I Heart SGV: Yunnan “Across the Bridge” Noodles. Yunnan Guo Qiao Mi Xian – Chinese Chicken Soup Noodles.

If you were to ask someone what food satisfies them the most when their they’re under the weather, you’re likely to hear “chicken soup”. For centuries, it is believed that chicken soup along with the combination of vegetables and garlic, have healing qualities in many cultures. Scientifically, there may not be an exact reason other than the hot steam, salt and protein clearing up congestion and providing nutrition. Maybe it’s simply a childhood memory they have of their mother’s care-taking. Campbell’s has done an excellent job of branding over the decades, reminding Americans to buy chicken noodle soup in times of sickness.  The Vietnamese offer a fragrant and beautiful soup noodle dish (pho ga) made with chicken bones, garlic, ginger and spices similar to that of its beef counterpart, pho. The Koreans offer a whole chicken soup (sam gae tang) that is guaranteed to bring you back to normal with its benevolent usage of ginseng.  The Japanese of the Southern prefecture of Fukuoka prefecture have a delicious hot-pot like dish called mizutaki, which is made of boiled chicken bones and various vegetables. Central Latin Americans, typically Mexicans, offer a tasty soup made with chicken bones and large pieces of vegetables known as caldo de pollo. And then there’s this, the Chinese soup noodles known as “Across the Bridge” noodles from the Southern province of Yunnan, China. And it is one of my favorite mainland Chinese soup noodles that heals me and satisfies me.

It is important to know that this peasant dish is extremely simple, yet delicious, like many Korean soups and stews. I would not ask you to drive 45 miles to eat here as I myself wouldn’t drive that far for a bowl of Korean beef bone soup. It’s just homey food that consists of many ingredients that can be combined and eaten at one time – much like chop suey or Chinese fried rice.  The Yunnanese would use whatever ingredients they could find, including raw meat, slices of chicken, preserved goodies and various vegetables in a broth made of chicken and pork bones (boiled for 6+ hours to extract maximum flavor).  In the photos above, you can see that the toppings are separated from the bowl of soup, with the plate serving as a lid for the broth.  The separation of the toppings, meat and noodles are part of the allure of this dish and supposedly has a part in Yunnan’s history.  So how did the Yunnanese come up with the name “Across the Bridge” noodles? In searching the web, there were several theories on this and the one I found most interesting went something like this:

Everyday, a man who was studying for his imperial exams would cross a zigzagged bridge to a little island on a lake for peace and quiet.  His wife would make him a piping hot bowl of soup noodles for lunch and walk across the bridge to drop off the food. It was a long walk across the bridge and by the time she walked the food over, it resulted in soggy noodles and overcooked meat and vegetables in a lukewarm broth. In addition, the man would sometimes be so involved with his studies that he would often forget to eat – leaving him with an even more unappetizing bowl of noodles. His wife became frustrated as her husband eventually lost interest in eating her soup noodles. One day, while making the broth from a fat chicken and pork bones, she had forgotten to skim off the oil and fat. Although the soup was piping hot, she noticed that there wasn’t much steam coming out of the bowl – the oil and fat actually provided a “heat cap” for the broth. She immediately covered the bowl of hot broth and used the topping plate as a lid.  She walked the food over and set the food down for her husband.  Because there was an oil/fat cap and “lid” plate on top of the hot broth, he could basically cook his food right on the spot, whenever he was ready to eat. The dish is named after the loving wife and her countless trip “Across the Bridge”.

And that is the way this noodle dish is served to you. The waitress will come with a topping plate stacked on top of the bowl of hot noodles. Because they don’t really use oil or fat to provide the “heat cap”, the lid does fine. The soup is blasted on high heat because it needs to cook the raw pork immediately. I would take precaution in slurping the soup right off the bat. The server will first dump in the raw pork, followed by the other meats and vegetables. Then the noodles are added at the end. One of the tastiest toppings, and probably the most important in the “Across the River” noodles, is the ham that is used to make this dish. The ham is also completely unique to the Yunnan province.  According to Wikipedia, Yunnan ham or Xuanwei ham, is one of China’s three most prized hams along with Jinhao of Zhejiang and Rugao of Jiangsu. I believe I’ve had one of these hams before when I was in Southern China and man, simply amazing.  This ham adds a really subtle smokiness to the chicken broth base. But because of heavy exporting laws in Yunnan, the restaurants I’ve written about here have resorted to using the local ingredients in Los Angeles to make their famous provincial ham – which is still very good. Here’s a direct quote taken from a site about the Yunnan ham-making process:

“As a rule, the Xuanwei ham is processed during the winter. Select the best pork leg and press out the pork blood completely. Rub it with salt and smoke or air it dry after the salt permeates to a certain depth of the pork. Try to test the pork leg in three when the surface of the pork turn in green. The quality standard is to have the ham fragrance from three needles punched in the pork. Cut the ham open from the middle, it looks bright in color and has a clean fresh color. It can be preserved well in cellar with low moisture or in a warehouse with good air conditioning. Xuanwei ham can be bought from any big or small stores. If not convenient for travelling, it is possible to by canned Xuanwei ham.”

Let me digress to Tokyo, Japan, where we found this same culinary technique being exercised on ramen. Thanks to Rameniac’s recommendation on Mochi Mochi No Ki, we were able to eat an amazing bowl of ramen served in a bonito-stock. We ordered the only type of ramen they had and when it was served, we were interested in the fact that there was virtually ZERO steam coming out of the bowl. It was almost like it was a plastic replica of food known by the Japanese as shokuhin sanpuru (plastic food samples). The scallion slivers and cha shu pork sat on a frozen pond of bonito/pork broth.  But it wasn’t until I used my chopstick to stir the broth and saw wisps of steam rise out of the bowl, that I knew it was indeed a bowl of hot ramen. And it was amazing. We would “fish” out strands of golden noodles, slurp it and let the oil sort of cover up the “steam hole”. The broth remained hot well after we had finished off the toppings and ramen noodles.

In the last few years, the San Gabriel Valley has become a Little China with the large influx of mainland Chinese. They may bring enough loud conversations and rough mannerisms to drive Alexandra Wallace mad, but they are also bringing their culinary talents and offerings which I can say is a fair trade-off.  In any Sichuan (Szechuan), Hunan and Yunnan restaurant, amidst the specials written on neon construction paper, is the side dish stand. Like Koreans and their ban chan side dishes, Mainland Chinese have their xiao tsai, which literally means “little dishes”.  Once you’ve been seated by the server, your next step would be to check out the xiao tsai. If you don’t have this with your meal, you’re really cheating yourself. Out of the twelve to fifteen different dishes you can choose from, I find myself regularly ordering the spicy beef slices, spicy beef tendons, spicy seaweed and spicy tofu. You’ll notice that the flavorful sauce used is spicy and numbing, which the Chinese refer to as ma la.  The spice obviously derives from red chilis and the numbing from red peppercorns and prickly ash powder known as hua jiao.  And that flavor combination is simply addicting.  I dare you to eat only ONE piece of beef. You’ve got the history of the “Across the Bridge” noodles, a brief intro on Yunnan ham and you’ve got your xiao tsainow it’s time to do some visual eating

Yunchuan Garden
301 N. Garfield Ave. Suite D102
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-8387

My first experience with Yunnan food happened here back in 2000 I believe, when it was called Yun Gui Garden. Since then, I believe there was either two other changes in ownership and the current successor is just not the same.  The food here, especially the xiao tsai, are great. But the soup was just lacking. I almost felt that they didn’t use any chicken bones at all, but rather chicken bouillon powder. If you do eat here, I would skip on the “Across the Bridge” noodles and try some of their seafood and meat dishes. I miss you Yun Gui!

Yunnan Garden
545 W. Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 308-1896

This place may be the newest in the Yunnan “scene”, replacing another Mainland Chinese restaurant. The photos of the xiao tsai above were taken here and they were done beautifully. It was so good I ended up bringing some back for my Korean dry-cleaners guy who is obsessed with SGV.  The “Across the River” noodles here are definitely better than Yunchuan Garden, but not by much. But the main reason I would come back here is for the ham. It is sliced thinly, almost like a Chinese pastrami, and delicious. My eyes widened when I took a bite of the salted slivers of pig. I may come back here simply with a piece of bread and have them make me a Chinese pastrami sandwich. Hmm, maybe Cole’s, Philippe’s and Langer’s has a new contender?

Left: The waitress slowly adds in the components of “Across the Bridge” noodles. Right: Just the right amount of chicken fat and vegetable oil glistening in the bowl.

Left: The heavenly Chinese pastrami. Right: Some chicken pieces are half-cooked and finished off in the hot broth.

Yunnan 168
1530 S. San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 280-7688

It’s interesting to note that the Mainland Chinese are extremely aggressive in running their businesses, occupying whatever space they can. You can give a Chinese man the keys to a public pool in San Gabriel, and he will have a restaurant running in the basin sooner than you think. You give him a Chuck E. Cheese and he will have people eating Sichuan pig ears in a pool of plastic balls. This place in its past life was Spike’s Teriyaki bowl, which as nostalgic as it is for the denizens of SGV, tasted better than Yoshinoya by a small margin. So when you eat here, you get that feeling of eating in a fast food joint. They unfortunately have not utilized the drive-thru technology: “Hi, would you like to try the spicy pig ear and chicken mcfeet combo for $4.99?” I’ve left this for last as it was the favorite of the Yunnan trio. The xiao tsai here is fantastic and the dishes people were eating looked equally good. As for the “Across the Bridge” noodles, I tasted the soulful chicken broth – very little chicken bouillon. They included pea sprouts, rather than chives only, and my favorite, bean curd sheets.  The ham, although not as tasty as Yunnan Garden, was delectable.

Left: Heavy noodling in effect. Right: Generous serving of toppings.

Left: Notice the good amount of pea sprouts in the broth. Right: The final, handsome bowl of soup noodles.

One last edge Yunnan 168 has over the others is the condiments provided. To my surprise, they actually supplied the once-very-difficult-to-find red peppercorn/prickly ash oil that is used in almost all of Sichuan, Yunnan and Hunan cooking. I mean, they sometimes overdo the oil in their food, which is why they have to serve you hot tea to degrease the pipes. I added two tiny drops to my bowl of “Across the Bridge” noodles and I was sold on this place. Add some chili sauce and white pepper and I think you’ll find one of the true meanings in life.  I loved this oil so much I asked the owner if I could buy it. She hesitated and told me it was very expensive and difficult to import from Yunnan. “How expensive, name me a price.” I ended up buying it for $1.99. Win.

Again, if you’re sick and missing your mom’s home cooking, may I suggest trying a bowl of Mainland China’s “Across the Bridge” noodles. It’s not life-changing, but it’s one of those things that’s just done right.  Thanks for reading.

Yunchuan Garden
301 N. Garfield Ave. Suite D102
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 571-8387

Yunnan Garden
545 W. Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 308-1896

Yunnan 168
1530 S. San Gabriel Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 280-7688

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4 Responses to “I Heart SGV: Yunnan “Across the Bridge” Noodles. Yunnan Guo Qiao Mi Xian – Chinese Chicken Soup Noodles.”

  1. boody Says:

    DYLAN! YOUR NEW BLOG IS WONDERFUL!!!!!! I love all the stories AND the photos, of course. When are we all going to eat in the noodle stalls out in Queens????

  2. weezermonkey Says:

    Oooh. I can go to all of these places for lunch. Jealous?

  3. Kung Food Panda Says:

    I actually had Yunchuan Garden for dinner tonight, as it’s one of my favorites in the SGV area. Love the rundown of the “Across the Bridge” Noodles.

  4. Dylan Says:

    Danny, check out Yunnan 168 sometime. The prickly ash oil is a WILD, GOOD TIME.

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