Friday, April 30, 2010

A Solid Foundation - The Hand Cut Noodles of JTYH Restaurant (Din Tai Mei Shi)

One of the most interesting types of Asian Noodles might very well be the Chinese Dao Xiao Mian, or "Knife Cut Noodles." Taking a large block of dough, the Chef uses a special knife and hand-cuts long strips of Noodles off of the block into a pot of boiling water. The result is a rough-hewn, rustic Noodle, thicker and flatter than the usual thin, round version. You'd think that something this unique and standout would be more prevalent around So Cal (at least in the San Gabriel Valley), but there have been very few noteworthy specialists for Knife Cut Noodles. So when Jonathan Gold wrote about a new Shanxi-style Dao Xiao Mian specialist in his 99 Things to Eat article, I knew I had to pay this restaurant a visit. :)

The oddly-named JTYH Restaurant (Chinese name "Din Tai Mei Shi") occupies a totally unassuming corner of a quiet strip-mall on Valley Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley. According to the manager, the English name "JTYH" has no meaning; the owner chose it simply because they needed an English name for their restaurant. :) Stepping inside, JTYH is the definition of a hole-in-the-wall, mom & pop-type eatery. My guests and I quickly sit down, eager to try their Noodles.

(Note: English dish names are from the menu. Chinese dish names listed phonetically when possible. Thanks to my SGV Hounds for the translation help. :)

We start off with a classic appetizer: Liang Bahn Huang Gua (listed in English as simply "Cucumber").

The bite-sized Cucumbers are chilled, garlicky and refreshing.

JTYH offers their Noodle dishes in 3 varieties, but it's not listed in English. Luckily my SGV Hounds are able to point out the 3 options you can choose for each Noodle dish you order: Dao Xiao (Knife Cut), Shou Gahn (Hand Kneaded (but not "Hand Pulled")) or Xi (Thin).

After a few minutes, the much-talked about Yang Rou Pao Mian (Lamb Noodle Soup) (with Dao Xiao Mian (Hand Cut Noodles)) arrives.

A sip of the Lamb Broth reveals a Chinese herbal / medicinal (in a good way) flavor, along with a lightly gamey undertone. And then I take a bite of the Hand Cut Noodles: There's a great chew and body to this rough Shanxi-style Noodle and it's perfectly cooked through. (That's one downfall with Dao Xiao Mian: Run across a kitchen that's not as proficient as JTYH, and you're likely to get these Noodles undercooked (with too much raw dough taste coming through), or overcooked, turning these Noodles into a giant bowl of soft mush).

But if there's one weak link in this dish it's the Lamb itself: Taking a bite, the chunks of Lamb taste old (about ~1 - 2 days old, with the funk of refrigeration and being reheated)). It's not inedible by any means, but it lacks that freshness that would've taken this bowl of Noodles to another level. On repeat visits, the result is sadly the same.

(Note: Those allergic to MSG should take note - JTYH uses the "flavor crystals" in many of their dishes, some more severe than others (noted below).)

Next up, we order their Jiang Rou Juan Bing (Pancake with Pork).

This is essentially one of those "Rolls" made famous by 101 Noodle Express (e.g., their "Beef Roll"), but it's listed here in English as "Pancake." JTYH offers 2 types of these giant "Pancakes" (Pork and Beef), and their Pork version is very good. The Stewed Pork is chilled after cooking and then thinly sliced and layered into this giant "Pancake," along with fresh Cucumber and Cilantro. The Pork is clean-tasting (unlike their Lamb), and the moist Stewed Pork with crisp Cucumbers and Cilantro is spot-on. :) There's a touch too much Hai Hsien Jiang (Hoisin Sauce), but otherwise, it's a respectable version of the famous "Meat Rolls."

One of my guests points out some beautiful calligraphy on a scroll hung on the wall, stating that their specialty is their Knife Cut Noodles and their Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Buns), so we add that to our order. :) Hsien Rou Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Bun with Pork).

I love a good Sheng Jian Bao and anxiously take a bite:

There's a great seared crust and amazing crunch, followed by the fluffiness from the tops of the Bao (Bun). The Marinated Ground Pork is fragrant and savory all in one bite, and despite the minor use of MSG, this is probably the best Pan Fried Bun in So Cal at the moment, for those that can handle a bit of the flavor crystals.

On another visit, we begin with their Suan La Tahng ("Sweet & Sour Soup").

If you enjoy White Pepper, then this soup's for you. :) I enjoy White Pepper, but the kitchen goes completely overboard with the White Pepper in this soup: It's dominated by the peppery burn of ~2 or 3 times the normal amount of White Pepper you'd normally find in an average Hot & Sour Soup. The bits of Egg and Wood Ear Mushrooms are fine. Overall, it's decent, but nowhere near as delightful as Noodle House's version.

They have the interestingly named "A Tsai" ("A" Vegetable) on this visit, so we order a plate: Suan Rohng A Tsai ("A" Vegetable Sauteed in Garlic).

It's clean and fragrant, with a good snap and just the right amount of Garlic.

I'm curious about their Non-Noodle menu, so we order their Zi Rahn Yahng Rou (Lamb with Cumin).

In the past few years, some form of Cumin Lamb has been popping up at restaurants all over the San Gabriel Valley. Unfortunately, JTYH's version is too heavy-handed in its Cumin (I love Cumin and I thought it was way too much), and it's far too salty. There's a medium heat from the red chilies, which adds a little extra layer, but it's not enough to overcome its problems, and the MSG levels begin to be far more noticeable in their non-Noodle dishes.

The Jia Chahng Doh Fu (Family Style Bean Curd) arrives soon after.

Triangles of medium firm Tofu are sauteed with Bell Peppers, Green Onions, Pork and Wood Ear Mushrooms in a simple Soy Sauce-based Sauce. It's rather straightforward and a textbook example of this common dish.

My guests are curious about how their other Noodles stack up to their famous Knife Cut Noodles, so a bowl of Dahn Dahn Mian ("Dan Dan Noodle") with Shou Gahn Mian (Hand Kneaded Noodles, Machine Cut) finds its way to our table. :)

Over the years, I've run into numerous interpretations of Dahn Dahn Mian, all as varied as can be, from extremely peanuty, to heavily meat-based and salty, from ultra-spicy to no spice at all. JTYH's version is the oddest one yet: The Hand Kneaded Noodles are thick, but overcooked, and the "dry sauce ingredients" to mix together with the Noodles are comprised of a salty, Marinated Ground Pork cooked with Hua Jiao (Szechuan Pepper)(?!) which is just bizarre. It certainly adds a perfumey, aromatic quality to the Noodle dish, but I'm not sure if I like it.

JTYH makes their own Dumplings once per day, but chances are most of the time, you'll be getting them frozen (which is common). Unlike places like 101 Noodle Express or Noodle House, JTYH makes a large batch and stores them in the freezer. It's a standard practice, but one always hopes to find a restaurant that rolls and stuffs their Dumplings per order like the aforementioned places.

We decide to try their Jio Tsai Lohng Li Jiao (Fish with Leek Dumplings).

Perhaps I've been spoiled by fresh-made Dumplings, made-to-order, but the Boiled Dumplings here are ~decent quality at best. The Dumpling skin is overcooked, too soft with not enough bite, but it's the filling that's the biggest disappointment: The Grey Sole is extremely briny and really fishy (in a bad way).

Continuing on, their Nio Rou Juan Bing (Pancake with Beef) arrives next.

101 Noodle Express currently holds the title for my favorite Beef Roll in So Cal, and while JTYH's version features a thin, oily outer crust, with clean, fresh-tasting, thinly sliced Stewed Beef, they use way too much Hoisin Sauce, completely overpowering the dish. I still prefer 101's version overall (better crust, depth of flavor and execution).

After the delight that is their Pan Fried Bun with Pork, I can't wait to try their San Hsien Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Pork with Seafood).

"San Hsien" usually refers to 3 key ingredients that make up the dish, and in this case, it's Marinated Ground Pork, Shrimp and Eggs. The seared Bun crust is as lovely as before, a gorgeous crunch with the fluffiness from the top portion, but the filling can be inconsistent at times. Over 6 visits, I've found the Pork to be fine, but the Shrimp can sometimes taste too old (like it's been sitting in the freezer for a few days too many before being used).

During my 4th visit, I start with their Hsueh Tsai Rou Hsi Mian (Preserved Vegetable & Shredded Pork Noodle Soup) with Knife Cut Noodles.

The Noodles are once again perfectly cooked, with a great bite and chew. The Preserved Vegetables and Shredded Pork provide an enticing, light flavor; a bit of vibrant green and just the right amount of fat without weighing down the whole dish. Since the Pork is cooked fresh (no stewing necessary), this is one of the Noodle dishes that has been consistently good (no worries about reheating leftovers).

Suan Rohng Buo Tsai (Sauteed Spinach with Garlic) is iron-y and a typical execution of this dish. It's decent, but it depends on how much you enjoy Sauteed Spinach.

Their Hua Su Zheng Jiao (Steamed Vegetable Dumplings) is the next to arrive.

While it's a matter of personal preference, I enjoy Boiled Dumplings more than Steamed Dumplings, but I'm always eager to try the variations at each new place I go, to see the kitchen's proficiency. JTYH's version uses Cabbage, Wood Ear Mushrooms, Chinese Chives, Cellophane Noodles and Eggs for the filling. The steaming gives the Dumplings a more chewy, substantial body compared to Boiling, and the vegetable filling is an enjoyably light combination of woodsy, crunchy and fragrant.

Our final dish this visit is one that I'm always looking for at Northern-focused Chinese restaurants: Suan Tsai Yahng Rou Sa Guo (Lamb with Pickled Vegetables Casserole).

Arriving in a clay pot, it's an addicting, sour, savory, aromatic giant bowl of Lamb Soup. The Suan Tsai (Pickled Vegetables) add a unique tartness to an otherwise beautifully gamey Broth that's infused with the Lamb slices. The Green Onions and Cilantro add just the right herbal counterpoint, and JTYH thankfully uses only slightly fatty Lamb (the last few restaurants I've run across have used Lamb that's ~70% fat and 30% meat). I had a noticeable reaction to the MSG in this soup, which is the only downfall, but it's nowhere near as heavy as, say, a bowl of Daikokuya Ramen. Still, if you have no aversion to MSG, then this soup is well worth a try.

On a later visit, my guest and I start with a Bahn Hai Dai Hsi (Simmered Seaweed).

The Hai Dai is too salty and one note, but otherwise a decent version.

My guest this time *loves* Pork Kidney of any kind, so even though I'm hesitant about ordering it in a Shanxi Noodle restaurant, I oblige. :) Their Huo Bao Yao Hua (Sauteed Pork Kidney) arrives within minutes.

The Pork Kidney is sadly extremely overcooked. It's very tough, and the seasoning is uneven. Some chunks are chalky and underseasoned, while other pieces are super salty.

During my 6th visit, we start off with Hohng Yoh Ehr Hsi (Hot Pepper Oil with Pig Ears).

It's very fresh with an addictive light burn and gelatinous crunch, and the bit of fresh Cilantro helps to brighten everything up.

Cong Yoh Bing (Pan Fried Onion Cakes (a.k.a. Green Onion Pancakes)) are one of those irresistible small plates I can't stop ordering whenever I see it on the menu. :)

Deep Fried Dough with Green Onions and Salt, what's not to love? :) And thankfully JTYH's version is one of the better ones I've found around town. It arrives piping hot, with just the right balance of oiliness and crispiness, without being too greasy. Delicious. :)

Their Yahng Rou Chuan (Lamb Skewers) on the other hand, are horrific. :(

The Lamb is almost rancid (no joke), and completely overcooked, turning the skewers into some "Lamb Jerky." Definitely a far cry from Feng Mao.

Next up is their Hohng Shao Pai Gu Mian (Simmered Spare Rib Noodle Soup) with Knife Cut Noodles.

The Pork Broth is surprisingly delicate, but still well-infused with a mouth-watering porcine essence. The Dao Xiao Mian (Hand Cut Noodles) are perfectly cooked again. Just the right amount of chew, with the very tips being supple and tender.

Unfortunately, the Pork Spare Ribs suffer the same fate as their Lamb: It's old. :( The Spare Ribs taste even older than the Lamb we've had on multiple occasions, with the funk of sitting in the refrigerator and being reheated multiple times. Disappointing.

Their San Hsien Guo Tieh (Fried Three Ingredient Dumplings) continues the trend.

The Dumpling skin is simply too thick in this form (Boiled is fine), with the thickness of the seared bottom crust turning each Potsticker into a piece of cardboard.

While their Pan Fried Buns are outstanding, their Steamed Buns fall a bit short: Hsien Rou Zheng Bao (Note: It's listed in English as "Pan Fried Bun with Pork" (the same line item as the Pan Fried version); you have to ask for it to be Steamed instead of Fried)).

Our waitress tells us they usually make one large batch of Buns a day beforehand, as they simply don't have the manpower or time to roll out the dough and make it fresh to order. The Steamed Buns are decent, with the skin being a bit dry (nowhere near as bad as most Steamed Chashu Bao at Dim Sum restaurants), but not as fresh and moist as the made-to-order version at Noodle House. The Pork filling itself is well-seasoned, but the thick, dry skin is a turnoff.

The final dish arrives at this point: Xiao Lohng Tahng Bao ("Steam Small Bun") is this restaurant's attempt at the famous Shanghai "Soup Dumplings" or "XLB".

A Shanxi Province restaurant wouldn't normally specialize in XLBs, but one of my guests is really curious and insists we order it. :) The Marinated Ground Pork filling is surprisingly tasty (more than a few average places around town), but MSG seems to be heavily used in this dish. In addition, the XLBs are too dense and compact, and ~60% of these Xiao Lohng Bao have their skin broken already (with the Broth leaked out as seen in the picture below). :(

Service is what you might expect at a little hole-in-the-wall eatery, with only 2 waitresses and no busboys handling the whole restaurant. Prices range from $1.95 - $8.95.

JTYH Restaurant (Din Tai Mei Shi) is an interesting restaurant: An amazing specialist in Shanxi-style Dao Xiao Mian (Knife Cut Noodles) and Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Buns), but undermined by cost-cutting measures (Noodle Meats are made in large batches and reheated the following days) and MSG. The majority of their Non-Noodle / Dumpling dishes are mediocre, and their other dishes outside of the Green Onion Pancake, Knife Cut Noodles and Pan Fried Buns need some work. If nothing else, the foundation is there: The kneaded dough and perfect sear of the Pan Fried Buns is without question, as is the perfect chew in their Knife Cut Noodles. I just hope one day they can start making their Noodle Soup contents fresh for that day, and don't rely as much on added "flavor crystals." At that point, JTYH would become a serious destination for those 2 specialties.

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

JTYH Restaurant (Din Tai Mei Shi)
9425 Valley Blvd.
Rosemead, CA 91770
Tel: (626) 442-8999

* Credit Card Minimum: $20 and up *

Hours: Wed - Mon, 11:00 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays.


weezermonkey said...

I think anything "dough-related" at JTYH is delicious. My fave dish is the cat's ears!

Anything without dough? Total miss. :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Ah you ran into similar problems? :( Yah, they definitely seem to be more adept at specific dough-related dishes than the rest of their menu.

Protocol Snow said...

Dao xiao mian seems relatively prevalent in SGV, so much so that I don't even keep track of which restaurants have it. Liang's Kitchen and Mandarin Noodle Deli are my favorites, although MND recently had a change of ownership and I heard the quality has dropped.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Protocol Snow,

Thanks for your recs. I've been to both places but never tried their Dao Xiao Mian. Interesting. I'll keep it in mind the next time I find myself there. :)

Andy said...

I got to back up Protocol's support of Liang's Kitchen's dao xiao mian. I had it in the usual hong shao niu rou mian. Bready/doughy/chewy and delicious! They are quite generous in the white crystals though so beware and the Liang's mamas kitchen in Arcadia is next door to a 101 Noodle Express! They're in the plaza across from Din Tai Fung.

Kung Food Panda said...

Great comprehensive write up EK! I'm a fan of JTYH and most of the dishes are spot on especially the cat ears and the knife cut noodle dishes! I've tried most on your post, except the lamb/preserved vegetable clay pot dish, so I'm anxious to give it a shot.

If you want good, and cheap XLB, give Dean Xin World on Garfield a try!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thanks. I'm glad to hear you enjoy much of their menu. I love their actual dough-based creations; it's just the lack of freshness that I hope can be resolved in the future. Thanks for your rec on the XLB. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Andy,

Thanks for your recommendation on Liang's Kitchen as well. :) I've tried a couple of their locations and definitely agree with your warning on their use of MSG. :) (~_~) If only I wasn't so weak to it, I'd probably enjoy their food more. Thanks.

food je t'aime said...

VERY comprehensive. I still haven't been to JTYH and this will be useful for when I go!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi food je t'aime,

Thanks. :) Please let me know how your visit goes. :)

stuffycheaks said...

everything looks great! the dahn dahn and pigs ear especially. darn, wish this wasn't so far away :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi stuffycheaks,

Yah, it's far for me, too. :) If you do get a chance to try it, let me know what you think. Thanks. :)

Das Ubergeek said...

Hi Exile Kiss! I actually found this while preparing my own rant about badly prepared huo bao yao hua (one of my favourite dishes)... sorry you had a bad one! I can tell just by looking... they do not know how to cut! Hen bu hao kan!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Das,

Thanks for the thoughts. It's definitely sad that so many places botch this dish. Hope all is well. :)

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