Earthen Restaurant - Hacienda Heights
There are a few places outside the Orange Curtain that this food lover will brave freeway gridlock for. Actually, there are more than a few. Portos, Din Tai Fung, and Philippe French Dip come to mind.
But closest of all, just over the hill beyond North Orange County, is Earthen -- a Chinese restaurant so insanely popular and so insanely good, it must be the envy of all its competitors. Even in this recession, you will always, always, find yourself on a waiting list*.
The reason isn't surprising: The green onion pancakes ($3.25) and the pork pot stickers (10 for $6.50) are, for lack of a better term, the best. And that's just two specialties from a menu that honors the cuisine of Shandong province -- a Chinese cooking style that sees a lot of noodles, pancakes, dumplings, and other things wonderfully derived from wheat flour.
Those pancakes should be the first thing you order. It's richly buttery and layered like a fine French croissaint, as pliant as a freshly-pressed flour tortilla -- the lightest and crispiest onion pancakes I've ever tasted. To eat, you take a triangular slice and chomp down as if it were pizza. Dunking in a slurry of vinegar, soy, and chili paste is also recommended. Ordering two plates -- so that no one fights over the last piece -- is advised
And if you've never been a dumpling devotee, you will become one when you taste it here. With Earthen's perfect parcels of pork, you won't find any hidden air pockets -- it's filled end-to-end with meat. Every bite yields hog heaven.
The only difference between the pot stickers and their steamed cousins, the dumpling, is that they are crisped up on one side and presented with their browned bottoms facing up. Their doughy skins are thick enough to carry the cargo, yet thin enough that it disintegrates once your start chewing.
Also not to be missed is Appetizer #8 (no English translation, sorry) -- a block of chilled, silken tofu topped with quarter slices of thousand-year-old-egg, slathered with a salty sauce and garnished with scallions ($2.95).
Since there's no congee for them to hide behind, this is the closest and most personal encounter you'll ever have with the thousand-year-old-egg. Those fearful of its dark, alien appearance, shouldn't be. Apart from the slippery gelatin chew, its flavor is even milder than regular hard-boiled. The combo of it with tofu is indescribable and thrilling -- deliciously unlike anything you've ever put in your mouth (unless you've had it before).
The noodles at Earthen are almost as thick as udon, but not as chewy. And though the broth in the "Sea Food Noodle Hot Soup" ($6.50) needed a touch more salt, it is still the ultimate antidote for our recent cold snap. The orange-hued liquid scorched like it was mixed with kimchi juice. Just make sure you dab all the sweat off your brow before you step outside into the freezing breeze.
Other dishes, like the kung pao beef ($6.25), bean curd with pork ($6.25), sauteed ong-choy ($6.25) and fried shrimp with hot garlic sauce ($15.95) were pitch-perfect recitals. The ong-choy crunched with a snap and came studded with green onions; the batter-encased shrimp had a heat that snuck in with the sweet and vinegary punch of the soaked-in glaze.
All are to be heaped over a bowl of rice, shoved by chopsticks directly into the gullet, chased by plenty of hot tea, and paid for by cash.
1639 S Azusa Ave.
Hacienda Heights, CA 91745
*Above picture was taken close to 3 P.M., after the lunch rush.
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Ellen's Pinoy Grille - La Palma**
**Special Thanks to Monster Munching location scout Cecile for the tip on Ellen's Pinoy Grille.