Zha Jiang Mian Food Fight: The Dragon vs. Malan Noodle
In case you haven't noticed, we really like noodles here. But while spaghetti and meatballs, pad thai, and ramen seem to get all the attention, other heavyweights are left to languish in relative obscurity. Zha jiang mian, for one, is amongst the all time great noodles in human history. So why is it less popular than, say, chow mein? The blame probably falls on its sauce, a fried mixture of pork and fermented soybean paste, which arrives at your table dark, sludgy, and mysterious. And while "zha jiang mian," with its many spelling variations, does in fact roll off the tongue, it's probably not as easy to remember as "phở." Nonetheless, it's time these noodles got a little extra PR, and as such, they are the subject of this week's food fight.
Our competition began with an unfair advantage. Malan Noodle, a bare strip mall Chinese restaurant in Hacienda Heights, is one of our favorite dining destinations in the greater Los Angeles area -- and it is precisely because of their zha jiang mian. At Malan you can have your noodles thin, thick, round, wide, or even triangle shaped. Soon after you order, the cooks will start banging some dough around, and prepare your selection from the many dishes listed (with incredibly vague descriptions) on their menu. Many of them are quite good. But our heart belongs to zha jiang mian.
They came to the table piled into a humble white bowl. We ordered our noodles thick and round, as the thinner ones tend to overcook and become too soft. They sat there, strong yet squishy, depressed by a chunky, brown meat sauce, and topped with long, thin strands of crunchy cucumber. The noodles were long, and slippery, and a bit difficult to work with at times, but the tastes and textures were as we remembered them. Salty, chewy, savory, crunchy. The sauce was comforting, and the cucumber brought a refreshing crispness. The noodles though, simultaneously both masculine and tender, were the star.
Yet as much as we love Malan, Hacienda Heights can be a bit of a drive. So for a good while, we have been casually hunting for Korean versions of the same dish. We've spoken to a few Korean friends over the years, who have almost universally expressed a love for it, then scoffed at the notion that we preferred the Chinese take. Then we asked them where to find a great version in Koreatown, at which point they furrowed their brows, squinted, and said they'd have to get back to us.
But an article from last year (in which Kogi/Chego/A-Frame chef Roi Choi called it a favorite), and some discussions on Chowhound, led us to a Chinese-style restaurant in Koreatown called The Dragon. The restaurant was immediately a charmer, with its large, spacious dining area; back rooms for private parties; two dollar valet, and friendly staff. One of the walls also features, for some reason, an enormous photograph of Amsterdam. But we came for the noodles, which came to our table and were quickly mixed together for us by a man who seemed rather like the manager.
This sauce was darker here, and saltier, with a strong presence of onions, and small cubes of zucchini cooked into it. They told us the noodles were made in-house here as well, but as we dug in, found them to be thinner, softer, and somewhat flaccid by comparison. We also thought that they took in the sauce a little less well. Ultimately, the noodles themselves were the key factor, and we decided that either sauce, with Malan's noodles, would be the clear winner. Oh, those noodles.
Are we being a little unfair, thanks to a deep love of Malan? Probably. A picture of their zha jiang mian does happen to be the wallpaper on our iPhone at the moment. But in truth, we would be very excited to find an equally compelling version a little closer to home, and are welcoming any and all suggestions. So who's got one?