I was at 99 Ranch today buying lime leaves and lemongrass for a friend in Florida who doesn't have any good Asian markets nearby, and it was lunchtime. I couldn't bring myself to go to Jollibee or its brethren, I can't stand the service at Ten Ten, and I didn't want a Lee's sandwich.
As I was about to pull out of the parking lot and go find something else, I saw that 369 Restaurant, the Shanghainese place that faces Crescent, had been replaced. The only English signage for the newcomer simply says "Noodle House"; the name Wafting Fragrance comes from the Chinese name for the place, 飘香 (piao xiang).
The owners are Taiwanese (they spoke Mandarin, but the menu was written in Traditional characters), but they've left several of the Eastern Chinese dishes on the menu, such as the herb-flecked chewy rice cakes, the soup dumplings, and the West Lake beef soup. They're joined by the usual cast of characters at an Orange County Chinese restaurant: Yang Chow fried rice, zhazhangmian, ma po tofu, beef roll.
The lady very kindly went to point out the pictures of the lunch specials, and I went in for the kill: a bowl of beef noodle soup, the yardstick for all Taiwanese noodle shops, with hand-cut noodles. An eyebrow was cocked. "It's spicy," she warned. "My face is Western, but my mouth is Chinese," I said in my execrable Mandarin. She laughed.
A few minutes later, a plate of thickly cut cucumbers painted with garlic oil arrived, the tiny brunoise of garlic studding the cold vegetable, and not a minute later, the soup was brought out, shrouded in a cloud of star anise-scented steam. Though there were few chiles actually in evidence in the soup, the broth had the strongly floral heat of facing-heaven chiles; a tidal pool of fermented vegetables lurked off to the side. I could have just drunk the broth and been happy.
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But that's not the point of beef noodle soup: first there was the beef shank, stewed with soy and sugar until even the tendons were tender to the point of collapse, and then there were the wonderful noodles, triangular in cross-section, and thick enough to provide real chew while being thin enough to fold neatly into the spoon. It's well worth the extra dollar for the knife-cut noodles.
My only complaint is that the soup was overseasoned (and let's hope it was only salt). While it isn't perfect, it's better by far than any of the versions at the cafes surrounding the 99 Ranch in Irvine, and with much more personable service. It's a big improvement on 369, and it's nice to have places closer to home; driving the 5 is a drag sometimes.
(Wafting Fragrance) Noodle House, 613 N. Euclid St., Anaheim; 714-635-8369. Cash only.