You gotta love truth in advertising. Simply dubbed Northern Chinese Restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, delivers on its name. The dishes are from Dongbei, the region that encompasses the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Jilin. This food tends to be hearty and filling with pungent flavors—a lot of lamb, hefty dumplings, and meat pies.
With its enormous menu (some 200 items deep!), Northern Chinese Restaurant is an excellent, if sometimes inconsistent, spot to give the region's cuisine a spin around the lazy Susan.
It's best to begin with the veggie starters, which arrive quickly and in shareable portions. The spicy potato shredded ($3.88) is a solid version of this classic Northern Chinese dish, the gossamer thin strands of spuds cooked al dente with a smattering of hot peppers for kick.
An enormous plate of stir fried mushrooms ($8.88) topped with garlic and green onion is oily—as is much of this food, but in a pleasing way—giving the three kinds of fungus a brilliant sheen and slippery texture.
The highlight of the vegetable bunch is the spicy cucumber ($3.88): crisp, fresh, and chunk-sized with some serious garlic action. As tempting as it might be to finish this refreshing appetizer as soon as it's brought out, try to restrain yourself. When the heavier dishes arrive, the cukes are a necessary palate cleanser between bites.
Dongbei cuisine is generally served without rice, but carbs happily make an appearance by way of savory pies, pancakes, and dumplings. From the "Northern Pastry" section of the menu, try the sliced beef with pan cake ($6.88) or the jing dong meat pie ($4.50), a crisp, doughy pancake sandwich surrounding bits of tender pork. Neither is as transcendent as other versions in the San Gabriel Valley, but it's hard to make fried dough stuffed with meat taste bad, particularly when dipped into the spicy cucumber juices.
Then you have the fennel and pork dumplings ($5.95)—they need no additional assistance. Though both the English and Chinese menus refer to the filling as fennel (hui xiang), these bundles are stuffed with fragrant dill.
For entrees, any of the sauerkraut-like sour cabbage dishes are popular. Also good is the winter melon with lamb casserole ($9.88), really a clear broth, subtly seasoned to allow the near-translucent wedges of delicate melon and tender, gamy morsels of meat to stand out. The noodle-like flat strands of bean curd in the stir fried dry tofu with hot pepper ($7.88) are slurpable and pliant. Mixed with bits of moist pork and long slices of hot green peppers, it's a pleasantly messy, satisfying dish.
Much to the chagrin of my friend and translator, who ate a similar dish at almost every meal while studying in Harbin (in the south of Heilongjiang), the vegetable entrée which he translates as "the three freshnesses,"—which on the menu is called the less poetic fried potato, green pepper, and eggplant ($6.88)—is anything but fresh tasting. A relatively bland pile of gloppy vegetables in a thick brown sauce—it's a disappointment after a feast highlighted by dumplings, lamb soup, and cucumbers.
No matter what else you order, be sure to end your meal with the sugar yam and date ($6.88). The heaping mound of diced yams and dates coated with a thick glaze of toffee-like syrup, arrives with a finger bowl of ice-cold water, into which you plunge the sizzling hot wedges of sweet yellow yam.
Work quickly, as with each passing moment the caramelized strands of toffee harden, eventually encasing the yams in a kind of candy apple shell. But even once the yams have solidified into a big rock candy mountain, the dates can still be excised, providing the final sweet-sour, earthy notes to a Northern Chinese meal.
Northern Chinese Restaurant
8450 E. Valley Blvd. #108, Rosemead CA 91770 (map); 626-288-9299
About the author: Katie Robbins is an L.A.-based freelance journalist who has covered food and culture for publications including O Magazine, Saveur, Eating Well, Psychology Today, and the Atlantic's Food Channel. She is always on the hunt for really good hummus.