Niu rou mian and more in Monterey Park:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
If you’re anywhere in the San Gabriel Valley and determined to track the openings and closings of purveyors of exotic cuisine − say, soupy xiao long bao dumplings − you’ll end up absolutely dizzy. The area’s countless Chinese restaurants, offering regional recipes culled from every corner of the homeland, can be almost impossible to follow, with restaurants sprouting and closing like desert flowers in time-lapse photography. The scene shifts so quickly it’s sometimes too fast even for the kitchens that occupy it, as new restaurants are often stuck with vestigial signage still displaying the names of places one or two generations behind. And so that endless evolution produces some unintentional consequences: restaurants hidden in plain view, customers confused by non-existent dishes.
Kam Hong Garden is part of that great gastronomical stretch of Garvey Avenue. It’s a comparatively steady spot, but not immune to signs of transience: Above the register, for example, there’s a backlit menu once intended for counter-based ordering. Now, however, the menu is reversed, flipped away from the dining room and made into a dim, unreadable reminder of some other restaurant’s short life. But once you get hold of the actual menu, one thing is clear: Kam Hong Garden offers a primer on the power of handmade noodles.
Though it won’t affect the taste of any dish, choosing your preferred noodle is a nearly philosophical decision, telling of both appetite and personality. There are three distinct varieties here: knife-cut, hand-pulled and machine-cut. Knife-cut noodles are sheared off from a ball of dough − thick, uneven sheets that tangle together in your stomach. Hand-pulled noodles are stretched out like taffy until they’re pulled apart in almost spaghetti-like strands. Machine-cut noodles, meanwhile, are (unsurprisingly) uniform, pressed from a machine behind the counter that rumbles like a broken blender.
If you’re looking to fill up fast, order the knife-cut noodles, which are best when bathing in one of Kam Hong Garden’s noodle soups. Of those steaming bowls, niu rou mian is the standard-bearer, a dish so popular in Northern China and Taiwan that it gets its own festivals. For those who’ve slurped through a number of noodle soups, niu rou mian should be familiar: it’s based on a pho-like broth that’s spiced with star anise and clove. Blocks of stewed beef bob in the broth, tender even to a chopstick’s tap. But the restaurant’s knife-cut noodles are what make the bowl − ribbons of perfect consistency, chewy but never gummy. There are a lot of other noodle soup options − lamb and yam, mixed bits of seafood and pickled vegetables and pork − but niu rou mian is the classic for good reason.
Though it’s all a matter of preference, Kam Hong Garden’s hand-pulled and machine-cut noodles seem better suited to drier dishes. Among the best of those lightly sauced bowls are the Shanxi noodles. Named for China’s top noodle province, the Shanxi noodles deploy cool cuts of cucumber for a refreshingly subtle flavor. Most of the soup-less noodle bowls get similarly simple pairings, but there are also a few variations (like the bowl of pork blood and chitterlings) that should be eaten only by experienced noodlers.
Kam Hong Garden doesn’t stop at noodles − there are workmanlike dumplings, thin-skinned scallion pancakes and a separate section of Taiwanese tastes − but you should. The San Gabriel Valley’s various Chinese cuisines are already splintered into a thousand different subgenres, restaurants recommended on the most microscopic merits. But with Kam Hong Garden’s noodles, you can finally find some stability.
Kam Hong Garden, 848 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 280-9318. Open six days a week, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Lot parking. Vegetarian friendly. Cash only. Food for two: $10-20.