“Mr. Leek Cake, I Presume”
By Jonathan Gold
Kim Chuy Restaurant
The best-known part of Chinatown might be the smartly pagodaed stretch of grand restaurants and back-scratcher emporia at the northern edge. But the pulsing heart of the area might lie a few blocks south, in the great arcade that stretches between Broadway and Hill.
Here you’ll find one of the better Chinese barbecue shops, the original Mandrin Deli and the best branch of Pho 79, as well as places to buy tea and medicinal herbs and pink-tinted Vietnamese pork tartare. When fresh bamboo shoots or Shanghainese hairy crabs come into their brief season, they are sold out of boxes from the area in front of the big import market at the Broadway end of the arcade, and people cluster six-deep to buy them.
At the head of the arcade is the bustling noodle shop Kim Chuy, with a splendid motto painted on one window-“King of Chiu Chow Wonton”- and a gallery of noodle photographs posted on the other. Kim Chuy specializes in the noodle dishes of the Chiu Chow people, more or less the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, and the words Chiu Chow appear helpfully before nine-tenths of the items on the menu, just in case you happened to forget what kind of restaurant you were eating in after the first 15 or 16 entries. Elderly women totter out of the place clutching big bags of peppery fish balls to go.
The food crowd frequented Kim Chuy at the beginning of the first wave of authentic Chinese food in Los Angeles, raved about the jellyfish and the noodles with spicy beef, and then sort of forgot about the place, though the restaurant has never lacked for customers. I used to go to Kim Chuy a lot 10 years ago when I worked at an office downtown, and though I hadn’t been back in a while, the proprietor still remembered my favorite order when I walked through the door.
“Hey there,” he said, beaming. “You’re Mister Leek Cake. It’s been a long, long time.”
On the tables are an incredible array of condiments: soy sauce, fish sauce, two or three kinds of chile sauce, black vinegar, squeeze bottles of sweet bean paste, dried red-pepper flakes and those pungent Thai pickled chiles. I miss the sugar-bowls of crushed roasted peanuts that used to be my favorite garnish here. I am happy that they still serve the smoky imported Sriracha chile sauce as well as the fruitier domestic brand.
Chiu Chow shrimp and crab balls involve shrimp, fake crab and diced taro root, wrapped in a sheet of bean-crud skin and fried crisp. The appetizer is served with a sweet, gingery dipping sauce whose known and loved. And although the crab and shrimp balls may seem at first glance to be something you would not eat on a dare, they are quite delicious.
Chiu Chow leek cakes are flying-saucer-shaped capsules of rice noodle, filled with rather intense-tasting sautéed leeks and seared to an oily, crisp-edged chewiness. The Chiu Chow fried fish cake is not unlike a heavy-ish Thai tod mun; the Chiu Chow cold jellyfish is properly crisp-tender, but drowning in an over-sweet sauce. I’m fond of the Chiu Chow-style rice porridge with shrimp, brothy and shot through with fresh ginger.
But the basic deal at a Chiu Chow noodle shop is, of course, Chiu Chow noodles, slippery rice noodles the width of your little finger and firmer squarecut egg noodles that resemble bouncy linguine, submerged in broth, garnished with things like boiled duck legs and sliced pork. The Chiu Chow special noodles include duck and shrimp, squid and cuttlefish and four kinds of fish cake, also floppy, herb-spiked won ton if you ordered it that way. The Chiu Chow beef stew noodles come with melting shanks of tendon and hunks of long-simmered chuck, and the broth has an interesting anise top note. Chiu Chow spiced beef noodles come in a gritty, spicy demi-curry, almost crunchy with ground nuts, another missing link between Chiu Chow cooking and Thai.
Fried noodles-with chicken, with beef, with mixed seafood-are passed through an ultra-hot pan, smoky but still soft, served not 10 seconds after they are cooked, and fully possessed of that elusive quality that Chinese call wok chi, special wok energy that is possible only in restaurants as small and informal as this.
At noontime, Kim Chuy is jammed, people spilling out into the mall, people crammed into restaurant’s narrow aisles, and you will probably be asked to sit at a table already occupied by people eating lunch. You will also probably see three sets of customers come and go in the time it takes you to get through a bowl of noodles, because people eat more quickly than you can imagine.