Monday, June 7, 2010

Unusual Minimalism - Dalian Cuisine at Tasty Noodle House (Yi Pin)

With a generic, goofy name like "Tasty Noodle House", it's easy to quickly dismiss it on name alone, instead of delving into the menu. But having learned my lesson with 101 Noodle Express (and their exceptional Beef Rolls :), I knew better than to get too fixated on the name, regardless of how wacky it might be. :) Tasty Noodle House quickly caught my attention thanks to Jonathan Gold's review of this place, where it was noted that they serve Dalian (a city in Liaoning Province) Cuisine (which is quite rare in So Cal).

Tasty Noodle House (Chinese name "Yi Pin") occupies the very back corner of the popular strip mall that houses Golden Deli (and the original location for Newport Seafood (San Gabriel)). Stepping inside, the simple, clean decor makes the small, 6 table space feel much more comfortable and refined than the usual hole-in-the-wall eatery in the San Gabriel Valley; the wrought iron hanging lamps are a nice touch.

Opening up their menu, and you're treated to a treatise on why Tasty Noodle House stands out from the competition, with notes about focusing on the natural flavors of the ingredients and moving away from heavy usage of Oil, Soy Sauce and MSG. It's unusual, for sure, and gives me hope that their menu can deliver on their promises.

(All dish names in Mandarin, spelled phonetically when possible, thanks to my SGV Hounds for assistance. :)

During my first visit, one of my SGV Hounds excitedly notes that they serve Tianjin Zhu Rou Bao (Pork Bun), which are handmade by the kitchen, to-order.

Unlike most Baozi (Steamed Buns) found locally, Tasty Noodle House's version are quite small and fluffy, but they falter in the filling, where the Marinated Ground Pork is very salty and one note.

Their menu features some bombastic and grandiose-sounding names for their dishes (in Chinese), such as their Hai Lohng Rou Pian (Sliced Pork Pan Fried with Jellyfish in Brown Sauce), which literally means "Ocean Dragon Meat Slices."

While the Pork Belly slices are overcooked and tough, the juxtaposition with the oceanic blast and crunch of Jellyfish, along with Napa Cabbage, Carrots and Zucchini is unusual and pleasing. The flavors really are restrained as Mr. Gold notes, and it tastes like a healthier, lighter alternative to the usual Chinese cooking found around town.

Our next dish continues the study in understated cooking: Yi Pin Luan Dwun (Pork Belly Stew with Potatoes, Vermicelli Noodles and Green Beans).

It should be noted that there's a typo on their English menu: It's actually served with Pork Spare Ribs, not Pork Belly :(, which is unfortunate, but I enjoy long-stewed Ribs as well. (^_~) But beyond the typo, the Stew imparts a gorgeous savory quality, with a real deep deliciousness, with accents of Star Anise, Cilantro and the long-stewing of Pork and Chicken Bones for the base. It's slightly grainy from the Potatoes being cooked down, and its earthiness is balanced by the sweetness of the Tomatoes and verdant Green Beans. The wide, fat Vermicelli Noodles add yet another layer to the textural chaos in this dish, but it's so enjoyable it doesn't matter. :) Unfortunately, the Pork Spare Ribs turn out to be the weak link: They taste old, with the refrigerated funk of about ~2 - 3 days, which really brings down this dish. Ordering it 3 different times yields the same result, unfortunately.

Another of their Dalian specialties is their Suan Tsai Pai Gu Fen Hsi Sa Guo (Pickled Napa Cabbage, Ribs and Vermicelli Noodle Stew).

The Broth has a very clean, light taste. There's a delicate quality and the Pickled Napa Cabbage provides an excellent sour note to the otherwise fragrant, salted liquid. Unfortunately, the Pork Spare Ribs here taste of the same quality (~2+ days old, reheated) as their Yi Pin Luan Dwun.

Another unusually named item - which our waitress proclaims as a "very authentic Dalian dish" - is their Liu Rou Duan (Battered Pieces of Pork Pan Fried in Light Brown Sauce).

As she sets it down, it looks strangely like the dreaded Sweet & Sour Pork. But we each withhold our thoughts and take a bite: It's Sweet & Sour Pork. (>_<) The fried chunks of Pork are completely coated and doused with this sticky, sweet and slightly tangy "Brown Sauce" which really turns out to be Sweet & Sour Sauce. Out of all the dishes on the menu, this is probably the most disappointing and flies in the face of their proclamation for lighter, natural flavors of the ingredients.
Their Jia Chahng Dwun Yu Fen Hsi (Homestyle Slow Cooked Whole Fish) arrives next.

While their Battered Pieces of Pork Pan Fried may be the most disappointing item on the menu, the Homestyle Fish comes a close second: Freezer-burned Tilapia arrives completely overcooked, and it tastes like mud with heavy fishy overtones (in a bad way), and to add insult to injury, the Tilapia wasn't properly scaled, so every few bites yields a few Fish Scales to spit out.

Thankfully, things turn around with their Zi Rahn Yahng (Sliced Lamb Pan Fried), which should be more accurately listed as "Sauteed Lamb Slices with Cumin."

The Lamb is good and fresh: On the leaner side (not too fatty), with a little bit of gristle, but bright and gamy. The kitchen uses a Powdered Cumin, instead of the more commonly found Cumin Seeds, which gives the whole dish a more gritty, but interesting taste compared to most Cumin Lamb dishes.

On my 3rd visit, I start with their Qiang Bahn Hai Dai Hsi (Sliced Seaweed Strips in our Garlic and Vinegar Sauce).

Seaweed at many Chinese restaurants tend to taste pretty straightforward and one note, but Tasty Noodle House's version is outstanding. Bright, fragrant Garlic notes are interspersed with a touch of Vinegar between every supple, tender strand of the marinated Seaweed Strips. This is probably one of the best version of Seaweed Strips I've had in So Cal. Delicious. :)

Those looking for something very light should consider their Noodle Soups. We start with their Wu Hua Rou Da Lu Mian (Pork Belly Noodle Soup).

The Da Lu Broth is very light, so light that a couple of my guests (who actually enjoy lighter flavors) proclaim it "bland." The Pork Belly slices are chunky and dried out, although the Wood Ear Mushrooms, Carrots, Onions and Eggs help to make things more palatable. The Noodles are an outsourced, thick, chewy variety, closer to Udon Noodles than anything.

Their Hohng Shao Nio Rou Mian (Beef Stew Noodle Soup) continues the trend.

The Stewed Beef Shank thankfully tastes fresh and moderately tender. The Beef Broth is surprisingly just as light as their Da Lu Mian, and it straddles the line between "very light" and "bland," depending on your palate. The thick, chewy Noodles are the same as the ones used in their other Noodle dishes, providing a hefty, toothsome quality.

Tasty Noodle House features a "hidden" menu item (it's not translated into English on their menus): Shwei Jian Bao (literally "Water Seared Bun").

They use their Pork Buns and sear them in a pan, similar to a Sheng Jian Bao (Pan Fried Bun), and somehow, the extra oil and seared crust, helps to redeem their straightforward Pork Buns. There's a thin, crisped crust for each of the Buns and the inherent fragrance of searing dough really helps elevate the dish. They're no competition for JTYH's Sheng Jian Bao, but they're decent. Sadly, they have some consistency issues as during later visits, these Shwei Jian Bao turn out to be overly mushy. :(

Unlike their Steamed Buns, the kitchen wraps their Dumplings in large batches and freezes them to use throughout the week. Their best flavor might be the San Hsien Shwei Jiao (Pork, Shrimp and Sea Cucumber Dumpling).

The Dumpling skin has a medium thickness with a surprising airiness. And while the Pork, Shrimp and Sea Cucumber all taste relatively fresh, the Shrimp is overcooked, leading to some tough pieces of Shrimp with each bite.

With their emphasis on lighter cooking and using less Oil, Soy Sauce, etc., it's somewhat of a disappointment when we try their Tsohng Yoh Bing (Scallion Pan Cake).

Their Scallion Pancakes are completely saturated with oil, making them the greasiest, heaviest version I've tried in the SGV in years. To make matters worse, the Oil tastes reused with a musty, funky smell.

They do make an excellent Gahn Bian Hsi Ji Doh (Sauteed String Green Beans), however. The Green Beans have a fresh, Spring-like snap, while being just cooked-through to soften the texture a bit. It's restrained and only lightly salted.

Another surprising success is their Ma Po Doh Fu (Ma Po Tofu).

You're usually asking for trouble, ordering a Szechuan dish in a Northern Chinese restaurant, but the kitchen pulls it off with surprising skill. The Mapo Tofu exudes a beautiful aroma with a solid, medium burn. There's a nice balance of their spicy Dou Bahn Jiang and Peppers, along with the Ground Marinated Pork, Silken Tofu and Green Onions.

I'm excited to try their La Zi Too Ji (Diced Organic Chicken Pan Fried with Dried Red Chili Szechuan Style).

One of the oddest things I've found in certain Chinese restaurants that've recently opened in the San Gabriel Valley (usually Hunan restaurants specifically) is the use of "Chicken Scraps" (Chicken Bones with a tiny bit of meat left on them) for all their Chicken dishes. Perhaps it's to keep the costs down, or some nostalgic longing for the way it was prepared traditionally, but sadly, Tasty Noodle House does the same thing. It's essentially leftover Chicken Bones with bits of meat still left here and there (as if from a deboned Chicken), and at $9.99, it's certainly not to keep the price of the dish down; it's just baffling. (The waitress/owner mentioned that "it's because it's a high-quality organic Chicken; they don't have a lot of meat" which is flat out wrong in this case: It was literally bones and tiny bits of meat here or there at the most. Hm.)

Besides the lack of much actual meat, the flavors are very good: There's a light Soy Sauce flavor coming through, with a medium burn from the Chilies used.

One of the most enjoyable dishes that showcases a lot of the understated cooking by the kitchen is their Tsong Bao Yahng (Tendered Lamb Pan Fried with White and Green Onions in Brown Sauce).

The semi-fatty Lamb has just the right amount of marbling to give each bite some tender, juiciness, while the sweet spiciness from the Onions help to complement the gaminess of the Lamb. The Sauce used here is understated and you're really tasting the flavors of the key components more than anything.

Their Too Doh Hsi (Potato Strips Pan Fried with Jalapeno) highlights more of the subtle nature of their cooking.

The thin Potato strips retain a slight crunch while still having a clean mouthfeel, without a heavy starchy quality. The Jalapeno slivers add a mild heat level to each bite, as well as a fragrant, green aroma that only fresh Jalapenos can give. Delicious! :)

Continuing the streak of successful dishes is their Huo Bao Shuang Hwa (Sauteed Squid and Pig Kidney in a Light Wine Sauce).

The initial visual impression might be that this is a simple stir-fried dish of Squid and Pork Kidney with some Vegetables, but the flavors completely throw me for a loop: Tender pieces of Squid suddenly numb the tongue with the kitchen's use of Hwa Jiao (Szechuan Pepper), Dried Chilies and Jalapeno slivers. While the use of 3 different ingredients to impart spiciness may sound like a dish at Jitlada, it actually never gets beyond a medium-level of heat. Instead, the aromatic, numbing, slightly citrus-y burn only makes the dish more enticing. :)

The Pork Kidney is a bit overcooked, but still fresh, and the Garlic, Green Onions, Carrots, Wood Ear Mushrooms and Cilantro help to round out the dish nicely.

With two of their Lamb dishes turning out fairly delicious, I return for a 6th visit to see how their final Lamb dish turns out: Suan Tsai Yahng (Sliced Lamb Pan Fried with Pickled Vegetables).

There's a bit of translational error with this dish, as it turns out to be not "Pan Fried" at all (like their other 2 Lamb dishes), but instead, they literally strain the contents of their Suan Tsai Yahng Rou Tahng (Lamb with Pickled Vegetables Soup) and serve it on a plate. (>_>) So you're getting the flavors of the classic Lamb Soup, but without the Soup. I guess it's good for those that enjoy the flavors, but don't want to drink an entire clay pot worth of liquid. The thin slices of Lamb taste fine, boiled in the Soup for a few hours, and its gaminess is a perfect match for the tartness of the Pickled Napa Cabbage.

Service is generally on the painfully slow side, depending on how many tables there are. In each of my 6 visits, there's been only 1 waitress (the owner), who serves as the cashier, waitress and busboy for the entire restaurant. Prices range from $3.99 - $24.99, with most dishes around ~$8 - $10. We averaged about ~$18 per person (including tax and tip).

With a bold declaration to focus on the natural flavors of the ingredients and its "freshness," and to move away from the "heavy usage of oil, soy sauce and MSG" found in the "traditional Chinese way of cooking," Tasty Noodle House has found a culinary viewpoint that stands out from the sea of restaurants in the SGV. And while much of the menu is, indeed, light, subtle at times, and restrained, there are oddities that fly completely in the face of what they proclaim to do, with heavily sauced, greasy dishes like their Liu Rou Duan (a bad Sweet & Sour Pork dish), and the old, reheated taste of the meat in most of their long-cooked Stews and Soups. I personally prefer lighter cooking, so I'll return from time-to-time when I'm visiting friends in the area, but their Achilles' Heel of the quality of the meat in their long-cooked Soups and Stews (which are otherwise wonderful) is too much to overlook.

Rating: 6.1 (out of a perfect 10)

Tasty Noodle House (Yi Pin)
827 W. Las Tunas Dr.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 284-8898

Hours: Tues - Sun, [Lunch] 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


Eddie Lin said...

Hey great & comprehensive write-up. Odd though, and I think another "translational" problem on the part of Tasty Noodle House, because I thought traditional Dalian cuisine focused more on seafood since it is a coastal city.

At any rate, the food looks tasty. Thanks!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eddie,

Thanks. :) Yah, with a coastal city like Dalian, I thought they'd have a lot more emphasis on seafood (and they do incorporate seafood in many dishes), but much of the menu also looks like commonly found Chinese dishes.

gourmetpigs said...

Based on your description of the location and that photo I think I randomly meandered here one time. Had a good meal but wasn't mindblown :)
It was cheap though and sounds like they do lamb justice here, maybe I'll give it another go.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Yah, there are many dishes on the menu that are OK, and they do show a lighter hand for most dishes. Most items aren't really "amazing" but if you find the right dishes, it makes this an enjoyable visit if you're in the neighborhood.

SauceSupreme said...

I would argue that the corner of Las Tunas and Main has one of the greatest "densities" of good eats in LA. The only other block that comes close is the Thailand Plaza or maybe Grand Central Market.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi SauceSupreme,

Hope all is well! :) Yah that area has quite a few noteworthy places, and if Newport Seafood didn't move out (although it's only a few blocks down the street), it'd be even better than it is currently. :)

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