Few dining excursions in the Greater Los Angeles area are as rewarding as a noodle crawl in the San Gabriel Valley — and perhaps no crawl is more terrifying in scope. On a Yelp search for “noodles” in “San Gabriel Valley, California,” the results are fixed on a 7.5 mile square boxed in by Arcadia, El Monte, Monterey Park and Pasadena — and the map area does not move, for 20 pages and more than 600 results.
The region encompasses noodle dishes from perhaps literally the entirety of East and Southeast Asia, from the Uyghur hand-pulled noodles on the big plate chicken at Omar, to the scores of pad see ew and pad thai dishes dotting the region, to Japanese ramen-ya’s and Indonesian hakka noodles at Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine.
So when this writer’s editor asks, “Wanna do a noodle crawl in SGV with me?” the request comes off less like “innocuous afternoon jaunt of noodle eating,” and more like “formal proposal for existential fusion through a lifetime spent eating noodles.” Luckily for the purposes of this crawl, the focus is on noodles from Western China — particularly Chongqing and Shaanxi styles. So, in other words, more of a tightly focused, precise and thorough devastation of this writer’s shortly lived low-carb diet, which lasted two days. The first stop is a venerated Shaanxi-style restaurant with glorious hand-pulled noodles.
Stop 1: Shaanxi Garden
Shaanxi Garden is easy to miss, tucked into the corner slot of a mini mall off Valley Boulevard, the signage in Chinese save for a minuscule English inscription that’s illegible until one stands directly in front of the restaurant. Its most remarkable noodle dish is also easy to miss: The Shaanxi special dry biang biang mian is thrown into the mix with all the others on the menu at Shaanxi Garden, so just look for D7 on the wide, photo-laden bill of fare.
The noodles arrive, and of course as is the custom when eating with anyone from Eater LA, the camera always eats first. While the photographers do their thing, the kitchen brings out red-pepper dusted lamb skewers, a common Chinese street snack, to stave off hunger. They’ve got a bit of a gristly chew, but the salty, gamey and slightly charred lamb fat mingles warmly with the dried red-pepper flakes.
Once the noodles have had their close-up, it’s time to dig in. Considered one of “The Ten Strange Wonders of Shaanxi,” they’re extremely long while varying in width, to the point where it’s conceivable a single super-long strand constitutes the entire order of noodles. The server stops by and provides kindergarten-safe scissors which are cute, kind of funny and — if you’re sharing — indispensable.
The biang biang mian has got a nice bit of umami from soy sauce, but a healthy mix-in of chili oil unlocks all of the flavors from a low buzz of umami into a kaleidoscope of aromatics (green onion, carrots) accentuated by just a hint of málà spice. Add in the chewy, thick sheets of hand-pulled noodles and it’s one of the best noodle dishes in the SGV, hands down.
Lamb and cumin noodles don’t fare quite as well — the dish is straightforward but lacks a serious punch of heat (despite a healthy smattering of green peppers). It also hasn’t much cumin or lamb to speak of, which renders the entire dish as more of an also-ran. The noodles look different in this bowl, but the server ensures the party they’re the same as the biang biang mian, with the variance owing to its handmade nature.
The party wraps up quickly and hustles out into oppressive 100-degree heat — Tony Xu’s Mian awaits, just down the street.
Shaanxi Garden. 529 E Valley Blvd #178a, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
Stop 2: Mian
In Chongqing municipality, noodle hawkers on the street boil up 100 gram portions of wheat-flour noodles, cigarettes dangling from the lower lip and wagging excitedly as the men and women talk up the quality of their noodles. Tony Xu’s Mian is an ode to this Chongqing noodle culture, but in his inconspicuous corner restaurant off Valley, the food does all of the talking.
Alright, maybe not all the talking — a flat screen TV rolls through Mian’s various press accolades (including screenshots of Eater LA) as it stares down at the waning lunch crowd in the dining room. The remaining diners slurp down bowls of hearty Chengdu-style zajiang mian, wipe their brows, dot their nose, then take a swig of sweet mung bean tea, seemingly at a machine-like cadence.
Servers come around and every order seems to end with the same question. “How spicy, one through five?” It’s a quick question, but the response can mean the difference between a pleasant meal and a day-long journey on the pain train. For four dudes doing a noodle crawl in 100-degree SGV heat? The correct answer is “two” or “three.”
One of the most remarkable dishes at Mian is the red oil chao shou, or wontons. Salty, numbing, and slightly nutty owing to that caramelized dried pepper, it’s one of the more satisfying shareables on the menu — and it’s safe to turn the heat up to level five, with relatively few repercussions aside from a healthy punch of chili flavor.
On the individual side, the group ordered three noodles: Chengdu-style zajiang noodles, Chengdu-style hot and sour noodles and Szechuan cold noodles. Both the zajiang noodles and Szechuan cold noodles utilized a thicker, slightly curly noodle whereas the hot and sour soup noodles (also wheat-based) were thinner and more conducive to slurping.
The hot and sour noodle soup, despite its grease-bubbled appearance, is clean and refreshing. A tangy, vinegary finish helps clean up any residual oil, and a gentle spice (remember, this is level two) is noticeable throughout. All things considered, the dish is a welcome surprise. The Chengdu-style zajiang noodles, of course, are the star of the show. A heaping of ground pork, a small bit of bok choy and crowned with a fried egg, it’s all parts savory with an undercurrent of grassy, numbing málà spice from the peppercorn oil.
Perhaps there is now time for brief rumination on the definition of a crawl — is it a crawl if one tries six bowls of noodles between two restaurants? Is slow movement on four appendages required? What if the heat from the sun, the heat from the food, the general heat associated with being the unfortunate owner of a black car (this writer, and the writer’s editor), moving from place to place with no respite but the coolness of sweat, reduces the sensation of time to a crawl? What then? There’s still one more destination.
Mian. 301 W Valley Blvd Ste 114 And 115, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
Stop 3: Chongqing Special Noodles
Chongqing Special Noodles was feted by the late Jonathan Gold for its workmanlike charm, and with good reason. There’s a lot to like here, including the no-frills cold appetizers, the free chicken with numbing hot sauce and, of course, the Chongqing noodles. It’s deadly quiet in here most afternoons, with only a murmur of a kitchen hood in the background, and the occasion clicking of plastic chopsticks.
At a scant $7, the massive portion of Chongqing noodles comes steeped in spicy sauce, topped with ground pork and a fried egg. They pack a manageable amount of heat and numbing spice, with the peppercorn leaving an almost pine-like scent in the finish.
Perhaps the underrated star at Chongqing Special Noodles is the dandanmien. Where many of the city’s restaurants are satisfied to slap some peanut butter on a bowl of the Sichuan noodle favorite, the consistency of the peanut butter tends to lend to a highly viscous sauce that over-coats the noodles and leads to an unpleasant texture. Chongqing uses finely crushed peanuts as a stand-in, and the flavors work just as well without turning the sauce too gloopy.
Chongqing Special Noodles. 708 E Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
Between seven different bowls at three different restaurants, to think that this crawl represented only a minuscule sample of even Western Chinese noodles in the San Gabriel Valley is mind-blowing.
To wit the most challenging aspect of the noodle crawl is not the sheer volume of food, but attempting to unpack all of the flavors in Sichuan-style noodle dishes and distinguishing one from the other all within such a short amount of time — a challenge that requires a great deal of focus. Just be sure to drink tea along the way.