Trieu Chau - Santa Ana
I was bummed when Noodle Avenue folded. For me, this restaurant -- which couldn't decide whether it wanted to be Pei Wei clone or a true noodle shop -- was my comfort-food place. It was my corner diner; my Monk's Cafe.
I never touched Noodle Avenue's stir-fried stuff -- too pedestrian, and frankly, not very good. In fact, I ordered nothing but the House Noodle. It was fast, cheap, slurpably dependable, and I didn't have to go far to get it.
Its proximity was everything. Everyone should have a noodle shop like this a few clicks from their place of work or domicile. To me, Noodle Avenue was both.
But if there's something good that came from Noodle Avenue's demise, it's that it lit the fire under my feet to try Trieu Chau -- the restaurant that Noodle Avenue owes its existence to.
And when I finally made the pilgrimage, I realized that it was like I had being going to California Adventure, while never having been to Disneyland -- a silly thing to do.
Noodle Avenue had nothing on the original.
I had read all about Trieu Chau going in; stories of its legendary noodle soups, coupled with horrifying tales of its divey-ness. One in particular comes to mind. It involves fellow food blogger Dylan (aka Noodle Whore) of Eat Drink & Be Merry and toenail clippings. He writes:
Trieu Chau Restaurant is so packed that the practice of joining 2 parties into 1 table is all too common. I once got hooked up with a grandpa and grandma. We didn't say a word to each other as we happily slurped our noodles and soup. Until... grandma busts out her NAILCLIPPERS. Ok, I thought, that's fine, she's going to clip her fingernails. Then without notice of me, she props her foot onto her chair and starts clipping away.... laying her finely incised TOENAILS onto a napkin which was already sharing real estate with a duck bone she had cleaned out.
But these details weren't what kept me way: It was the distance.
To me, instant gratification and noodles go hand-in-hand. My sentiments are echoed by Homer Simpson in this scene:
Moe: This baby can flash fry a buffalo in 30 seconds!
Homer: Awwww, but I want it now.
Trieu Chau, however, was worth the wait, and the drive.
The restaurant is exactly as I expected. The place is a little grimy; the scene, a bit chaotic. A few ceiling tiles are off-colored and the floor isn't always clean. In other words: It is authentic.
The service, however, is shockingly efficient and friendly. When fellow food blogger James Boo of The Eaten Path and I ate there together for the purpose of a joint review, we ordered and received our steaming bowls in less time than it takes for a Whopper to be assembled. And for some reason, the person serving it was wearing a latex glove.
Each table is supplied with more condiments than I knew what to do with. Sriracha. Sugar. White pepper. Two kinds of pickled chili pepper (red and green). Fresh Thai bird chilis. Salt. Dried chili flakes. Hoisin. Soy. Fish sauce. Chopped peanuts. Chili garlic sauce. All provide pathways to infinite customization.
Best of the group is a sweetish, savory chili paste swimming in oil. On this visit, I dabbed just a touch of it on top of each bite of meat. But on a previous noodle run, a pain-lovin' co-worker slopped spoonfuls of it directly into his broth. The result looked like shark chum or the receiving tray of a wood chipper after a terrible accident.
Even if he hadn't done this, the bowls Trieu Chau serves aren't for the faint of heart. You'll find liver in it -- big, inelegant chunks that tastes of, well...liver.
And don't expect cleanly sliced white breast meat. No, what I got were dark meat chicken and duck pieces, still on the bone, and hacked hapzardly with a cleaver. Both were chopped with a flagrant disregard to the location of the animal's actual joints. As an inevitable consequence, there were occasional fragments of bone in the soup. Spitting them out into a napkin is not frowned upon; it's expected.
The meat that clung to those bones, however, was perfect -- especially enjoyable when there's a scrap of its gelatinous skin attached.
Along with them, my bowl of Chao Chow Rice Noodle ($5.25) contained shrimp, meat balls, fish cake, and an uncharacteriscally lean hunk of pork.
But it's the broth that tied it all together. And it was marvelous -- a hot, glorious, mouth-filling nectar wrung from the soul of bird and hog. I'm not sure if MSG was involved, but for sure there were fried garlic bits that exploded in bursts of flavor.
Each serving also came with a plate of blanched bean sprouts and wedges of lime. The sprouts were just about the only vegetable in the dish (save for the diced scallions). The lime juice brightened the brew.
If you come in the morning hours, Trieu Chau has fried Chinese doughnuts, served even if you didn't order it, and charged to your bill only if you consume it. I don't know what would happen if you decided to just leave it untouched.
But when it's offered to you, you might as well eat it; It's part of the Trieu Chau experience. Though the toe-nail incident isn't, you shouldn't rule that out either.
4401 W 1st St
Santa Ana, CA 92703
To read James of The Eaten Path's review
THIS WEEK ON OC WEEKLY:
Tommy Pastrami - Santa Ana