101 Noodle Express Teaches You Chinese 101
A plastic banner is currently draped over the Nice Time Deli marquee in Irvine, the longstanding Taiwanese restaurant that was the gateway for many in this once-vanilla city to realize Chinese food is more than just orange chicken and kung-pao everything. The banner reads, "Lu Wei Ju" in Chinese, but it's temporary; when the owners get around to replacing it with a real sign, this new restaurant they will rechristen with its English name: 101 Noodle Express, which is only forgettable if you aren't familiar with the highly regarded San Gabriel Valley eatery that has wowed the likes of Jonathan Gold with its beef rolls.
The Alhambra original still thrives on the reputation of that dish. With its tortilla-like crepes bundling thin-shaved slices of ruddy anise-inflected beef, jellied tendon, chopped cilantro and swipes of hoisin sauce, these are dead ringers for Alberto's carne asada burritos. With 101 Noodle Express' arrival, it's now completely feasible to walk from one end of the Irvine shopping plaza that houses it to the other and pick up at least three variations of the dish from all the restaurants along the way. This version is crispy and subtle, not as greasy as Liang's or as flaky as Chef Chen's, but a welcome addition all the same, even in a town not lacking in beef rolls.
Actually, what it needs more of is what 101 Noodle Express calls its leek-and-egg omelets. Not actual omelets, they are two giant, deep-fried, thin-skinned empanadas filled with a mixture of chopped chives, beaten eggs and clear noodles. Cut into halves and served finger-burning-hot from the fryer, the puffed-up pockets practically spill out their contents and taste strongly of the verdant herb. Since the owners are from Shandong, there's also a featured chicken dish named after the region; it's served atop cucumbers. Order the De Zhou chicken, and you get essentially the same bird, but unadorned here, hacked up on the bone to chopstick-pick-up-able pieces and reassembled on a plate. The city of De Zhou is renowned for this twice-cooked chicken, in which an initial deep fry renders the flop and fat from the skin. A braise follows, tea-staining it a pallid brown and infusing the meat with a five-spice warmth and the zing of something alcoholic. Though it's served almost tepid, the dish wasn't as thrilling as the thoroughly refrigerated Queen's chicken I once had from the secret Taiwanese menu at the now-defunct May Garden.
The rest of the menu pinballs around China, flirting with such disparate items as Sichuan-style cold dishes and cumin-loaded lamb skewers common to the street markets of Xinjiang. But 101 Noodle Express' true calling is dumplings. More than half the menu is dedicated to them, stuffed with pork, shrimp, fish, lamb and every species of vegetable from spinach to pumpkin. For every boiled dumpling, there's a pan-fried potsticker counterpart with browned bottoms. The pumpkin-filled ones evoke the gourd's sweetness, and the plain pork version spurts hot broth, so plan your bites accordingly—I have a pair of pork-juice-stained pants to stand as a cautionary tale. The fish dumplings are smooth as mousse, even if the dough that clings to them can be perfectly thin one day, too thick the next. If you encounter any dumpling containing "hua vegetable," know that it means dill, the herb adding a slightly tannic aftertaste.
While those dishes are already must-order, the restaurant is still finding its bearings. Ironically, 101 Noodle Express' noodle dishes seem the weakest part of its repertoire. The spicy peanut-sauce-coated strands of the dan dan mian are excessively oily and lack the roundness of flavor that marks the dish. The broth for the beef noodle soup called niu rou mian sips bland and watered-down when compared to the vinegar-powered tang of Liang's or the sweetness of Chef Chen's soups. And despite the presence of the softly crumbling homemade fish balls, snow peas and whole steamed shrimp, the seafood noodle soup could've doubled for dishwater.
Currently, the service at 101 Noodle Express can be frustratingly inept when it's busy, which, during this honeymoon period, is most of the time. Missing orders are routine. On one visit, after being ignored and forgotten, I finally marched up to the counter to ask for water, chopsticks and napkins. Those with any sort of patience should excuse the disorganization and chaos. After all, this is the kind of place that only takes cash and removes the plastic cling wrap covering the pre-made cold dishes upon service. The best dish, a bracing appetizer of chilled cucumber flecked with garlic and sweetened with sugar, is brought out this way. I ate the spears and felt its surging coolness wash over me, calmness settling soon after. 101 Noodle Express isn't there all the way yet, but when it does, expect the lines longer, the service worse—but all worth it.
This review appeared in print as "Chinese 101: 101 Noodle Express replaces Irvine's Nice Time Deli, but is it worthy of the legend?"
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