In Search of Sour: A Tale of Two Bowls

February 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last year, one of most intriguing things I tasted was a bowl of noodles from a newly opened Shaanxi joint in the San Gabriel Valley. Despite the self-effacing name, the minced-meat noodles were a bold mix of bright, fresh flavors, led by a tantalizingly sour soup. Since then, I’ve gotten so addicted to tangy tastes that I’ve been nosing around the city, searching for another mouth-puckering fix.

One recent (at least to me) discovery has been Guilin sour-spicy rice noodles, a popular fixture at Guilin restaurants that is famous in much of China. Guilin is a city located in the southern Guanxi province, a state that is close to the great cities and Cantonese cooking of the Pearl River Delta. However, Guilin is also about as close to Hong Kong as it is to Changsha, the capital of the Hunan province. While the food of Guilin seems to absorb a diverse array of culinary influences, the hallmarks of Western Chinese cooking make regular appearances across the menu. Cold appetizers like pig ears and shredded bean curd come drenched in spicy chili oil, and jars of slightly pungent chili paste are within easy reach at the table.

In Guilin, rice noodles (mifen) are a popular breakfast staple and snack, but the dish also has a fascinating history. Some accounts of the dish’s origins date back to the age of unified China’s first emperor, the prolific and harsh Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C. – 210 B.C.).  During the construction of the nearby Ling canal, workers from Northern China were brought in to provide much of the brutal labor, probably in the form of a corvée workforce. As a result of this new population and its diet, clever cooks in the area fashioned noodles out of rice to suit the tastes of these workers, who were much more familiar with the wheat noodles of the north than the quotidian rice dishes of the south.

Finding Guilin food in the San Gabriel Valley is not difficult, and before long, I had an opportunity to sample a couple different varieties of Guilin sour-spicy beef noodles, a fragrant dish that seems to recall Vietnamese pho as much as a sturdy bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

At Gui Lin Cuisine, the menu includes plenty of vegetable, meat, and dumpling dishes, but the specialty of the house is the rice noodles. The large bowl of soup comes with thin slices of beef, fried peanuts, vegetables, and pieces of wilted lettuce. The peanuts are a welcome and unexpected addition to the soup—they contrasted nicely with the spiciness of the soup—but the wilted lettuce leaves add nothing to soup except perhaps trappings of authenticity. (It showed up in both bowls of Guilin noodles I tried, and I wondered if a pickled green or two would have been both heartier and tastier.) While the plentiful numb-spicy (mala) flavors make this a less-than-subtle dish, the tantalizing sour flavor is a pleasing complement that seems to propel the addictive quality of the spicy soup even further.

The sour and spicy beef noodles at Dandan’s Guilin Rice Noodles are mostly similar to the ones at Gui Lin Cuisine. The rice noodles come with familiar accoutrements (though on request, the restaurant will serve the noodles and broth separate), and the taste is nearly similar, though Dandan’s version has an herbier taste that seems to indicate a sprinkling of Sichuan peppers. However, the dish at Dandan’s ranks a couple notches higher in my book thanks to the noodles. Tender with just a touch of springiness, Dandan’s noodles taste fresher than the overcooked specimens at Gui Lin Cuisine. Overall, I wonder if there is not a yet an even better exemplar of this Guilin specialty hiding in the rhizomatic world of the San Gabriel Valley, but these two fill the gap and temper my sour fixation for the moment.

Gui Lin Cuisine
138 E. Garvey Ave., #C
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Dandan’s Guilin Rice Noodles
140 W Valley Blvd., Ste. 203
San Gabriel, CA 91778

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