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A World Away From the '50s

Burger-joint touches of nostalgia remain, but Thai dishes rule at the Asian-food hangout Noodle Planet

September 19, 2002|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You want a symbol of our changing demographics? Behold the head of the Big Boy, symbol of the Bob's hamburger hangouts of the '50s, sticking out of the wall at Noodle Planet like a 21st century Ozymandias.

Noodle Planet's Thai-Chinese owners have kept the Big Boy as a reminder of what Alhambra used to be like. When I moved there in the late '80s, it still had some coffee shops and lots of Mexican places. Today, Valley Boulevard is solidly lined with Chinese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants.

And now you can you get a medley of Asian cuisines right here, right under the Big Boy's cheerful eye.

A generation ago this was a thriving teenage hot spot. It still is, packed morning to night with young bohemian types of Asian descent who've come to feast on Asian pastas and boba drinks, those fruit smoothies and ice-blended drinks with giant pearls of tapioca dancing in them. Big sellers include the taro smoothie (better than it sounds), a coffee caramel milkshake and litchi cooler, made with fresh litchi fruit, juice and Jell-O. And, yes, lots of boba.

If you order a boba drink, you'll get it in a specially designed plastic cup with a foil top. The straw, which is about half an inch in diameter to accommodate the boba balls, has an angled edge for punching through the foil. Don't drink too fast, or you'll get an ice cream headache.

Noodle Planet has the worn look of, well, an old burger joint. There are long booths and an endless counter, and a huge American flag is stuck to the ceiling. Every table has a tray of Southeast Asian condiments: fish sauce, red pepper flakes, crushed peanuts and a jar of sinister-looking hot green chiles in vinegar.

All the dishes are tasty, but you won't be surprised that the Thai dishes are just a little better than the rest of the menu (which is written, by the way, in English, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai). And it isn't all noodles, either, although the noodle dishes tend to be the menu stars.

My favorite dish is beef panang spaghetti: tender beef chunks in a penetrating curry sauce on al dente spaghetti--more or less a Thai take on spaghetti bolognese. Another good one is spicy yakisoba, buckwheat noodles turned in a wok with chiles, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes and basil.

For those who like Japanese noodles, there are credible twists on ramen and udon, both in good, hearty broths. Udon tom yum, for instance, is thick Japanese noodles in a huge bowl of soup flavored Thai-fashion with lemon grass, lime juice and the ginger-like spice galangal.

Lots of customers are ordering pho, that Vietnamese meal in a bowl. What makes a good pho isn't the soup's long, spindly noodles but the integrity of the homemade beef stock. Noodle Planet's is superb, as good as you can get at almost any pho joint in Little Saigon. Noodle Planet pho (No. 46 on the menu) gives you the works: steak, flank steak, beef tendon, tripe, beef meatballs, peanuts and fresh red chile.

But Thai dishes rule, and not necessarily the Thai noodle dishes. Thai wings are chicken wings stuffed with a mixture of finely minced chicken, bean thread noodles and black mushroom, as subtle as a French galantine. Thai-style roast duck (boneless strips, complete with skin, on rice) is basically Chinese roast duck varied with hints of lemon grass and mint.

All in all, there are 125 dishes on the menu, pretty much spanning eastern Asia. They include a fairly traditional, perfectly executed Thai mint-leaf chicken and a delicious Thai beef salad, dressed with enough lime juice to make your mouth pucker.

I can also recommend the fusion-ish chicken satay hand rolls, which have slices of green apple and rice vermicelli inside the rice paper (they're eaten with a rich, sweet peanut butter dip) and the Thai street dish papaya salad with salted crab (som tam).

The truth is, I haven't had a single bad dish in this restaurant, except for that overcooked double cheeseburger.

Come on, I'm kidding.

*

Noodle Planet, 700 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra. (626) 282-8855. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only. Lunch for two, $13-$21.

What to Get: chicken satay hand rolls, papaya salad with salted crab, beef panang spaghetti, spicy yakisoba, pho noodle soup, Thai roast duck.

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