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Chu-minator II

June 25, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD

Say hello to Mr. Chu. Mr. Chu has met Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he has photographs to prove it. A large souvenir of the encounter is displayed in the window of Mr. Chu's first noodle restaurant in Rowland Heights, and also in the window, on the wall and on the menus of his brand-new San Gabriel restaurant, Chu's Mandarin Cuisine. You see Arnold's face so frequently at Chu's Mandarin Cuisine that it sometimes seems as if you are pursuing him through a carnival hall of mirrors.

Arnold has one arm around Mr. Chu's shoulders, one beefy hand upon a pillow of dough, serene against an azure sky. His smile, at least from a distance, looks very much like that of a dolphin. He has presumably just watched Mr. Chu transform a similar pillow of dough into a thick coil of hand-pulled noodles, because Mr. Chu is among the most skillful noodlemakers around. If you were going to eat a bowlful of Mr. Chu's hand-pulled noodles, you would be smiling like a dolphin too.

Mr. Chu's new place is in a fantastic new Chinese mall, a gleaming, sweet-smelling Oz with a Chinese department store, a tremendous Chinese supermarket, boutiques and bakeries, Chinese restaurants of every description, acres of carefully landscaped parking. On a warm night, the red and green restaurant signs seem to glow like the lights of ships in a harbor, and wide walkways fill with contented Chinese window-shoppers who have just eaten well. Chu's Mandarin Cuisine is on the second level of the great mall, near the Nice Time Deli and the Great Food Cafe. It is a crowded, pleasantly lighted place. When acknowledging the photographs, the waitresses call the famous man Arnold Whatshisname.

Mr. Chu's hand-pulled noodles are long, spaghetti-shaped strands of varying diameter, as big around as bucatini in the middle and tapering to angel-hair at the ends, bouncy, springy things with a full, wheaty flavor and an extraordinary bite. The noodles are perfect vehicles for Mr. Chu's spicy, oily black-bean sauce. They are delicious cold, piled with bits of squid and jellyfish (and, disconcertingly, artificial crab), tossed with sesame and hot mustard. They are good in a chile-red seafood noodle soup. They are good served in a strong pork broth underneath a floating fried pork chop. One can hardly go wrong with the noodles.

To start, maybe the combination cold plate, which is actually a strongly garlicked salad that is garnished with stewed eggs, pressed tofu and crunchy, little strips of marinated pig's ear; or good garlic chicken salad; or perhaps the cool, anise-scented sort of Chinese pork aspic that goes by the unwieldy name of "aromatic pork jelly." Steamed dumplings are a little doughy by, say, Mandarin Deli standards, but the herb-flecked fish mousse inside the fish dumplings and the pungent, glass-noodle-spiked mince in the vegetable dumplings are first-rate. The soup--served in individual, tiki-looking bamboo cups--is peppery, teeming with crisp bits of vegetable and concealing a single large meat dumpling, almost Hungarian in scope.

And although Mr. Chu is skilled at preparing the noodles and dumplings and soups and cold dishes of Chinese "deli" cuisine, some of his stir-fries are much better than those at other Chinese delis: curls of fresh cuttlefish fried with crunchy stalks of Chinese celery that are no thicker than haricots ; slices of gammon, as sweet and chewy as griddled country ham, that have been sauteed with mild, scallion-like garlic greens; the delicious Chinese vegetable sometimes known as "hollow stems," briefly fried with garlic.

Some insidious person has crossed "goat hoof," one of the more expensive items, off the menu; I would dearly love to have tried it.

Chu's Mandarin Cuisine

140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 206, San Gabriel, (818) 572-6574. Open seven days, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. Beer and wine. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $9 to $15.

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