Friends of mine recently lamented that their dining experience at Dalian House in Bellevue (Washington) was forgettable. They wondered if they’d ordered the right things at a restaurant that presumably serves Dalian food. This got us to exchanging emails about the cuisine of the second largest city in the Chinese northeast province of Liaoning. Dalian’s proximity to the sea has blessed the cuisine with all sorts of marine creatures. When reviewing for the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold wrote about the ecstatic dishes that he had at Tasty Noodle House in San Gabriel, some of which featured jellyfish head and sea cucumber.
As it happens, I am in the San Gabriel Valley with my wife’s family, having just returned from New Zealand. My wife posed the idea of eating out at a Chinese restaurant tonight. Well, what about Tasty Noodle House, I suggested. Everyone was game. So, four of us went there for dinner. According to Gold, when the menu changed from a printed sheet to a beautifully designed laminated one sometime in 2010, so had the menu morphed into authentic Dalian. Sure enough, seafood made more of an appearance: shrimp, fish, squid, oyster and the aforementioned sea cucumber and jellyfish. I also read somewhere that vinegar figures more prominently in Dalian cuisine than in other Chinese cooking. Pickled napa is used in several dishes at TNH, most of the appetizers are dressed with vinegar sauce, meats are marinated and a bottle of black vinegar is on every table. Dalian specialties of buns (bao), pancakes and dumplings are also well represented on the menu, items that have gotten generally positive Yelp reviews.
If sea cukes and jellyfish aren’t your thing, also challenging on the menu are pig organ meats: intestine and kidney. Still, there are many dishes that less adventurous palates, such as ours, can eat. We opted for four items. Tender Beef Pan-Fried with Scallion in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆) has alliums aplenty. Copious slices of brown and green onions didn’t detract from a very savory, peppery brown sauce that appears on many of the menu’s other dishes. The beef could have lived up to its description more; it was slightly chewy.
I thought of puff pastry when I took a bite of Scallion Pan Cakes (☆☆½), a popular item on the menu. They were incredibly thin yet consisted of many fine layers of dough, the outermost one crackery and delaminating in spots. Bits of green onions were visible but whose flavor was barely detectable. What took away from otherwise wonderful pancakes was the taste of old, rancid frying oil.
Sautéed Green Beans (☆☆☆) were crisp, garlicky and cooked with Dalian dried baby shrimp.
The best entrée was Eggplant Pan-Fried with Dried Baby Shrimp in Brown Sauce (☆☆☆½), luscious, silky vegetables that are less heavily laden with oil than elsewhere, in a beautifully restrained yet flavorful sauce.
After such a satisfying meal, the menu invites return visits. To make things even better, the wait staff is far and away the friendliest we’ve ever encountered at a Chinese restaurant. Strange that I’d never noticed before, but the restaurant is located in the same strip mall as Golden Deli, Southern Mini Town and both Ton-Chan and Newport Seafood Restaurant before the former closed (replaced by Benten Ramen) and the latter moved to bigger digs down the street. I might be forgiven because Tasty Noodle House is at the far western end, past the point where the strip mall makes a right angle turn. Again, this begs the question whether Las Tunas Plaza is the best mini-mall for foodies in all of the San Gabriel Valley. It keeps surprising me.
Update (2-20-15): We were disappointed by a return meal for lunch.
The Pickled Napa, Pork Belly and Frozen Tofu Stewed in Clay Pot (☆☆) that I had high hopes for was a soup rather than stew, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it changed my expectations of it. The broth was seemingly flavored only by the pickled napa, thus becoming tart. Instead of unctuous slices, the pork belly was tough, not having seen any prior braising, again a shift in expectation, not chef’s intent. Long, linguine-shaped starch noodles were slippery to pick up and translucent and firm enough that they ironically seemed like jellyfish strands. The interesting ingredient was frozen tofu. When these soybean wonders are frozen, they take on a spongy texture that makes it easier to absorb other flavors. But, as the broth was one-dimensional for my taste, there wasn’t much to assimilate.
Of the two kinds we ordered, Cabbage Pork Dumplings (☆☆☆) was tastier than Leek and Fish Dumplings (☆☆½). A generous dozen crowded each plate; at $6.99 and $7.99, the dumplings are a bargain. They’re meant to be eaten quickly, dipped in soy sauce and black vinegar, for they cool off quickly. Their thick skins were practically a necessity as the dumplings tended to stick to the plate as the dough lost moisture; anything thinner, the dumplings would have torn. More to the point, they’re able to withstand pan-frying as potstickers.
Tasty Noodle House
827 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA