As you cruise up Del Mar toward the giant new Chinese mall in San Gabriel, the traffic thickens and clots, young guys in pristine white Camrys curse one another as they compete for street parking, and the smell of frying garlic that began as a hum quickly broadens to a shout. By the time you come within sight of the hundred glowing ideograms, you are ensnarled in a sea of honking cars, and the garlicky breeze starts to reveal hints of anise, ginger and roasting ducks. On a warm Saturday night, it seems as if the sprawling parking lot is too small by at least half.
One knot of people gathers around a master noodle maker, who quickly transforms a lump of dough into a skein of fine vermicelli, then lumps it back up and does it again, to great applause. A larger crowd clumps in front of a makeshift stage near the supermarket, where a campy emcee conducts a karaoke contest and sharply dressed young men glide up to you and press underground dance club invitations into your hands. Small children dart into a Vietnamese bakery, pressing their noses against glass cases that contain varicolor Chinese gelatins, green slabs of coconut cake, yellow-bean pastries baked in the shape of little pigs.
Lines form outside the 20-odd eating places that form the core of the Chinese-mall experience, and the biggest of all, sometimes an hour long, forms outside Tung Lai Shun, the Islamic Chinese restaurant near the far end of the mall, which has become one of the most popular restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, also one of the most exciting new Chinese restaurants in years. (The big English-language neon sign says "Islamic Cuisine"; the neon Arabic lettering translates as "Chinese Restaurant.") You take a number from the woman in the Muslim headcloth, maybe a paper menu to study, and you take your place at the back of the line. You will have plenty of time to contemplate your dinner.
The first thing you notice about Tung Lai Shun is the enormous rounds of freshly baked sesame bread that seem to be on every table, flaky, fragrant, multilayered things, the size of two Chicago pizzas, that are generally eaten here instead of rice. You drag wedges of the bread through sauce, or stuff them with terrific chopstickfuls of beef fried with green onions. (Tung Lai Shun is the only restaurant I can think of where "Mongolian beef" is actually worth ordering, sort of the Chinese equivalent of the Italian pasta houses that make you understand why the world persists in trying to make spaghetti bolognese.) You can also get the sesame bread baked with green onions, which is good enough to eat instead of a regular meal.
While you're waiting for the bread to come (it can take 20 minutes), you nibble on cool, slippery slices of garlicked ox-tendon terrine, something you could as well imagine at L'Orangerie; or thin, cold slices of delicately spiced beef; or chunks of cold braised lamb in an unctuous garlic jelly. There are steamed vegetable dumplings filled with a pungent, crunchy dice that is the color you've always imagined a rain forest to be, and rather doughy crepes stuffed with a gritty mixture of chives, one of the restaurant's few disappointments.
String beans, crisp and melting, are fried with hoisin and crumbles of pork; eggplant is braised with soy, sugar and spice until it is about 30 seconds from becoming a savory puree. Tea duck is ruddy to the bone, as smoky as Texas barbecue. "Chicken with ground green bean sheets" is strongly flavored with hot mustard, slippery mung-bean noodles topped with cool slivers of the bird. Beijing shrimp balls are crunchy little ping-pong orbs of ground shrimp, served with a little pile of ground spice to dip them in. Green onion pies are 45-rpm-size discs of crisp, griddled dough, fried-food satori, even better when dipped in a tincture of chile and vinegar: easily the best green onion pancakes in town.
Chinese Islamic cooking, plenty robust stuff, has its roots in the cuisine of remote places like Inner Mongolia, but it is generally considered to have been raised to its highest level in the Muslim restaurants of Beijing: no pork, no beer and an awful lot of lamb; what the cosmopolitan set goes out for instead of, say, Mexican food.
Boiled lamb dumplings burst with juice and high flavor, perhaps the best $3.95 you can spend. Lamb and cabbage warm pot is an enormous clay bowl of soup that contains lamb's funky soul, too much soul for a lot of people. (Lamb and pancake with special sauce is basically the warm pot with a cut-up pancake floating in it.) Lamb fried with green onion is even better than the beef. At Tung Lai Shun, lamb tastes like the gamy, impolite essence of the meat, halfway toward mutton, one of the most delicious foods you can imagine.
Tung Lai Shun Islamic Cuisine
140 W. Valley Blvd., No. 118C, San Gabriel, (818) 288-6588. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted $30+ only. No alcohol. Parking in mall lot. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$20.