When doing a cover story about noodles, the first thing you need to do is get rid of all the bad headlines that quickly pop into your cliché-addled brain. "Oodles of Noodles!" "Noodling Around!" "Noodle Knowledge!" "My Life As a Noodle!" "Portrait of the Artist As Young Noodle!" Um . . . yeah.
One thing that isn't silly, though, is the concept. Next to meat and rice, the noodle is perhaps the most universal of entrées, endlessly customizable and more diverse than Santa Ana. Noodles can be dainty or hefty, as thin as gossamer or thick enough to tie down a mast. Slathered in sauce, or presented as a salad. In intricate networks, or steaming in soup. Vietnamese. Chinese. Italian. Peruvian. Jewish. And Orange County is chockablock with them.
We're not known as a noodle destination as much as we are for burgers and tacos, but that's only because we take them for granted. Fact is, OC worships the noodle, so we decided to highlight some of the best, in as many traditions as possible. And it's true: There's no chow mein entry. Call us a wet noodle, if you must. . . . Okay, we'll stop with the bad, and proceed with the good.
Mì is the pride of central Vietnam, a noodle dish so perfectly balanced it causes intense homesickness in expats from Quang Nam. Springy rice noodles have been painted yellow with turmeric, then are tossed with shrimp, pork, sesame-studded rice crackers called bánh da, roasted peanuts, just a tiny bit of intensely flavored broth, and a host of herbs ranging from mint to shredded, lime-soaked banana flower. The dish is as much about the mix of textures as it is about the mix of flavors, and Quan Hy is where central Vietnamese expats go to get their fix. This place is also famous for its Latino waiters who speak better Vietnamese than second-generation Viet kiddies. 9727 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 775-7179.
The American popular imagination pegs Peruvian cooking as one long riff on potatoes and ceviche, but the Andean country has a long multicultural tradition that sees African, Japanese, Chinese and Italian influences permeate its cooking. It's the latter that's the culinary ancestor of tallarín verde, which is nothing more than spaghetti noodles in a pesto sauce, but DX Peruvian livens it up with a heavier amount of ginger and soy. The Machu Pichu on this mass, however, is the perfectly breaded chicken milanesa, adding crunch and greasiness to an already-hearty meal. 3930 S. Bristol St., Ste. 107, Santa Ana, (714) 424-0014; www.dxperuvianrestaurant.com.
Despite its closeness to Italy, Egypt's cuisine is pretty free of noodle influences, save for this gargantuan feast. It's the Egyptian equivalent of Rice-A-Roni: a pilaf of lentils and chickpeas topped with macaroni, spaghetti and enough fried onions to make a hamburger stand proud. You dump marinara sauce onto the plate, as well as a curious garlic sauce similar to an incredibly pungent vinaigrette, and it's like the whole Mediterranean Sea on a heaping plate. Midran Al-Tahrir was the first in the county to serve it, but it's such a great dish that other Arab restaurants are following suit and starting to break from their falafel-and-shish kebab handcuffs to feature it—mark our words, koushari will become the next hummus. 1324 S. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim, (714) 844-2515.
Ask any American Ashkenazi Jew of a certain age which carbohydrate makes them think of bubbeh, and chances are the response won't be matzoh or challah, but kasha varnishkas. Kasha are buckwheat groats (no, we don't know what a groat is either; it's akin to buckwheat barley) and varnishkas are bowtie pasta. The kasha is washed with egg and boiled, then mixed with sautéed onions and the pasta. It sounds simple, but it's great and very comforting. The only place in the county to get this taste of home is at Los Alamitos' Katella Deli. Try it with a chicken cutlet. 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-8611; www.katellabakery.com.
Of the various noodle dishes in the Vietnamese galaxy, bún is the most deceptively simple: vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, julienned carrots and your choice of toppings, all baptized in fish sauce—no more, no less. Helpful restaurants translate it into English as "noodle salad," but that gives the false impression it's a bunch of tasteless roughage thrown into a bowl. Bún is actually a nuanced, brilliant thing, filling yet light on the stomach, and the best version around is at Dat Thanh, famous in Little Saigon for its broken-rice dishes and magnificent nem nuong cuon. Get the one with the egg rolls, fried lengths of crispy goodness. 10032 McFadden Ave., Westminster, (714) 650-0910.
The dictionary says spätzle are dumplings. Nonsense! They're egg, milk and flour, and they're rubbed through a sieve and dropped into boiling, salted water until they float; any Italian or Chinese person would call them noodles. Noodles or not, spätzle are an indispensable, nutmeg-scented accompaniment to any braised dish in a German restaurant, right next to strong pickles and dark bread with sweet butter. At Jägerhaus, they're made with a mixture of flours that gives them the perfect snap, a texture retained even if you drench them in the meat gravy meant for your main dish. Die sind sehr lecker! 2525 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 520-9500; www.jagerhaus.net.
DAO XIAO MIÀN
Dao xiao miàn means "knife-cut noodles" in Chinese, and that's exactly how these thick, chewy noodles start life—as a giant rubbery ball of dough. While Mas' Islamic Restaurant is best known for its halal dishes, it also offers a great dao xiao miàn. Watch the shi fu (the chef) pick up a huge cleaver and flick enormous, triangular noodles into a wok of boiling water. Force yourself to not wince as he speeds up, the ball of dough getting smaller and closer to his hand. The chef then stir-fries the noodles with lamb and vegetables, giving just the slightest char to the noodles' edges. Try to stop salivating, then head back to your seat to scarf down an enormous portion of this Shaanxi specialty. 601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim, (714) 446-9553.
Anaheim can change, Anaheim can burn, Anaheim can turn from working-class white to majority Latino with a hell of a lot of Filipinos and Arabs thrown in—but everyone needs to eat Italian, so Rufino's Ristorante Italiano remains. The old couple that stood guard over tradition here for decades no longer owns the place, but you'll still find the duo leading eaters to their tables in a lovably gruff manner. And the spaghetti remains the same messy, tangy, tangle of love it has always been, complemented by the place's legendary house garlic bread. Don't believe us? Look at the crowd at any given moment—modern-day multicultural Anaheim at its best. 938 S. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 491-0880; www.rufinos.net.
LINGUINE WITH CLAMS
Franco, the moody, irascible man known lovingly by workers at John Wayne Airport as "The Pasta Nazi," has long retired, selling off his eponymous Franco's Pasta Cucina at this airport-close food court. But his spirit and exacting standards are still present in masterpieces worthy of a thousand Mario Batalis, except served on Styrofoam plates next to a salad, garlic bread and a drink—all for about $10. The best has to be the linguine with clams, in which generous fistfuls of the bivalve are folded into a buttery concentrate redolent of garlic. The noodles are coaxed and caressed in a sauté pan to soak up this ambrosia, just as Franco would do when he ruled the Michelson Marketplace food court with an iron fist. 2222 Michelson Dr., Ste. 206, Irvine, (949) 852-4699; www.francospasta.com.
DAN DAN MIÀN
Fuchsia Dunlop writes about men in Sichuan walking with pots of boiling water and trays of ingredients balanced on yokes across their backs, ready to make dan dan miàn, the region's legendary noodles. These days, they're restaurant fare more than street food, but the simplicity is still there; ground pork, chile oil, scallions and pickled mustard greens tossed with rice noodles. Somehow, those five ingredients—six, if they toss some chopped peanuts in—make a transcendent dish. And the best place to have this peddler's delight is Chóng Qing Mei Wei, a Sichuanese gem tucked in the corner of one of Irvine's Chinese plazas near the 99 Ranch store. 5406 Walnut Ave., Ste. C, Irvine, (949) 651-8886.
There's a subclass of food the Filipinos call merienda into which pancit palabok falls. But this noodle dish, which is best described as Pinoy pad Thai, is more than just an afternoon snack. Jollibee's pancit palabok (rebranded as Fiesta Noodles for Westerners who can't pronounce "pancit," let alone "palabok") is ready in a fast-food foam box when you order it. Required are satchels of prepackaged lemon juice. Pour at least four packets over the noodles, then stir it all together well before slurping up the annatto-tinged mass. In between the gravy-covered, hair-thin strands, there are ground pork, a few bay shrimp, some cut rounds of hard-boiled egg and a shower of crumbled pork rinds. Now you know why you need all that lemon juice. 605 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 635-0265; www.jollibeeusa.com.
BÚN MANG VIT
Duck noodle soup at a pho shop? Duck noodle soup at the best pho shop in Orange County? Well, if you're there on the weekends, yes; while Pho Thanh Lich dishes out delicious, unbelievably cheap pho, it's worth the extra few dollars to try the bún mang vit, a combination of roasted duck leg, thin rice noodles, and bamboo shoots cut and simmered until they're tender yet still crunchy. The noodles swim in a fairly standard, rich poultry broth, which just begs for all the doctoring with limes, herbs and chiles wonderfully endemic to Vietnamese food. 14500 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 531-5789.
If you could liquefy a pig into a big bowl in a "Wonder Twins power, activate!" move, you'd have Jinya Ramen Bar's rich tonkotsu pork soup. Though other ramen specialists in the county also make this, the recently opened Jinya by far draws the most richness and flavor into its pork extract. Perfectly cooked thin ramen noodles and always-tender slices of pork chashu; heaping spoonfuls of toasty, fried shallots and garlic; and most important, the most perfect still-runny-in-the-yolk soft-boiled egg in the business. You say you're not down with the swine? No problem. Jinya also makes an all-chicken version as rich as its pork soup, as well as an all-vegetarian ramen. 1450 Baker St., Ste. C, Costa Mesa, (714) 424-0377.
You won't find many chefs who make their own buckwheat noodles in this country, let alone in Orange County. Irvine's Fukada is one such rarity. Served hot or cold, the perfectly al dente soba noodles can be ordered in several traditional Japanese variations accompanying a subtle dashi broth that tastes lightly of dried bonito flakes, kelp and soy sauce. Soba specialists also tend to be expert tempura cooks, as the two things go hand in glove. Fukada's tempura comes out lacy and crisp, the greaseless batter tasting subtly of the toasted sesame oil that's part of the fry-oil blend. 8683 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 341-0111.
Too many people think of Italian food as overboiled, gluey pasta with sauce slopped over the top; try handmade pasta just once, and it'll change your entire way of thinking. Sadly, homemade pasta is harder to find in Orange County than you'd think, perhaps because it's labor-intensive. Fortunately, beachside carb-lovers have three branches of Cucina Alessa to choose from to get wide, soft egg noodles cradling a tender, meaty Bolognese that's more condiment than sauce. A little hit—just a little—of Parmigiano, and you'll never look at Olive Garden again. 6700 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 645-2148; also at 520 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-2148; and 234 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-8222; www.cucinaalessa.com.
PAD KEE MAO
Pad kee mao—literally "drunken noodles"—isn't actually on the menu at the venerable Thai Nakorn. While awesome, the menu is fairly short on noodles, but the kitchen staff will gladly make it if you ask—and you should because it's one of the best versions in the county. There's so much wok hei it tastes smoky, and the garlic, chiles, fish sauce, soy sauce and basil strike as though they're an assault. Order the dish with beef and savor the tug of the noodles against the wilted snap of the bean sprouts—the pure distillate of Thai street food. 12532 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 583-8938; also at 11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 799-2031; www.thainakornrestaurant.com.
Little Saigon's Vientiane is one of the few restaurants that serves the Laotian community. It will have Thai dishes as well as those from Laos, one of which is the glass-noodle dish pad voonsin. On the one hand, it's a simple wok-fried creation of glass noodles, vegetables and a meat of your choice, but the care in cooking each element quickly over a volcano-hot gas burner adds the slightly charred, lightly smoky character the Chinese call wok hei that makes this dish crave-worthy. 10262 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 530-7523.
BÚN CHA CA THANG LONG
Turmeric-rubbed catfish grilled on a ripping-hot iron platter with onions and dill that's then mixed with fresh herbs, cool rice noodles and fried shallots. What's not to like here, especially on a steamy day when you want a light lunch? Normally, the cha ca Thang Long at Vien Dong, one of Orange County's oldest Vietnamese restaurants and one of the best Hanoi-style places in the county, comes with the fish, herbs, noodles and condiments kept separate, so you can build your own. The pre-made bowl, though, is cheaper, with a lot of fish, and is so convenient it's worth not building it yourself. 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253.
The décor at O-Udon is sparse—just bowls of condiments (load 'em up!) and long tables. It doesn't matter; you're here for kake udon, those chewy udon noodles with a salty, savory sauce that will stick in your head for weeks. Kake means "splash," and the idea behind kake udon is to have so much sauce that eating the thick, slippery wheat noodles splashes sauce on the table. If you want to taste this treat, though, you'll have to come early; a limited number of orders of udon is made daily, and it generally runs out by the time the lunch rush subsides. 17870 Newhope St., Fountain Valley, (714) 427-0482; www.oudon.com.
PAD SEE EW
Pay no attention to the chafing trays, the orange chicken and the food-court setting. Despite these incriminating details and the off-the-shelf name, Thai & Chinese Express' true calling is its made-to-order, street-hawker-style noodles. The pad Thai tastes like it came straight from Bangkok, but it's the pad see ew you should get. Since its components are rudimentary—Scotch tape-wide rice noodles, sweet soy sauce, beef, and something green and stalky—execution becomes everything. The bok choy, American and Chinese broccoli literally shines. The beef is plentiful and tender. And noodle ribbons render to edible silk. 2540 Main St., Ste. J, Irvine, (949) 724-1813.
The Indonesians in Jakarta like noodle soups dry, with the broth segregated. And that's exactly how Warung Pojok does it. The mie ayam—the classic Chinese/Indonesian bowl of egg noodles—is lubricated in a flavorful, almost peppery oil, the whole crinkly nest topped with diced chicken and mushrooms, but the soup is served on the side, with beef meatballs called bakso bobbing as if they were buoys in broth. Eat the dish as separate entities. First, Hoover up the noodles, taking note of how well that seasoned oil dresses the chewy strands. Then chase them with a sip of the soup and a nibble of a spring-loaded meatball, all the while slathering everything in sambal. 13113 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-8716; www.warungpojokindo.com.
If beef pho is the Albert Pujols of Vietnamese soups, then chicken pho is the Mike Trout: the unheralded, better prospect. At Pho Dakao, cluckers are king (or queen, as it were)—it offers eight types of chicken pho, from some containing giblets, tripe and other offal to straightforward chicken soup that Red Staters would slurp up if they didn't know it came from the hands of a Vietnamese. The noodles become as fluffy and slurpable as the Campbell's of your youth. Best of all? The chickens come from a sister poultry store, meaning what you just ate was probably clucking that very morning. 15532 Ward St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-2009.
HU TIEU COMBINATION NO. 1
Do not be alarmed. That piece of fried chicken is supposed to be in your bowl of noodle soup. Pho Crystal Noodle House will drop the hunk of crisply fried poultry in the liquid, a place the Colonel has never gone before. It will get tangled in the still-chewy strands of noodle and soak in the sweet, sugary broth that tastes distinctly of pig. It will be joined by char siu, steamed shrimp and a frilly leaf of slowly wilting lettuce. Some lemon squeezed into the bowl will round off the sweetness and have the bubbles of fat go skittering off. Go ahead and pluck out the chicken, then gnaw the meat from the bone. Lick your fingers if you have to—isn't that the point of fried chicken? 3037 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 668-1312.
CHAO CHOW RICE NOODLE
Bowls of Trieu Chau's Chao Chow Rice Noodles aren't for the faint of heart. A close sibling of pho, but really more Chiu Chow Chinese than Vietnamese, this is a noodle soup's noodle soup. You'll find hulking, inelegant chunks of liver and cleaver-hacked pieces of roasted duck. As such, spitting out bone fragments isn't frowned upon, but rather expected. The best part is the gelatinous flaps of duck skin, one component in a protein-laden bowl chock-full of shrimp, meat balls, fish cake and a lean hunk of pork. But as with all soups such as this, it's all about the broth, here a marvelously hot, glorious, mouth-filling nectar wrung from the soul of bird, hog and probably MSG. 4401 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 775-1536.
If pho is masculine, with beef balls and a musky broth wrung from ox bones, bún rieu is elegant and feminine, with its powder room at Quan Hop. Unlike pho noodles, the bún in bún rieu caresses the tongue in feathery wisps. You don't chew bún; you allow it to melt. The delicate, clear soup is rimmed with a chile-red rouge resembling a courtesan's lips and contains floating cubes of congealed blood cake. Figure-eight patties made of minced shrimp are as pink as naked skin. Search for the sea snail nubs, which chew softly with a thrilling finish. The loosely packed crab meatballs disintegrate in your mouth gentler than a lady's kiss. Also in the bowl will be a set of boiled tomatoes—supple, plump and perky. Do you get where we're going with this metaphor? 15640 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 689-0555.
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TONKOTSU RAMEN (AGAIN!)
Ramen Yamadaya's tonkotsu ramen is pure hog concentrate, culled from pig bones simmered for 20 hours to unlock all the collagen as well as all of its piggy potential. The end product is a soup closer to motor oil than broth. If the noodles, egg and slices of roasted pork weren't there, the liquid alone would still constitute a heart-stopping meal. Splatter from it will leave oil stains on your shirt. Get the kotteri, and you'll see a floating stratum of fat purposefully ladled on top as if it were liquid frosting. A red-spicy version of the broth spoons up as though it were thick Malaysian laksa, since it's so hearty. If there's a ramen soup so substantial it renders the noodles inconsequential, it's this one. 1175 Baker St., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-0091; www.ramen-yamadaya.com.
Uni is one of earth's greatest taste treasures. Crack open the Sputnik-like sea creatures, and you find one of the most naturally delicious ready-to-eat things the ocean produces. It has a sweetness akin to the richest egg yolk and a texture that is texture-less. At sushi bars, it's cuffed around a belt of nori or laid down on a ball of rice; but at Cafe Hiro, it's dissolved into sauce to coat strands of al dente spaghetti, creating a dish similar to those served on the Italian coast of Puglia. Since chef Hiro Ohiwa is a fusionist, he adds a crowning dollop of wasabi, a few wispy shreds of nori and some bread with which wipe up every precious, ocean-flavored drop. 10509 Valley View St., Cypress, (714) 527-6090; www.cafehiro.com.
You'll never see a noodle soup broth more evocative of chocolate milk than in the bowls of mami at Mami King. The brownness comes from the slow-braised hunks of beef, which are not unlike the tender chunks of Taiwanese niu rou miàn, except here, they're so sweet it's as though they were lacquered in caramel. The sugary bent of the braised meat bleeds into a broth poured on hot as though it was the moat of hell. This is a soup so scalding it overcooks the thin egg noodle. Below the liquid depths and strands of starch, you'll uncover even more of that tender beef in never-ending quantities along with shredded white-meat chicken and a few pork-stuffed wontons that prove this Filipino noodle soup, as with others on this list, is Chinese in origin but eminently customizable—the ultimate immigrant. 6901 La Palma Ave., Buena Park, (714) 521-0108.
This article appeared in print as "The Mein Event: Noodles, noodles everywhere: OC's finest, from spaghetti to ramen, from pho to spätzle!"