi on sesame baguette

1 can of Sprite

Despite their culinary ingenuity, I don’t know how the French never thought of the banh mi. It’s a sandwich made with French baguette, loaded with French charcuterie, with a condiment of French pate and French aioli. But they’ve pretty much just stuck with ham and butter. Meanwhile, it was their former colony of Vietnam who thought to put all the French ingredients together, along with pickled carrots, turnips, jalapenos and cilantro. There are now hundreds of banh mi places dotting Vietnamese neighborhoods San Gabriel Valley and north Orange County. There are equally as many variations. Roast pork, BBQ pork and chicken are popular. I’ve even seen breakfast banh mis with the scrambled eggs and bacon. But the classic one is the banh mi dac biet, which is a melange of cold cuts, usually ham, pork meat loaf, head cheese, pork slices and pate.

Like Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, or Lafayette and American for Coney Island hot dogs in Detroit, Mr. Baguette and Lee’s Sandwiches, two of the more popular banh mi places in Los Angeles, are situated within a half-block of each other on Valley Blvd. in Alhambra, each drawing in large crowds for their Vietnamese sub sandwiches. Whichever you prefer is strictly a matter of personal choice. I personally like Mr. Baguette a bit better because I prefer their bread, especially the sesame baguette, and their sandwiches are bigger. I know people who get annoyed at Mr. Baguette for making you add the pickled vegetables yourself and not having cilantro (which does irk me). I do go to Lee’s though if I plan on eating there, it’s a more comfortable space. There are better banh mi places in a town that has a ton of them; Banh Mi My Tho and Banh Mi Che Cali a bit further west on the same street are probably better. But if I’m getting a sandwich to go, I like the drive-thru at Mr. Baguette is a grand idea.

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