Is this what La Choy had in mind? And if so, how did they get it so wrong?
C'mon - there must be someone else out there with an intimate knowledge of La Choy Chow Mein (beef, chicken, or shrimp), that 1960s and 70s grocery store shelf staple: a two-can (taped together, one on top of the other) quick meal of protein and vegetables suspended in beige-tinted mucus, served over a pile of powdery deep-fried dough worms. It was never prepared in my mother's kitchen (bless you, mom) but in the U.S. I've come head to head with it at the tables of childhood friends, college roommates, and ... grandma (bless you anyway, grandma).
Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with chow mein (simply "fried noodles"), but La Choy meals left me with mental scars that dictated an aversion to the dish. That is until I sampled a particularly palatable pork version in Kuala Terenganu's Chinatown. Since then it's catapulted to near tippy-top of my Favorite Malaysian Noodles list.
How wonderful to know, then, that a sublime beef chow mein can be had close at hand, in Bukit Bintang, at a street-level (literally: tables sit several steps down from the sidewalk, which puts the head, once one is seated, at just about exhaust-pipe level) stall that specializes in fried beef noodles, wet (with gravy) and dry (stir-fried a la char kuaytiaow).
Before jumping headlong into a recitation of the glories of this no-name place's wet beef noodles, I must acknowledge the merits of the dry version: toothsome noodle, chewy bits of scrambled egg, caramelized but still pleasantly crunchy slices of red onion, lots of crispy bean sprouts and round cabbage chunks, generously sized slices of unbelievably tender beef, and plenty of char from the wok.
Altogether fantastic. But would I order it again? Well, no, not if the gravy version is available. But if gravy doesn't float your boat then the dry noodle is a must-have.
Wet noodles feature the same tender beef, but that's where the similarity ends. Here we find a plate-sized pancake of thickish noodles deep-fried to a golden brown, cradling a mound of beef stir-fried with gai lan leaves, fragrant with chopped ginger. Beef and veggy have been cooked in a broth-scented gravy thickened with egg white and the merest dab of corn starch.
When the lot is tipped from wok onto the plate gravy runs over noodles and pools underneath, laying the groundwork for a textural triumph: a guaranteed combination of crunchy, tender, kinda soft, and not-quite-toothsome noodles in every bite. As one works one's way through the dish noodles become more uniformly soft, but never completely so.
Beyond its textural contrasts, the other standout of this dish is the flavorful, fresh egg white, whisps of which are wrapped around every single noodle. When the noodles are almost gone what's left is a rich puddle of what could be the makings of the world's finest, most eggy (and least cornstarch-y) egg drop soup. In the end, as in the beginning, it's all about the gravy.
Update: As of September 2006 this stall has closed. No word on new address, if any. These beef noodles will be sorely missed.
No Name stall. Kitty korner to the char kuayteow and popiah shop at the end of Jalan Alor, just across from the Radius Hotel. Closed Sunday. This place is also said to do a fine sang hai mee (sheng hai mian - fried noodles topped with a gravy that includes huge freshwater prawns).