Monday, April 19, 2010

Post 16.3: Oodles of Noodles (LA-SGV: Arcadia/Alhambra)

A post on A&J Restaurant (半畝園) cannot be complete without mentioning the oodles of noodles on their menu.  As a purveyor of the hand-pulled noodle, A&J has a variety of noodles that ranges from the ever-popular Taiwanese braised beef noodle soup to Szechwan-style noodles in sesame and peanut sauce (AKA dan dan noodles) to native favorites such as zhajiang noodles.  Many of these noodles hail originally from Szechwan (Sichuan) Province of China, but have been popular in America by Taiwanese noodle houses like A&J.  Here is a look at some of A&J's most popular noodles:

Braised beef noodle soup (紅燒牛肉麵)
listed on the menu as spicy beef noodle soup

Braised beef noodle soup is almost a staple of Taiwanese noodle houses everywhere.  And although it was first introduced to Taiwan in the 1950s, it has become one of Taiwan's most popular and well known national foods.  Every family, every chef, every restaurant adds different ingredients to their beef noodle soup, but the method is standard everywhere... and it begins with braising or stewing beef broth until the beef is tender and the soup is flavorful.  A&J's beef noodle soup is infused with soy sauce and succulent beef that isn't the least bit tough.

It's topped off with bok choy and sliced green onions for health, color, and flavor.  Some noodle-goers like to add cilantro as garnish while others cannot go without topping the noodle soup off with pickled mustard greens for some crunch and flavor contrast.

Dan dan noodles (擔擔麵)
listed on the menu as noodles in hot spicy sesame sauce topped with peanut powder

Dan dan noodles are simply noodles with sesame and peanut sauce.  Dan dan refers to the shoulder poles that peddlers or hawkers used to carry the noodles back in the old days in China's Szechwan Province.  It's one of my go-to noodles that I know I can count on whenever I'm indecisive... or feeling down.  This is my big bowl of comfort.  I remember the days when I used to sit at the kitchen table watching my Aunt Wendy make this dish.  I would ask my Aunt Wendy to top off my bowl of dan dan noodles with a dollop of Peter Pan brand peanut butter to soften the blow of the spicy Szechwan chili.  I ate dan dan noodles whenever I needed to soften the blow of bad grades or parental punishment.  How fitting.

Dan dan noodles are the grown-up, sinicized version of licking peanut butter from a spoon.  I relish in its comfort; I relish in its simplicity.  Even the name is simple... dan danAnyone, Chinese-speaking or not, can order it easily.  

Many variations of this noodle exist.  Some are prepared with a heaping pool of chili oil, and some others include ground pork.  But my favorite is simply noodles, sauce, and a hint of pickled mustard greens.  How simple, how amazing.

Zhajiang noodles (炸醬麵)
listed on the menu as noodles with ground pork, bean sprouts and shredded cucumber

Zha is to fry, and jiang is the word for sauce.  Ground pork has been stir-fried with either soybean paste or black bean paste as the base for these noodles, hence the name zhajiang noodles.  Some versions of zhajiangmian include diced carrots or dried bean curd (tofu) in the sauce, but I prefer mine without.  I prefer A&J's version... hand-pulled noodles cooked just to a chewy, elastic, al dente consistency (or a 'Q' consistency for Taiwanese), ground pork, and cold bean sprouts and cucumber.  Yum.

A&J offers many more noodles on the menu, but these were some of the favorites for regulars and first-timers alike.  The same menu (and more) is offered at A&E Restaurant (北平麵館), which was A&J Restaurant's original location before it became a chain restaurant.  Got a favorite bowl of noodles? Share yours.  Until then, let's get S.O.F.A.T.

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