Object of Desire: Beef roll and XLB
If there is anything a second-stage San Gabriel Valley devotee knows, it is the supremacy of the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express, a burrito-sized roll-up constructed from a griddle-fried Chinese pancake, a double handful of sliced beef, and a squirt or two of sweet, homemade bean sauce, and maybe a sprig or two of cilantro if the chef gets around to it.
The beef roll started out as a secondary dish in a dive devoted to wrinkly, braised Dezhou chicken, a specialty of the region of Shandong from which the owners presumably came, but it quickly became the restaurant's most popular dish -- the minimalist branch of 101 in Culver City's Fox Hills Mall doesn't even serve Dezhou chicken.
Another article of faith among the SGV cult is the juicy xiao long bao, soup dumplings, at the tiny Taiwanese bakery Dean Sin World, which are often considered superior to the substantially more famous XLB at Arcadia's Din Tai Fung. They may not be the technical marvels you find at Din Tai Fung, but they are tasty; plus, you don't have to wait an hour for a table on a Saturday morning, and they are about half the price. When you have that XLB gleam in your eye, the proprietress knows what you are having long before she hands you the menu.
But last week, Dean Sin World served something close to a perfect beef roll -- smaller than the ones at 101, and with bean sauce that was more sweet than complex, but very, very crisp. The thick, golden pancake had blistered where it had hit the oil, and was the ideal size for lunch. And the next day, at the Arcadia branch of 101 Noodle Express, it turned out that the restaurant had developed a subspecialty in soup dumplings, including, at least theoretically, versions made with duck or fish, and the basic model was a bit deflated but wholly satisfactory: a solid XLB, almost but not quite good enough to lure you away from Din Tai Fung just down the street.
Had the world just tilted on its axis? I wouldn't rule it out.
Dean Sin World, 306 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (626) 571-0636; 101 Noodle Express, 1025 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 446-8855.
-- Jonathan Gold
Photo: Beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. Credit: Jonathan Gold / Los Angeles Times