Alongside the cramped driveway of the Plaza Condominiums—one of Irvine’s towering mixed-use urban developments—wasn’t where I expected to find an unapologetically authentic Shaanxi-cuisine specialist, but there it stood, in the shadow of the high-rise. It’s a sign of the times that Qin West Noodle decided to open here instead of at the more established Chinese business centers anchored by 99 Ranch Markets on the other side of town.
When more people look down at their phones than up at buildings, street visibility is less important than online word-of-mouth. It helps that Qin West Noodle is already well-known to the Southern California Chinese diaspora. With locations in Chinatown, Arcadia and Westwood, it has established a reputation as one of LA’s true ambassadors of Shaanxi dishes.
Despite being hidden in this labyrinth of concrete and glass whose only sign on the street still has the name of the Persian place that Qin West Noodle replaced, the restaurant is doing great. On the day of my visit, the customers first came in a trickle. But then, as the clock ticked closer to noon, there was a deluge. It was so busy that when one customer asked me if I was still using my jar of flaked chile oil, he already had his hands on it before I could answer.
Some were students from UC Irvine, but other patrons were office dwellers from nearby tech companies who yearned for flavors they can’t get at Panda Express—or even the nearest Cantonese dim sum house. Outside the sphere of LA’s San Gabriel Valley, Shaanxi food is a rarity. At my count, Irvine only has about two other restaurants that feature dishes characteristic of the province. Since it’s from a landlocked region in northwestern China, Shaanxi cuisine is all about noodles, with lots of pork, beef and mutton. You won’t discover much seafood on the menu, but you will find bread and dumplings.
One of the best things you can order at Qin West Noodle is the roujiamo, which is basically a Shaanxi-style Sloppy Joe. The restaurant simply calls it “mo” and offers it with either pork or spicy beef. The pork is succulent and salty, a thrilling hash of fat and meat stewed for hours in a master sauce of star anise, ginger and other spices. The beef is so heavy with cumin you smell it before you taste it. Both are crammed inside a split-apart, crispy flatbread shell akin to a Venezuelan arepa. And when you eat one, you wonder where it has been all your life and when it might someday replace the Big Mac at the nearest drive thru.
Qin West Noodle also makes decent pork-filled dumplings. But as good as they are—with thick skins and crisped brown bottoms of proper potstickers—they aren’t much different from the gyozas you can get anywhere. It’s best to save room for the noodles.
There are eight noodle dishes in all, varying in price from $7.95 to $10.25. For some reason, the restaurant chooses to serve them—and even the soups—in oversized disposable containers instead of real bowls.
The meatless liangpi consists of tape-wide belts of handmade rice noodle (not unlike the kind used for Thai pad see ew), blanched bean sprouts, julienned cucumbers and crushed peanuts. Its predominant flavor of garlic and the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorn comes from a singular source: a drenching of red oil that coats the silken strands and slicks your lips.
If you order the Guilin soup, which is actually named for a city in the southern province of Guangxi, you will come face-to-face with a broth for the ages. As you slurp, you’ll taste every pungent note of sour, salty, spicy, sweet, umami and herbal. With sliced beef shank so tender it rivals wet tissue paper, tart Chinese cabbage, crunchy lily flowers, bean-curd sheets, skin-on peanuts and bits of pickled green beans that have their raw snap intact, this is a bowl that’s not lacking in interesting things to chew. And although the soup uses rice noodles rather than the wheat noodles more indicative of the north, the dish still has that unmistakable soulful funk of something from deep in the Mainland.
There’s even a dry version of the soup, which is even better. And it’s not just because it comes with a pot-stewed hard-boiled egg. Compared to the soup, the more concentrated sauce that lubricates the dry noodles wallops you with a bare-knuckled fist. Of course, it may have also been because I took a heaping spoon of flaked chile oil from the jar and mixed it into my bowl. I did so right before that other customer took the jar away. In retrospect, it’s good that he did. If it were any hotter, I’d need medical attention—and I doubt the ambulance would find the place.
Qin West Noodle, 6200 Scholarship, Irvine, (949) 932-0465; qinwestnoodle.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dishes, $3.95-$12.95. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.