Belching (discreetly) our way down Changkat Thambi Dollah towards Jalan Pudu after a satisfyingly fiery lunch at Sze Chwan Village Restaurant, we happened upon the nondescript, completely bereft -of-activity Restoran Dong Bei. The place was so sorry looking we would probably have passed right by without a glance, had I not spied a piece of orange posterboard taped haphazardly up front. And there, right in front of us, were the magic characters we'd been searching for weeks earlier, before we gave up and dove into fish porridge up the street at Ah Koong Eating House: dao shao mian (knife cut noodles)! And not just dao shao mian, but liang mian (cold noodles) and mala mian (noodles with chili and Sichuan peppercorns) and shui jiao (boiled dumplings)!
Right then and there -- after debating the matter briefly and then finally admitting to ourselves that there was no way we could shove a second lunch down our throats, no matter how much we wanted to -- Dave and I vowed to return one day to sad little Dong Bei for lunch. And so we did, less than 24 hours later. And have returned again. And are eagerly anticipate our next visit.
Dongbei is generally understood to refer to the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning (sometimes Shandong province is thrown into the mix as well); the region is bordered by Russia, Korea, Mongolia, and (obviously) to the south, China. The population of Dongbei is rather homogeneous. It wasn't much settled before the 1700s, when Han Chinese arrived from the south; from the late 19th century until the end of WWII the region was occupied first by Russia, and then by Japan (which named it "Manchuoko"). Descendents of both nationalities still live in Dongbei today, whiled refugees trickle over the region's border with North Korea.
For Chinese from Dongbei -- in contrast to those from other parts of the country -- regional identity takes priority over provincial. That identity includes recognition of a cuisine which transcends provincial boundaries, and is influenced by the nations which border the region. Dongbei food makes frequent use of vinegar (Korean influence?) and features raw vegetables. Pickles are not uncommon, especially cabbage (Korea again ... and Russia?). Lamb is ubiquitous (Mongolia, perhaps) and chilies are used liberally. Wasabi, mixed with vinegar and sesame oil, is used in Shandong (the "sometimes" Dongbei province) to dress salads. Wheat, rather than rice, is the mainstay starch, so noodles, dumplings, and breads are a big part of the Dongbei diet.
Restoran Dong Bei has received our only repeat visit in the 2+ months we've lived in KL -- not necessarily because it is objectively "better" than any of the other spots I've yammered on about on this blog. Because it is different. Dongbei flavors make a radical and pleasant change of pace, now and again, from seafood curry mee or Ipoh chicken rice.
In two visits we've managed to scarf a number of dishes, all expertly prepared by the female head of the Heilongjiang household that owns the place. But before you go, know this about Dong Bei: it will probably be empty. I don't know why, and I don't know how Dongbei has survived the 5 years that it has with such dismal lunch traffic. Maybe it does all its business at dinnertime. At any rate, one mustn't be put off by a lack of customers.
On our initial foray we went snack-heavy, figuring -- as we had at Sze Chwan Village -- that the best way to guage the place's sincerity was via its simpler foods: dao shao mian, shui jiao (a mixture of meat dumplings and veggie dumplings), liang mian, Dongbei dala pi (lit. Dongbei style big pulled skins -- in actuality, translucent noodles made of mung bean starch), and a coriander salad.
Dumplings were, in a word, excellent. Skins a bit thinner than those at Sze Chwan village, but not too much so. Expertly pleated, boiled to perfection (not mush), and stuffed with lots of garlicky greens (veggie variety, left below) and juicy ground pork mixed with wee nubs of spritely Chinese celery (meat variety, right).
On each table a proper, if not Sichuan-fragrant, la jiao you (chili oil/paste) and strong black vinegar are there for the mixing.
We ordered our knife cut noodles "dry".
This, I believe, was a mistake. Not that the noodles weren't tasty; thick and wheaty, topped with a blob of chili bean paste and a good pile of shredded cucumber, these were everything I'd hope for in a daoshao mian, especially when mixed with a bit of vinegar.
But dao shao mian belong in a soup (and in fact that's the only way I'd had them, until our visit to Dongbei). They just do. These are fat, hearty, hefty noodles that need to be floating around with greens and porky pieces in a rich broth. They beg to be eaten hot, not at room temperature. And they will be, by golly, as soon as we can get back to Dong Bei.
Dongbei's liangmian were a complete surprise. Here, before us, was a tasty bit of Korea in a bowl.
Round, ultra-chewy potato starch noodles, cucumber shreds, thin slices of pressed beef, a generous helping of kimchee, a dab of red chili paste, all sprinkled with sesame seeds -- something like naeng myun (Korean cold noodles), with ice-cold rice vinegar substituting for broth. Can't say I've ever had vinegar "soup" before, and I recognize that it doesn't sound appealing. But this crunchy, chewy, beefy, spicy noodle in vinegar soup is just about the perfect aswer to KL's wet heat.
Another surprise of the meal was this simple salad of cilantro and Chinese celery leaves, red and green pepper strips, and scallion matchsticks, dressed with only salt and a whisper of sesame oil.
I don't think I've ever eaten a better salad, even in northern California. Leaves perky and crunchy, not a wilted one in the bunch; and just the barest smidge of sesame oil left on the plate when we finished. A delightful palate cleanser.
The chef delivered our Dongbei dala pi with a flourish; undressed noodles draped over shreds of cucumber and large chunks of raw garlic, with sauce on the side.
Once she had poured over the mixture of sesame paste, la jiao, and vinegar, and mixed the lot up, we discovered the dala pi included chewy matchsticks of stir-fried pork as well.
This dish is a winner in every possible way. Texturally speaking you've got slippery, crunchy, and chewy, and though the sour of the vinegar dominates, fire from the la jiao and sweet from the sesame paste and the pork don't hide in the background. Not to mention the whallop of raw garlic. These mung bean noodles (but don't describe them as "noodles" in front of Dongbei's owner -- she'll get quite irate) are one of my favorite new foods.
After this first meal we were eager to get back to Dongbei to try a few proper dishes. On visit number two we couldn't resist another plate of shui jiao (all veggie, this time), and then followed that up with the intriguingly named jiachang liangcai ("home-style" cold vegetables). Expecting something along the line of a pickle, we soon found ourselves oohing and ahhing over this tempting mound of shredded cabbage, carrots, and cucumber; bean sprouts; and coriander leaves, all entwined with the potato starch noodles that had figured largely in our liangmian.
Yet another variation on the salad theme, as delightful and refreshing as the dala pi and the coriander salad. Except for the sprouts, which were lightly blanched, all vegetables were raw; the whole was dressed with black vinegar, a hint of la jiao, and a slick of sesame oil.
Yuxiang rousi ("fish-flavor" pork shreds) was the first hot dish to arrive. If I had not even tasted this dish I would still nod approval after having a gander at this photo. Why? The slick of red oil just visible in the plate. Not goo or some kind of sauce -- just an exqusisite naturally occuring amalgamation of cooking oil and pork fat and vegetable juices and the essence of those big can't-miss-'em pieces of dried chili.
This dish, to me, says "China"; it's the way I remember food there being way back when, when oil was expensive and valued and not to be wasted. Oil is a great carrier of flavors -- in excess inappropriate to, say, the finest and lightest Cantonese dishes, but wholly correct when the flavors in a dish are big and bold and assertive. As they were in this dish, with its hit of vinegar and its extreme chili heat. The pork was tender and moist, and the unevenly cut carrots retained plenty of crunch (and flavor). Dried chilies had caught enough of the "breath of the wok" to have picked up a distinct -- and delicious -- charred taste. I couldnt' resist eating them on their own, or paired only with the dish's thick slices of garlic. As for that glistening pool of spicy grease, I was tempted to ask for a spoon so as to facilitate unimpeded delivery to my mouth. A spectacular version of a common Chinese dish that, unfortunately, is served in many horrific variations around the world.
Xiangla xiaopai ("fragrant" and spicy small spareribs) was equally delightful.
The "fragrance" of the dish was courtesy of Sichuan peppercorns -- but just a few, just enough to perfume the meat and nowhere near enough to numb the mouth. Ribs had been cut through the bone and deep-fried, then tossed with big garlic slices, crunchy coriander stems (a "clean" foil to the rich pork), and more dried chilies. This dish had no sauce to speak of, and it wasn't missed at all.
Finally, the most basic dish that can be requested of a restaurant: stir-fried greens. Readers of this blog will know that I take my greens seriously, and yet I must admit that I have yet to really and truly master this simplest of dishes (the shame!). My stir-fried greens always end up too cooked, or too raw; too watery, or so dry that they stick to the wok. Perhaps I should take lessons at the knee of the woman in charge of Dong Bei's kitchen, because she has really got the method down pat.
Observe: plenty of garlic, leaves well-cooked while stems -- devoid of tell-tale limpness -- still exhibit a bit of life, and a pool of neither clear nor thick and goopy juices. A fine plate of qingchao youcai (fried mustard) if ever there was one.
I would imagine that -- if you've made it to the end of this long post -- it is apparent that we hold Restoran Dong Bei in very high esteem. We will be back (there are so many dishes yet to try, and we haven't even cracked to the lamb section of the menu yet). If you're a fan of northeastern Chinese cuisine, watch this space. Better yet, go eat at this place.
Dongbei Restoran, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah just a block up from Jalan Pudu. Tel 03-2148-7694. There is a very brief and incomplete picture menu; the complete menu is in Chinese. House specials are posted on a sign just inside the entrance, and the daughter, if she is waitressing, speaks a bit of English.