If you have not yet had the good fortune to try a beef roll, a creation from the northeastern Chinese province of Shandong, then you have not discovered what is really China’s great contribution to the sandwich gene pool. In this case, the bread is a layered wheat pancake fried with perhaps a little more oil than your cardiologist would approve of; it’s flaky, tender, crisp and rich all at the same time. Onto one of these large pancakes goes a smear of hoisin (or some similar bean-paste sauce), thinly sliced marinated beef, and a generous chop of cilantro and scallions. The whole thing is rolled up, burrito-style, and sliced into chunks that are easy to pick up. Many aficionados mix up a little chili oil and vinegar from tabletop bottles to dip the rolls into, but they’re wonderful on their own, too.
L.A.’s food cognoscenti generally recognize the master of the beef roll to be 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra. When I tweeted recently that I was headed there for lunch, blogger SinoSoul implored me to try a competitor, Mama’s Kitchen, just a couple of blocks away over the San Gabriel border. So I rousted another eater and we set off on a taste test.
The winner came from Mama’s Kitchen, a friendly deli and café that reeks powerfully of fermenting tofu and is not a place to hang out if that smell doesn’t make you happy. Its beef roll is made with pancakes that are a little thinner and lighter than 101’s (if no less oily), with a richer hoisin flavor; to my taste, its balance of savory-sweet-sharp was outstanding.
But that’s not to say the slightest thing negative about 101’s huge roll, which is a mere $6.75 and can easily feed two (or three) people. Served in a utilitarian, table-service café, this roll is a little more substantial, with a stronger cilantro bite and a more complex bean paste that’s not quite as sweet as traditional hoisin but is totally delicious. In fact, I can’t really say one is better than the other — it just comes down to personal taste. Either way, you’re a winner. (101’s dumplings, however, are heavy, bland and best skipped; the noodle soups are better.)
Finally, my EAT: Los Angeles colleague Linda Burum recommends Michelle’s Pancake, a strip-mall restaurant whose pancakes are among the best in town. Its beef roll isn’t on the menu — you have to ask for it — and Linda reports that it’s meatier than the others and very tasty, compromised only a bit by its use of commercial hoisin sauce. Its many other pancake-focused dishes are also well worth trying, and it has the most pleasant atmosphere and service of the three.
101 Noodle Express, 1408 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, 626.300.8654. L & D daily. Cash only.
Mama’s Kitchen, 1718 New Ave., San Gabriel, 626.289.8984. L daily. Cash only.
Michelle’s Pancake, 706 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, 626.293.8098. L & D daily. MC, V.