Photo by Jeanne RiceAs a little girl growing up in Taiwan, Susan Lee remembers watching her mother work in the kitchen for hours. Now she considers herself lucky if she can get away from work long enough for her mom's cooking on the occasional Sunday. Located within walking distance of Mile Square Park, Lee's restaurant—Momma's Chinese Kitchen—is a Fountain Valley strip-mall joint. The utilitarian interior is as uninspired as supermarket chow mein.
But a sign in the window hints at the art within, wrought from nothing but flour and water. Interspersed with Chinese characters on the dry-erase board are the words "hand-made noodles." Inside the tiny kitchen, Lee and her sister Tina daily turn out long flat noodles, dumplings and potstickers, just as their mother did so many years ago in China.
Before she opened Momma's a year and a half ago, Lee had restaurants in Redondo Beach and the City of Industry. She wanted something smaller so she could work less. But the seven tables of noodle-slurping customers at Momma's are misleading, representing just a fraction of Lee's daily business: it turns out that the bulk of her customers (85 percent to 90 percent of whom are Chinese) want lunch brought to them, and Lee delivers. These are people who know dumplings. One local conglomerate does so much business with Lee that she jokes about building an on-site kitchen.
The demand for these tender vittles can have its downside for the occasional customer. One weekday, I came in craving potstickers; Lee had sold $1,500 worth of them in takeout the day before and was fresh out for the next two days. When the tiny kitchen finally recovered, the potstickers were all I could have hoped for. Long and imperfect like so many malleable pea pods, the hand-formed dumpling skins are pan-fried to a golden brown. The pork-and-minced-vegetable filling is delicate and tender, unlike the clumsy stuff of bad dim sum.
The best-selling soup is a steaming vat of silky beef broth with tender cuts of marinated beef and slippery, homemade noodles that have a faint taste of sesame. In contrast, the house noodle soup is bland, like cabbage water—not at all a worthy medium for the luscious noodles. The combination fried noodles are better for takeout than the soups: they don't clump when they're tossed with morsels of chicken, beef and shrimp and covered in silken gravy. Lee makes the filling for the won tons but buys the labor-intensive skins. They are terrific in the spicy chile sauce.
One day, looking for something different, I was steered toward the No. 8. It combines stir-fried, oval-shaped rice pasta about the size of scallops with bamboo shoots, baby bok choy, bell peppers, onions and chicken. While it was fresher and tastier than any other Chinese food I've had in recent memory, the potstickers are what will bring me back.
Momma's Chinese Kitchen, located at 10964 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, is open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 968-8779. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $13, food only. Cash only.