Happy Kitchen's owner and chef, Jixian Liang, prepares to serves… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Snaking through the city of Liuzhou in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the Liu River dominates the landscape -- and the flavors of the food.
The local specialty, luosifen, a crave-worthy rice noodle soup, is so treasured in this metropolis that you'll find it served everywhere, from shops to street food stalls to chain restaurants. Its delicately flavored broth is made using freshwater snails, which have a mild, sweet taste similar to conch, but there is no snail meat in the soup.
Instead, it's loaded with the diner's choice of various seafood or meat items, an array of fresh vegetables and slightly tangy preserved cabbage. The soup is topped with a mound of freshly roasted peanuts and a "crouton" of crunchy fried Chinese pastry; it can be spiced up with a dash (or more) of chile condiment.
Noodle-savvy eaters might compare luosifen with mifen, its more famous and spicier cousin from Guilin, another Guangxi city that's much closer to the Hunan province line. But Liuzhou's milder cuisine is closer to the cooking of Guangdong to its west.
At Happy Kitchen, an unassuming mini-mall storefront in San Gabriel, Liuzhou cooking figures prominently on the menu. Owner and chef Jixian Liang and his wife, Fuang Liu, make the spaghetti-like regional rice noodles in-house and offer more than a dozen soup embellishments, such as beautifully poached shrimp, meaty braised pork chunks and savory eel. Several mollusk-based thick soups are served without noodles and eaten like casseroles.
But you'll find more than just Liuzhou specialties on the tables at Happy Kitchen. Liu's house-made northern-style dumplings and buns are stuffed to bursting with more than a dozen different fillings. The house tea-smoked chicken leg and the pancake-wrapped beef roll are also part of her repertoire.
So why all the northern dishes along with the southern ones? Liang says that after having been chef at this Liuzhou-style restaurant for more than three years (and, prior to that, at other local restaurants), he had the chance of realizing his dream of running his own place when the owner decided to leave the business. He added specialties from his native Harbin, a city that lies about as far north as Liuzhou is south. The foods sound disparate, but they work as if they had been served together for centuries.
One bi-regional dinner at Happy Kitchen started with ginger Arctic surf clam, a refreshing sashimi-like toss of sunset-orange-colored flat clams and crisp, blanched celery slices in a light, tangy ginger dressing. Everyone kept refilling their bowls with the lamb-snail rice noodle soup. Its fresh tomato chunks, leafy greens and touch of chile balanced the richness of the meat. A rich stew of braised, diced chicken with small whole chestnuts in a savory brown sauce came to the table bubbling in a sturdy sand pot.
To answer our questions about a steaming caldron that went to several tables, Liang retrieved a fresh nappa cabbage and a bowl of sauerkraut-like cabbage from the kitchen, indicating with pantomime and limited English that he had pickled the vegetable and prepared frozen tofu for a famous cold-weather Harbin dish, pork sour nappa casserole (alas, an acquired taste, we discovered).
A shrimp version of Liuzhou soup without added chile was a fine counterpoint to the outstanding ultra-spicy cumin-lamb fried noodles. Scattered amid the noodles were whole red chiles and a handful of tiny cumin seeds; with every bite, the noodles burst with their pungent flavors. Tofu sheet ribbons tamed the chile heat of thumbnail-size jalapeño chunks in a simple stir-fry. "Flour egg ball" (the menu does keep you guessing), a homey concoction reminiscent of spaetzle in a garlicky chicken-cabbage soup, is solace for the soul.
Liang and Liu do the cooking and serving, and you'll find them at Happy Kitchen every day from 10 a.m. till midnight.
For some, the restaurant must seem like home away from home -- be it a transplanted northerner with a yen for family-style cooking, a Liuzhou transplant with a hankering for luosifen, or kids in for an afternoon snack of fried sesame-peanut tang yuan -- marble-size hollow glutinous rice balls that exude a sweet, sesame-flavored liquid.
Happy Kitchen is an L.A. phenomena: northern-born Chinese chef perfects southern Chinese dishes and unites two culinary areas in a tiny cafe whose star is beginning to shine.
LOCATION: 301 W. Valley Blvd., No. 111, San Gabriel, (626) 284-2619.
PRICE: Appetizers, $3.99 to $6.99; main dishes and noodle soups, $4.99 to $10.99.
DETAILS: Open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight. Cash only, no alcohol, lot parking.