This Hole-In-The-Wall Serves Some Of SoCal's Best Xinjiang Cuisine

Big plate chicken, meat pies and lamb with pilaf are among the western Chinese specialties served at Omar Restaurant in San Gabriel. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

China, with its tundras in the north, deserts in the west and rainforests in the south, offers an agricultural and culinary bounty as diverse as what you'd find on the entire continent of Europe. Those flavors migrated to Los Angeles long ago, following a modern Silk Road that still brings immigrants from all over Asia to the West Coast. These days, fiery Sichuan restaurants and scrumptious Cantonese-style dim sum — two of recently departed restaurant critic Jonathan Gold's favorites — have colonized nearly every strip mall in the San Gabriel Valley. The area has also bloomed with restaurants repping the cuisines of lesser known regions, like the mouthwatering meat pies of western China and the rich lamb noodle soup from the center of the country. Hungry yet? You can thank immigrants.

Western China
Xinjiang is China's largest province and was once a crucial thoroughfare along the Silk Road, the historical route merchants took to ferry spices and textiles between Asia and Europe. Here, the cultures of Central and East Asia intertwine and you can taste their embrace in the combo of East Asian grains and Middle Eastern spices. Grilled beef and mutton are almost always served on a bed of fried rice or hand-stretched noodles and diners often sip homemade yogurt during meals to aid digestion. Most of Xinjiang's population is Muslim, so the food is usually halal i.e. no pork. It's also a desert region so don't expect fresh seafood.

Omar Restaurant, opened in 2010, is the best kind of hole-in-the-wall. Tiny, easy to miss, with room for maybe a dozen people, it happens to serve some of the most authentic Xinjiang cuisine in Southern California. If you're going for dinner on a weekend, arrive early, ideally by 6 p.m. Be prepared to wait 30 mins for the noodle dishes after you order, since the mom of the mom-and-pop operation rolls and cuts the dough to order.

The restaurant offers signature western Chinese dishes such as "big plate chicken," bone-in chicken stewed with bell peppers, star anise and cumin seeds, resting on a plate of handmade noodles thick enough that they come with a pair of scissors.

A lamb pie big enough for several people to share at Omar Restaurant in San Gabriel. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

The cumin-rubbed lamb kebabs and the meat pie, a flat pocket of bubbling, brown dough stuffed with lamb, tangy pepper salad, and buttered pilaf (served weekend only) are also favorites. It goes perfectly with Omar's homemade yogurt or savory milk tea, a piping hot combination of a regional specialty black tea, milk, and a dash of salt.

Bring cash and a couple of friends because the restaurant doesn't take credit cards and you'll want to order everything.

Omar Restaurant: 1718 New Ave., San Gabriel. 626-570-9778

A lamb pie big enough for several people to share at Omar Restaurant in San Gabriel. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

Northwestern China
The Yangtze River splits China horizontally, roughly dividing it into two agricultural societies. Residents on the water-rich Southern side of the river favor rice and vermicelli. In northern China, with its dryer climate, they mostly grow wheat and consume noodles and buns. The food of the region is characterized by dense bread stews, large dumplings and flat, hand-cut noodles. There's nothing delicate about these savory, high-calorie dishes. Northwestern Chinese food is often just as spicy as Sichuan fare but without the numbing sensation of those famous peppercorns.

Fans of authentic Northwestern fares head to Shaanxi Garden in San Gabriel. The married couple that owns the restaurant comes from Xi'an, the largest city in northwestern China and home to the Terracotta Army. The wife, a Muslim, cooks classic Islamic Chinese dishes such as lamb kebab and big plate chicken while her non-Muslim husband happily serves tender pork sandwiches.

Bread stew with sides of sweet garlic, chili sauce, peanuts and celery at Shaanxi Garden in San Gabriel. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

Shaanxi Garden excels at making yangrou paomo, one of northwestern China's most unique halal dishes. The bread stew literally means "lamb soup with soaked pita bread" and legend has it that the camel riders of the Silk Road kept bone-dry bread and mutton jerky under their saddles and boiled them together when needed. Yangrou paomo isn't for light eaters. Pieces of hardened white bread are simmered in a beef and lamb bone broth, a common soup base in northern China long before paleo eaters made it popular. Served with copious quantities of green onion, the hearty bread stew is best eaten with a side of sweet pickled garlic and a dollop of homemade chili sauce.

Then there are the beef and pork sandwiches, deceptively simple mounds of shredded meat piled onto the same plain, white bread used in the stew. They don't announce their presence. They aren't smothered in sauce or adorned with toppings. They don't need to be. The secret to these flavor bombs is the marinade used for the meat, a blend of cloves, fennel, star anise, peppercorn and who knows how many other spices.

The sammies go great with an Ice Peak, a popular orange soda from Shaanxi with a label that encourages you to, "Drink it from childhood." It's less sweet and less carbonated than orange Fanta, its closest cousin, making it dangerously easy to down a bottle or three when you're stuffing yourself with all that heavy food.

Shaanxi Garden: 529 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. 626-787-5555

Bread stew with sides of sweet garlic, chili sauce, peanuts and celery at Shaanxi Garden in San Gabriel. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

Central China
If the rule of thumb is that the North likes wheat and the South eats rice, then Central China dabbles in both. That also applies to its seasonings, which draw on salty elements from the north, sour from the west and spicy from the south. Unlike most dishes from the West and Northwest, food in Central China incorporates seafood as well as red meat and pork. Sweet and sour carp is a popular dish along with spicy beef soup and dried steamed noodles with pork belly.

Beef brisket sandwich at Cindy's Noodle Land. (Photo by Beidi Zhang/KPCC)

After moving from Central China at the turn of the millennium, Cindy Cao wanted to bring the street food of Henan, her native province, to her new home in the San Gabriel Valley. Don't expect to find lavish banquets or overloaded Lazy Susans at Cindy's Noodle Land, which focuses on comfort food like beef soup with vermicelli and pulled pork sandwiches.

Cindy's cold rice noodles, served with bean sprouts, cucumber slices, sesame sauce, aged black vinegar and chili oil, are tart and refreshing, perfect for a summer heatwave. For eaters who love offal, the boiled beef tripe, served on skewers, is gamey and chewy, bursting with garlic and ginger. Dip it in a chili oil or ask for a side of sesame sauce for a creamier combination.

Cindy's Noodle Land: 921 S. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. 626-445-7662


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