Where food is borderless
By Frier McCollister

Starting with Hummus Lab in April and, more recently, Paper Rice and Zephyr Café, Pasadena continues to provide a berth to new restaurant ventures in the midst of the pandemic restrictions.    

Unlike the already established local operators, who had to pivot to takeout, delivery and outdoor seating, the newcomers had to postpone openings and radically alter business plans and models to make sense of the new reality. The lack of a loyal base of patrons inevitably proves to be an additional challenge, particularly in an already competitive local market like Pasadena.

It’s difficult to open in the midst of these strange and uncertain circumstances but how about opening two outlets in the span of two months, and the first one is in an indoor mall with two closures and re-openings since March?

“We’re still trying to open by the end of this month. For sure we will open by the end of November,” said Noodle Street USA President Guang Zhao.

Just can’t wait? Their location at the Westfield Santa Anita Mall managed to finally open just last month. The mall has engineered an ingenious outdoor dining area and ordering system, so that you can be seated and order from Noodle Street’s menu without navigating the interior of the mall. It’s also the best way to enjoy the fresh hand-pulled noodles that are the core specialty of the menu.

The only drawback to the outdoor seating at Santa Anita Mall? It keeps guests from the restaurant’s kitchen viewing window, where they can witness the impressive artisanal and athletic process of rendering the noodles.

An otherwise ambitious minichain, Noodle Street opened its first location in Fullerton in April 2017 with eyes on the San Gabriel Valley. Their Monrovia location opened in 2018.

“So we did have a partnership and sold similar items, but our customer base was mainly Asian and we didn’t really want to do that for the future (enterprise),” Zhao said. “We were hoping we could bring something for everyone. So, we made it more Asian fusion rather than something super authentic. This is something that we grew up with, we’re very familiar (with it). It’s something very, very popular in our home country.”

Noting the signature dish on the menu, beef noodle soup, I ask if the home country is Taiwan and am quickly disabused of the notion.  A native of Tieling, northeast of Beijing, Zhou further explained the specific regional influence for the concept and menu is Lanzhou-style beef noodles, referring to the city in northwest China. Lanzhou’s tradition of hand-pulled noodles and beef noodle soup can be traced to the eighth century Tang Dynasty and were the precursor of the Sichuan or red-braised variety that developed into the national dish of Taiwan.

On Noodle Street stay focused on the noodles, though there are also four rice dishes on the menu, including kimchee fried rice with shrimp ($11.80).

Choosing your noodles is the first task. All freshly hand-pulled, there are four noodle styles—standard round, comparable to a wider gauge spaghetti, also described as chewy; flat, resembling fettuccini, chewier; triangle, similar to standard round but wider and with a rigid surface, chewier; finally, knife cut, wider still with a 3/4-inch flat cut called chewiest.

Three noodle dishes specify their own noodle style. Both the savory braised chicken noodle ($12.80) with potatoes, onions and bell peppers as well as the egg with tomato ($10.80) with scrambled eggs, tomatoes and green onions are served over knife cut noodles.

The spring cold noodle ($10.80) with beef slices, cucumbers, carrots and spinach are served with the standard round variety.

However, guests who are here for the signature beef noodle soup ($11.80) with sliced beef shank, radishes, leeks and cilantro can choose any of the four varieties to suit their taste (and chew).

Noodles aside, don’t ignore the list of house specials. There is local buzz building around the scallion pancakes ($4.80) and the beef rolls ($8) offer real competition to the gang of other authentic purveyors of this popular snack in the SGV.

Originally, the mall location in Arcadia was intended to open in May. Due to the lockdown in March, initial construction on the space was halted and didn’t resume until June, when the mall reopened briefly, before closing again in July. Noodle Street finally managed to open its doors at Santa Anita on October 6.

In the meantime, the Pasadena location at 87 E. Colorado Boulevard became available. The previous occupants, the long-time owners of the locally beloved A’Float Sushi quickly realized by April that sushi boats were a doomed format and opted to retire. Make way for Noodle Street.

Now poised to open in Pasadena, less than two months after the Santa Anita opening—as of this writing—only the scheduling and approval of a final health inspection remained as the final hurdle to the opening on Colorado Boulevard.

“I think we’re really close,” he said.

It also remains to be seen what accommodations the city will allow for outdoor dining on the block.

“We’re hoping to have an (outdoor) dining area,” Zhou said. “It’s very important to eat (the food) fresh, especially when it comes to noodles.”

There will be some changes to the menu in Pasadena.

“We will probably have dumpling options, which we don’t have in Arcadia,” Zhou said. “(For Pasadena) we’re trying to bring something fresh. We always feel its borderless when it comes to food and we just hope that we can bring the best to the city.”