Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Breakfast Noodles in Chinatown, Los Angeles - A Tasting of Chiu Chow Soup Noodles

Chinatown Breakfast Noodles, Los Angeles

What is your breakfast fix everyday? What gets your day going?

If you ask me what I want for breakfast, the chances are that it won't involve fried eggs, bacon, waffles, pancakes or sausages. I love those but I can't eat that all the time. One thing I can eat everyday is noodles – soup noodles to be exact. And I'm not ashamed to bring out the inner FOB at 7:30 am, because a tasty goal s achieved. Over the last few months, I had given up searching for a nice lunch time option in the Westside area. Although I'll crave the Indian food on Venice Blvd., Santouka in the Mitsuwa plaza and the tiny Tokyo 77 Coffee Shop run by the sweet Japanese women, they still don't cut it for me sometimes. I thought to myself, maybe I'll just eat a HUGE breakfast and just skip lunch all together. Yes, great idea.

Because I'm right in the Echo Park area, I have access to some good ethnic enclaves. Thaitown to the Northwest, Koreatown to the Southwest and of course, Chinatown to the east by Downtown LA. While Chinatown is not regarded as a place for true, authentic Chinese food, there are some places that offer some decent soup noodle soups to offer. Over the last few decades, there had been a large influx of Vietnamese-speaking immigrants/business owners to Chinatown. Signs that had originally been written in Chinese, now had tiny captions written in Vietnamese and even in Cambodian. But they are not Vietnamese nor Cambodian, they are people from the city of Chiu Chow ( 潮州 ) located within the Guangdong province. The Chiu Chow are also known as Chao Zhou, Trieu Chau, Teo Chew and Diojiu. The people of this province have strong migration patterns due mainly to commerce. They are in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and even Burma. If you've never heard the Chiu Chow language, it strongly resembles the Taiwanese language, both of which are derived from the Hakka dialect. It makes sense the people of Taiwan are originally from the mainland province of Fu Jian. Just Southwest of that is Chao Zhou.

Chinatown Chicken

Anyway, let's not get too historical, I hope you're starting to get hungry. You've probably had Chiu Chow food if anything – wontons, fish balls, pork balls, beef balls, squid balls, shrimp balls, wide 'ho fun' rice noodles and yellow egg noodles... products of people from Chiu Chow province that have brought their foods along with them all over Asia. The most common dish involving all these delicious foods comes in a noodle soup form with various meats, offals, meat balls or seafood- 粿條, guo tiao (Mandarin), goh tiew (Cantonese) hu tieu, kway teow (Thai) and kuy teav (Khmer).

Here are a few places that I frequent in the Chinatown area. I will get into my fave breakfast places in Thaitown and Koreatown in a future posting. But for now, these will hopefully keep you full and content for a very little price.

A few things on how to maximize your experience at a Chiu Chow restaurant:

(1) Chiu Chow broth is typically made with pork/chicken bones, dried shrimp/squid, fish sauce and rock sugar and has a very delicate taste. At times, it can be considered bland when you're putting it up against other dishes such as Vietnamese bun bo hue, Northern Chinese beef noodle soup or Thai boat noodles. Chiu Chow restaurants will usually provide you with a nice big tray of condiments with the usual Sriracha, Sambal Oelek, Hoisin sauce and fish sauce. But in addition, you'll see the Satay chili bbq sauce, pickled green chilis, crushed chili flakes, red/black/white vinegar, chopped peanuts and sometimes a sauce similar to Maggi Seasoning. Put on your blue gloves, goggles and lab coat - experiment a little!

(2) Chiu Chow people are masters of making all types of meatballs, fishballs and seafood pastes. Once you've eaten them in Hong Kong or in Taiwan, you'll know what I mean. You can usually buy them by the pound for like $5-6, and they usually taste far better than packaged meatballs at your local asian market.

(3) Chiu Chow restaurants will typically have a menu written in English, Chinese, Vietnam and Cambodian (not to be mistaken for Thai). They will have familiar dishes like fried, beef chow fun, gravy noodles and the like, but I typically avoid those.

(4) Chinese donuts (條, 油炸鬼) are usually only served in the morning. They won't sell any past 11 am. I like to dip them in the soup and some jungle sauce I conjured of consisting of fish sauce, hoisin and sambal oelek.

(5) Fried shallots/garlic are a big thing in Chiu Chow soup noodles. It's free of charge for a little flavor kick.

(6) Most Chiu Chow restaurants will offer a noodle mix. Here's a noodle guide taken from the Kim Chuy Restaurant of Chinatown.

Types of Noodles used in Chiu Chow Cuisine

Mien Nghia Chinatown, Los Angeles

Mien Nghia Restaurant 綿 義
I had written about this place before and know the staff quite well. Run by a group of Chiu Chow people, they speak Cantonese, Mandarin ,Vietnamese and Chiu Chow and offer various types of soup noodles... no rice! The short, stouty man, Duc, may seem rough along the edges but for me he keeps things interesting at Mien Nghia. They have two other locations in Rosemead and San Gabriel, and in competition with several other Chiu Chow restaurants.

Mien Nghia Chinatown, Los Angeles - Satay Chili Sauce

Mien Nghia, in my opinion, is known especially for their satay chili BBQ sauce. This condiment is essential for soup noodles and without it, the soup is really nothing more than a simple broth made of pork bones and chicken bones. It is made with chilis, garlic, shallots, peanuts, dried shrimp and oil. If this sauce uses dried scallops or Chinese ham, it then graduates as a sauce known as XO sauce used in gourmet Cantonese cuisine. The chef/owner of Mien Nghia works at the Rosemead location and I find the sauce to be better here. You can buy this sauce in a styrofoam cup for like $5 and take your own noodles cooked at home to the next level.

Mien Nghia Chicken Fish Noodles

#36 Chicken & Fried Fish Cake Rice & Egg Noodle Mix
By far, their most popular noodle, followed closely by the pork kidney soup noodles and seafood combo. It usually comes with fresh sole fish slices lightly mixed in starch to add a gentle bite/texture to it during boiling. I usually go for the fried fish cake slices (炸 魚 片)because it's a favorite of mine. Can't decide between rice noodles or egg noodles? Each one of Mien Nghia's soup noodles comes in a mixed noodle version making your indecisive stomach very happy. I also find the soup and chicken to be much tastier here than the Rosemead and San Gabriel location. Could be due to the fact that they can get fresh chickens at poultry shops right around the corner in Chinatown. But overall, you can't go wrong with any of the chains.

Mien Nghia Chinatown, Los Angeles

Notes

Mien Nghia sometimes puts TOO much noodles in their bowls (rather tall bowls, not wide) with TOO little soup. After a minute or two, the noodles have absorbed a good portion of liquid, making the noodles stick together like a dense haystack. Not fun because you have to untangle them like a bowl of yarn. Ask for a larger bowl to contain this growth.

Hoan Kiem Chinatown, Los Angeles

Hoan Kiem 湖 劍
Hoan Kiem (literally, Sword Lake) is located in the same plaza as another Chiu Chow restaurant Kim Chuy Restaurant (金 水 Far East Plaza) which has probably been around since the 80s. It's run by a Chiu Chow man from Vietnam and his wife & daughter. With a photo menu that touts a whopping TWO items, the people there have a pretty good chance of guessing your order correctly. Will it be their tasty, home-style pho ga (chicken rice noodle soup) or pork & wood ear fungus-filleed rice crepes known as banh cuon? I usually come for this:

Hoan Kiem Chinatown, Los Angeles - Pho Ga

Pho Ga
(Chicken Rice Noodle Soup)
While this traditional Vietnamese dish is nowhere near ultimate, the soup here is quite tasty, so tasty it'll make you say "M...S...Geezus". It's life's philosophy of giving and taking. You want something tasty, you have to give up something. It is probably more of a 'Chinese' style noodle soup rather than a true Vietnamese pho ga. And what a great way to remedy a sickness, as Campbell's does. My only problem with the standard pho ga here is the usage of white meat chicken – large, bland chunks that may suggest that you're actually eating rubber. It actually costs more for you to ask them for chicken gizzards. If they used the same exact chicken from Mien Nghia, man this would be tasty. I love the medium-sized rice noodles. Add some black pepper, Sambal Oelek and a little fish sauce and I'm a happy man. They also serve a dipping sauce for your dry chicken rubber.

Hoan Kiem Chinatown, Los Angeles - Pho Ga

Notes
When I shot this a few months back, the owner and his family were still there. I came back here a few weeks ago and was surprised not to the see the same family. I actually found out from Rameniac, who used to eat here weekly, that they had retired. The new people running it were their nieces and nephews. And sadly, the soup is no longer the same. But give it a try and you may find something I'm missing.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles

New Kamara Restaurant
Mien Nghia, I am sorry, but it is time we end our relationship. It's been a good two years and I'll never forget the times we had. I've moved on and found some one new, unique and she's quite hot. It's true, I've found a noodle shop that makes me even happier. I owe it to the true Noodle Whore, my dad. He raised me on soup noodles and passed on much of the Asian food knowledge I try to pass on this blog. He took me here back in the late 90s but we stopped going. I came back here another time, and was disappointed. And in one last effort to find something different than Mien Nghia, I came back – but there were new people running it. The second I walked in I knew there was something good in store for me. The scent of fresh broth made of pork bones, rock sugar, dried squid and freshly fried garlic – a broth that is very characteristic of Chiu Chow/Cambodian cuisine. If you've eaten hu tieu nam vang, then you've eaten a Vietnamese variation of a Chiu Chow noodle dish. Nam Vang is the Vietnamese term for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia (Kampuchea). I've eaten here probably over 30 times in about a 3 month span – no joke. Graham of Noodle Pie has a nice write up on HTNV.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles - Chiu Chow Egg Noodle Soup

Chiu Chow Seafood Combo
This is Kamara's variation of what the Vietnamese refer to as hu tieu nam vang. In the broth, you get shrimp, ground pork, pork slices, liver, duck, pork balls, fish cake and your choice of noodles. The pork balls and fish cake are made in house.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles - Chiu Chow Egg Noodle Soup with Chili Sauce

An Upgraded Bowl of HTNV
This is the way I eat it. Remember the part about experimenting with the condiment tray? I do this... 3 scoops of the homemade chili sauce (peanuts inside), some fish sauce, some fake-Maggi sauce (looks like soy sauce), white pepper, Sambal Oelek and finally, lime juice. Another thing to mention is the noodle selection. They use a brand of noodles made by a company called Hong Tou Noodle Inc. over by Highland Park/Garvanza. After years of eating Kim Tar brand egg noodles, I've finally found a noodle that has EXCELLENT bite to it in both wide and thin sizes. the only place that I have seen these at is at Silom Thai market in Thai Town for $1.79 a pack. I also ask for an extra shot of fried garlic and man, it really brings out the broth.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles - Wonton Noodle Soup

Kamara's Wontons
While these are not by true definition, wontons, these make a really nice addition to your-already-very-delicious bowl of seafood & pork noodles. Chef Wu uses wonton skins made by Hong Tou Noodles Inc. to create these soft, velvety wontons that almost seem to have just the right amount of bite, yet be slurpable at any point. All he uses is ground pork, but there's a nice 'chewy bounce' to it that I really enjoy. This is what I order every time and the employees here don't even bother passing me a menu.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles - Chiu Chow Dry Egg Noodles

Chiu Chow Dry Noodles
Another thing Chinese people are into is, low mein, which refers to soupless noodles that have been tossed with some light sauce and topped with meat or seafood. You can order the same seafood & pork combo sans soup and it's very very delicious. Chef Wu adds a nice sauce and kicks it up with some fried garlic. I took J here to try this and now she is hooked. Her mom too.

New Kamara Chinatown, Los Angeles - Pork Bone Soup

Pork Bone Soup
Any bowl of dry noodles will come with this pork bone soup. I love it. I'll peel off all the meat and shred them over the dry noodles and make an ultimate noodle concoction. Simple visit to the condiment station and you're good to go.

This place is also the backdrop for what I call the Cambodian Lotto Social Club. At any time of the day, you'll see older Cambodian-Chinese men in the shopping center and in the restaurant, with eyes on a store that has a Lotto screen faced towards New Kamara. Everyday, they try out their luck and whether or not they win, New Kamara is more than just a restaurant for them – it's their community. New Kamara, my new love, is by no means a place I would recommend you driving an hour for. It's more of a place that feels very homey to me and proof that you don't need to overcomplicate food. The wonton seafood noodles are a big clusterfuck of various asian ingredients that somehow makes sense to me and my stomach. And I hope that you'll like them too. Thanks for reading.

Mien Nghia
304 Ord Street (c/o Broadway)
Los Angeles, 90012
(213) 680-2411
Mon-Sun 7 am - 5 pm

Hoan Kiem (in Far East Plaza)
727 N. Broadway
Los Angeles, 90012
(213) 617-3650

New Kamara (in Asian Center)
709 N. Hill Street
Los Angeles, 90012
(213) 620-1090
Mon-Sun 7:30 am - 5 pm

21 comments:

Daily Gluttony said...

oh man, oh man, oh man...it's 7:30 am and i'm now craving noodles for breakfast! thinking about going to get me some. since i'm too lazy to drive to chinatown, do you have any thoughts on the mein nghia in san gabriel? i drive by it all the time & it's just alot closer for me.

i've broken out the noodles, rice, porridge, bao, etc for breakfast quite a few times at work and i always get the "omg, how can you eat THAT for breakfast????" line from someone. i always answer with, "what??? it's ok for someone to eat greasy-ass bacon and eggs but it's not ok for me to eat this???" shuts them up every time.

Oishii Eats said...

DG...let's meet up at New Kamara...my favorite budget brunch spot. Bring your lotto tickets because afterwards we can hang out with all the mangs outside. Get ready for the asian squat.

choisauce said...

my ultimate breakfast/comfort food is soup and rice or noodle soup. i can eat this every damn morning.

the mien nghia on garvey in rosemead is the one i frequented ALL THE TIME in hs/college. just hated that they close so early. simple, comfort food. i always got the fish and chicken one with flat rice noodles please! oh and plenty of that chili sauce. i know what u mean about the too much noodle to soup ratio. those noodles just seem to expand more and more. lol. and ive seen people get both the egg noodle and rice noodle in the same bowl! noodle overload- YUM. ive never been to the chinatown location but its a lot closer to me than anything in sgv. im definitely checking it out now, along with the others.oh man, i think my stomach just growled :(

eatdrinknbmerry said...

DG, you have about 1,000 more breakfast/lunch options than I do. quit complaining ha! Mien Nghia SG is fine, they all are/ But since I've been to all of them, I did notice differences. Oh let's not get into the whole workplace "what are you eating for lunch? looks good" issue. One day, I am going to bust out chicken feet, balut, korean silkworms and steamed tripe at a company function and hear what they have to say.

J, we're going to win. Celebrate over a bowl of noodles. Then gamble our winnings. Repeat for 10 years.

Choisauce, you're korean right? I went thru a phase of eating suhl lung tang and myeol-chi kalgooksoo for breakfast. So good. regarding MN, most chiu chow places will close early. They are usually a 7am - 5pm type of business.

tara said...

Although I'm almost on the other side of the continent and in a whole other country, good gracious, I have a need to head to Chinatown right now. Great comparisons and tastings, love every photo.

Pepsi Monster said...

Hey D,

Remembered a long time ago when I went to Mien Nghia and post up a quasi review of it? You asked me how I knew about that place. I told you I read it from somewhere and you drop a link thinking it was from there.

I quickly said "no". Little did I know it was from your old site. Damnit, I need more tips on the noodle joints!

Ben Gordon said...

Great post! I have been following your blog for a long time, and it is stunningly good.

EatTravelEat said...

Another great post with great text and photos! New Kamara Restaurant looks very promising- there is such a nice array of colors in each dish and you can easily tell each dish will definitely taste wonderful.

Interesting noodle choice photo with so many different choices! Very descriptive.

Passionate Eater said...

You just reminded me why I am crazy-jealous of everyone who lives in LA --they have infinite soup noodle options. I am going to go eat my instant ramen noodles now, while sulking in my closet.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Tara, thank you for dropping by. Nice blog you have!

Pepsi, haha yeah I remember that. Have you been back lately? I plan to bring more noodleprostitution back since that seems to be a favorite in LA. No matter which celeb chef or new trend that comes into the city, noodles will never be old to me.

Ben Gordon, much appreciated.

ETE, thank you. Where do you get your noodle fixes?

PE, there's nothing in New Orleans? Should be a rather large Vietnamese community down there. You should show us what your decked out ramen looks like haha.

TonyC said...

Q: are the 2 Ming Nhia's in SGV of the same ownership? No one ever verifed and I always wondered.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Mr. C, yeah I'm pretty sure they are under one guy (stationed at Rosemead one on SG blvd/Garvey). I've tried to buy the sauce at the Chinatown and San Gabriel location but they've all re-directed me to the Rosemead spot, where the chef/owner makes his sauce. The other locations will only sell their sauce if they have enough.

Passionate Eater said...

There is no ramen in NOLA. Period. But I actually recently moved back to SF to be with my hub, so I guess ramen is in my future now. Also, I just gave you an award, so please pick it up!

Anonymous said...

YOUR POST ALWAYS PLEASE ME ANY WHICH WAYS...AND IT MAKE MY MOUTH WATERING...TO SEE ALL THE PHOTOS OF NOODLES ... LUCKY ME THAT MY HUSBAND DOES NOT EAT ALL OF THESE COMFORT FOOD...WHAT A PAIN... BUT ANYWAY THANKS FOR SHARING AND I KNOW IT'S ALL FROM LOVE WHICH YOU LIKE TO SHARE ON YOUR POST. PEACE...

EatTravelEat said...

EDBM,

Usually places like Mandarin Noodle Deli in Temple City, HK style cafes, and thai restaurants like the thai boat noodle place you ate at for Anthony Bourdain's show (which I also have on DVR :) ).

MND was and has been a spot we went to for many years :). Best beef noodle soup ever! Until these few years where the quality seems to be dropping.

Bon Vivant said...

I cried when I read this post. I've been trying to find great noodle places up here but nothing compares to the noodle restaurants in LA.

Christine D. said...

*groans* I was looking at that noodle chart and thought "ooh, my favs, flat egg and medium wide rice noodles!" Then i scroll down and see that you ordered those. Man...Ohio blows.

Great post. At least my eyes are satiated!

christina said...

Daily Gluttony hit the spot for my stomac, taste, the community, and the best of all I am Chiu Chow. These are all the food I crave when I am sick, need the love, and brings me back to my roots.
Really enjoy your write up on the history, pictures and the restaurants. Will try the other ones I havn't been to, I go to the ones in Alhambra and SGV.

Keep sharing cause I really enjoy FOOD!!

e d b m said...

PE, aiye. Haha, thanks again for the award. Now that you're back in SF, are you going to eat at Bar Crudo? God, I miss that place.

MomInLaw, I'm taking you to Kamara soon ok?

EatTravelEat, the last time I ate at MND was a few years back. I think the soup/beef scallion pancake were good but I haven't been back since then.

Bon Vivant, hey you have to give and take. You get all the access to some of California's best wine and scenery, but you lose out on good food and bad drivers on Valley Blvd. Hope the eating is going well up there!

Christine D, Ohio?! Give us your address, we'll send some noodles in dry ice right now.

Christina, thank you. Where do you usually go in SGV? My dad raised us on Kim Chuy (still on Valley Blvd.) and Kim Tar (used to be on Valley Blvd where the Wendy's/Lee Sandwich is... back in 1986.) Since then, there have been tons of new places like Noodle House, Kim Ky Noodle House, Mien Nghia, etc.

Christina said...

We were probably neighbors back in the 80s. I lived on sixth street in Alhambra, our dinner was picking up a pound of bbq pork from Sam Woo. And we go to Kim Chuy for their beef and fish ball when we need buy it for noodles.
Yup, raise up in Kim Chuy, Kim Ta (was on Atlantic Blvd in MPK). Now there is the Cali Vietnamese Deli I visit when I am in the area. Great prices and lots of pho, and rice plates.
What a small world especially when we enjoy good old fashion chinese food:)
Christina

pmatthews said...

Great blog!!
Thanks for sharing.

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