Sunday, February 4, 2007

Restaurant Review -- China Islamic

Many, if not most, foods are just plain better made from scratch -- bread, salad dressing, salsa, chicken stock are just a few. However, much of the time, even foodies rely on pre-made versions from the store. For example, I love to make homemade bread, but I just don't have the time or energy on most days to make it. And, though I usually make my own salad dressing, salsa, and chicken stock, I keep bottled or canned versions of all of them on hand, just in case.

Noodles are another prime example. I make them from scratch a few times a year, but the rest of the time I rely on ones from a box. However, the knowledge that the homemade noodles are practically on another plane of tasty existence compared to boxed ones drives me to seek out handmade noodles at least once every few months. Hence our trip to China Islamic...

As part of an ongoing quest to find the ultimate in Chinese handmade noodles, some friends and I embarked upon a journey through the San Gabriel Valley to China Islamic.

China Islamic is a restaurant specializing in the Chinese food of the Xing Jing (north west) province of China (mostly populated by the Uyghurs and often called East Turkestan) -- e.g. Halal Chinese food. Adherence to Muslim dietary laws means that this restaurant, unlike most Chinese restaurants, does not serve pork. However, they more than make up for this fact by serving some of the best lamb this side of Greece. This restaurant also happens to specialize in homemade noodles.

Six friends and I wandered into this sparsely-decorated, fluorescently-lit, Chinese restaurant early Saturday night, starving and without a reservation. Luckily, they could seat the seven of us quickly, and we soon were settled around a round table with a large lazy susan in the middle. The dining room was filled with the most ethnically diverse mix of customers I have seen in quite awhile -- many clearly Muslim and obviously enjoying familiar food. I'm a firm believer that it is always a good sign when the people of a culture are enthusiastically eating at a restaurant that purports to serve authentic food of that culture. The seven of us exchanged happy glances at our good fortune.

As we immersed ourselves in the menu, hot tea was immediately delivered and ice water poured. Much debate and discussion ensued as we tried to come up with the best foods to order to highlight the lamb dishes, the noodle dishes, and personal preferences. The menu was littered with traditional suburban Chinese restaurant dishes mixed with a slew of unique (at least to us) foods. The discussion lasted for at least 15 minutes....

This is what the seven of us ended up deciding on: 2 orders of kimchee, 1 order of sliced chilled ox tendon, 1 order spiced chilled ox tripe, 1 order sesame flat bread with green onions, 1 order thick sesame bread with green onions, 1 order spicy green beans with dried shrimp, 1 order vegetable chow mein, 1 order bok choy with mushrooms, 1 order lamb warm pot, 1 order beef noodle soup, 1 order lamb buckwheat noodle soup.

We ordered enough to feed an army.

In our defense, we had originally only ordered one plate of kimchee, but it was so good we had to order a second. :)

In sum, we *loved* everything (except the lamb warm pot). The kimchee, as mentioned, was crispy and just sour enough. The ox tripe and tendon (I was told) was wonderful. The sesame breads with green onions are a must eat -- rather bland on their own, but the perfect starch to dip into the broth of the soups. The spicy green beans were some of the best I'd ever had. The vegetable chow mein was complex and crunchy. The bok choy with mushrooms were perfectly done. The beef noodle soup earned rave reviews and the lamb buckwheat noodle soup was so delicious I wanted to bathe in it. (The lamb warm pot? It was just too lamby -- and we like lamb. Plus, it had too much cabbage in it -- somehow the soup managed to be both too lamby and too cabbagey. Not a good combo. )

The noodles themselves were wonderful -- chewy, toothsome, and dense...yet also light and full of flavor. Oh, and, be sure to order the "dough slice" noodles to ensure getting the fresh, homemade ones.

Take a look at all of the deliciousness:

Thick sesame bread filled with green onions. Doughy, fragrant, and dairy free! (Doesn't that look oddly like chicken in the middle?)

Sesame flat bread with green onions. See above, just flatter and crunchier. Yum.

Lamb soup with buckwheat noodles -- my favorite dish of the night. It had tons of ginger (see the piece in my chopsticks?), wonderful nutty buckwheat noodles, and tender morsels of lamb.

The lamb warm pot -- our least favorite dish. The lamb flavor was just too strong, the glass noodles were slimy, and ... see all the cabbage? Also, note that the bowl is as big around as a basketball hoop -- so we got the largest portion of the dish we liked least. Alas, such is life.

The delectable kimchee. Szechuan style, apparently, and delicious.

The spicy green beans with dried shrimp. These were wonderful -- the beans were crispy, the shrimp just a hint of saltiness, and the spice just right.

The bok choy with mushrooms -- also delicious. The mushrooms, in particular, were meaty and perfectly cooked.

The beef tripe and tendons -- I have to rely on my friend's opinions on this one. They said it was crackly, rich, and soft. I couldn't bring my self to try it -- too beefy and odd for me. Sorry kids.

The beef noodle soup -- M and D's favorite dish of the night. Again, I didn't try it. Beef just isn't my thing, but they assured me that the meat was tender, the broth was strongly flavored, and the seasonings perfectly balanced.

Our verdict? 4.5 out of 5 stars and worth a drive in LA traffic.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the price -- our feast for 7 people with plenty of leftovers? $80.00. No joke. $100.00 with tip. Clearly, a bargain -- and a delicious one, at that.
Give it a try:
China Islamic
7727 E. Garvey Ave. (Evelyn Ave.)
Rosemead, CA 91770

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