Photograph by James Wojcik
Move over, rice—noodles are the Asian starch du jour. From Japan’s slippery ramen to Thailand’s chewy pad thai, they’ve all gone mainstream. One of the country’s most coveted reservations is at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan. Here in Los Angeles, Suzanne Tracht of Jar has a gourmet noodle house in the works for Beverly Boulevard. The menu at Century City’s RockSugar boasts five varieties. Silver Lake’s Pho Café draws lines of diners that rival those at Mozza.
Asian noodles are as much a part of L.A.’s culinary history as the orange, having arrived here with Chinese railroad workers in the late 1860s. They have coaxed us to obscure counters and back alley mom-and-pops, where we’ve plucked them from vegetable-laden platters, sizzling stir-frys, chilled salads, and bowls of broth.
Still, the array of choices can be daunting. Most noodles derive from one of three primary ingredients: wheat flour, rice flour, or starches extracted from roots or vegetables. Thinking of them by their base as opposed to their names—which vary by region as well as by country—will help to keep this tangle of noodles straight. Once made exclusively by hand, most are now manufactured in large factories. But L.A. has spots that make or serve them in the traditional style, and there’s no better way to get acquainted with these strands than by slurping them yourself.
For more than a millennium, dough made from wheat flour has been pinched off with fingers, cut with knives, or pulled by hand to create types as thick as dumplings and as fine as violin strings. No matter the form, their strong nutty flavor makes them the star of any dish, while rice or vegetable-starch noodles are often the supporting actors.
At China Islamic Restaurant (7727 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, 626-288-4246), the bulky dough slices that have been shaved from a large log are the predecessors of more refined noodles. Thick and absorbent, these are great for dunking in rich sauces or broth.
Olympic Noodle (4008 Olympic Blvd., Korea-town, 323-931-0007) makes kalguksu, or knife noodles—fettuccine-like strips that are cut by hand, then dropped in pungent anchovy or chicken soups.
Fat, spongy udon and hearty buckwheat-based soba are hand cut at Otafuku (16525 S. Western Ave., Gardena, 310-532-9348). Udon shows up in a bonito-based soup with a touch of citrusy yuzu juice, and the thinner soba strands are chilled and dipped in a cold broth of mirin and aged soy sauce.
If you prefer your noodles airborne, head to Malan Noodles (2020 S. Hacienda Blvd., Ste. B, Hacienda Heights, 626-369-5602), where you can choose your noodle width and watch your order being stretched and flung skyward as the dough separates into bouncy filaments.
Doing your own cooking? Wing Hing is a family-owned factory that supplies a variety of wheat noodles to Asian markets and restaurants. At the facility, near downtown Los Angeles, weighty rollers pummel and knead wheat dough into a half-dozen shapes and sizes.
Delicate and slithery, rice noodles have a milder flavor than wheat, making them ideal for bolder curries and spicy stir-frys. You’ll find them tossed with beef and bean sprouts in Cantonese chow fun or floating with fish balls in Thai soups. Not relegated to strands, they also come pressed into lacy wrappers, like Vietna-mese banh hoi, or as uncut sheets, like the sha he fen found on dim sum carts.
At Banh Cuon Tay Ho (1039 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-280-5207), a cook ladles a thin layer of rice batter onto muslin fitted over a steaming cauldron, then peels off the fragile sheet with a chopstick. Known as banh uot, these flat Vietnamese noodles come topped with meats and vegetables.
Vietnamese pho noodles are wispy white strands most often found in a tangy broth with meat and herb garnishes. At the modest pho Tau Bay LTT (3610 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, 714-531-6634), the pho ga is loaded with lightly poached chicken. For the beef pho, the kitchen omits the star anise from the broth, which results in a beefier flavor.
Known for its Thai noodle soups, Ord Noodle (5401 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-468-9302) offers a wide selection of fresh rice noodles in $3.50 servings that are great for sampling.
In Asian markets, look for noodles from Woo Kee, a factory in South El Monte. Workers pour rice batter on a long conveyor belt that travels through a steam tunnel. The noodle sheets that emerge are sliced into various widths to be packed and shipped to local restaurants and stores.
The starch from beans, tubers, and sea vegetables yields noodles that are almost flavorless but wonderfully chewy. These are all about consistency.
Korean naengmyeon, made with sweet potato starch or buckwheat, are so popular that most restaurants make their own. Chilbo Myunok (3680 W. 6th St., Koreatown, 213-387-9292) pumps a sweet potato dough mixture through a machine that looks like a giant potato ricer and into a vat of boiling water. The cooked noodles are then plunged in a chilled water bath. Try them in a cold beef broth (mul naengmyeon), slathered with a sweet-hot chili sauce (bibim naengmyeon), or surrounded by fresh veggies in a spicy cold noodle salad (jangeban naengmyeon).
Dangmyeon, another sweet potato-based noodle, goes into chap chae—a soy-sesame beef and veggie stir-fry that’s a favorite Korean comfort food. The upscale Jian BBQ (8256 Beverly Blvd., L.A., 323-655-6556) does a vegetarian version spiked with roasted sesame oil and black pepper.
The South Vietnamese have hu tieu, a clear tapioca-starch noodle that’s usually submerged in pork broth or served dry with broth on the side. My Hanh (9611 E. Garvey Ave., Ste. 109, South El Monte, 626-579-5112) offers more than a dozen versions that have devotees lining up.
Expert Advice: Dress Up Your rice
“In Thailand, red is a festival color. To turn rice red, I use only natural ingredients. You can soak the raw grains in pomegranate or beet juice for three to four hours and then cook them until tender in a rice cooker with the juice.” —Tommy Tang, executive chef, Tommy Tang’s
Expert Tip: How to Shop for Noodles
when it comes to noodles, don’t worry about nom–enclature. Choose according to the shape and the in-gredients listed on the package. The major styles are available in Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, and some Japanese markets but may be scattered all over the store. Look for fresh wheat noodles in the cooler. Chilling stiffens most rice noodles, so they’re shelved with bread products or in the produce section. For vegetable-starch noodles, check the dry noodle aisle. —Linda Burum