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I am thrilled and delighted many of you are enjoying our sightseeing tours via this column through the building that once housed my family’s Imperial Dynasty and Chinese Pagoda restaurants. Our third tour begins by walking down the scariest staircase in the entire building to enter the Chinese Pagoda basement.

But first a recap on my China Alley roots, which date to the early 1880s. Back in China, my rabble-rousing great-grandfather continued to defy the Ch'ing Dynasty by cutting off his queue — a hairstyle in which the hair worn long and gathered up into a ponytail — and encouraged others to do so as well.

Attending a political rally in Canton, China, Great-grandfather was confronted by armed Ch'ing henchmen. Pursued, he fled until he reached the Pearl River and, having no other way of escape, jumped into the water. A passing ship rescued him, and he found himself among a group of Chinese laborers on their way to San Francisco. Great-grandfather had to leave behind his wife and five sons as well as his restaurant business and twenty-one acres of rice paddies in Fa Yuen, a village about forty miles north of Guangzhou.

When my great-grandfather arrived in California's San Joaquin Valley, he worked in Kingston and Grangeville before settling in Hanford. He found work where he could as a laborer on fruit ranches. In his spare time he worked as the cook for Chinese laborers who were building the railroads and tending the farmlands.

Great-grandfather's reputation as a cook spread among the Chinese laborers in Kings County, and soon he was selling bowls of noodles that he served in the basement of his Hanford home, located at 64 Visalia Street. Spurred on by his success, in 1883 he opened his own restaurant, a noodle house on the upper floor of the Sun Lung Jan building, which housed the Imperial Dynasty restaurant. He named his noodle house Mee Jan Low, which is translated as "Beautiful and Precious Restaurant." Mee Jan Low was a meeting place for the laborers who could buy a bowl of noodles for five cents and who then chatted away the hours at one of the restaurant’s eight tables.

Decades later, Grandfather wanted to expand the noodle house and chose a two-story building located on the northwest corner of China Alley and Green Street. Originally constructed in the 1880s, the building’s top story was a rooming house and a tobacco store was located on the first floor with a gambling room in the rear. The Chinese Pagoda opened in 1937 and closed in 1981.

Now let’s head down those Chinese Pagoda basement stairs. Their location has always been petrifying because the first step down is adjacent to what was the work area – such a potentially easy misstep. One step over and, boom, there are stairs. Deep, narrow, uneven cement stairs, gravity tugging. Hang onto the railing, just a few more steps and I’ll show you why we are down here.

In the first room of the basement are two machines. They were the powerhouses of the Chinese Pagoda from its inception until the 1950s. One apparatus is a dough mixer, the other is a noodle machine. The restaurant made its own noodles; Great-grandfather mixed his dough by hand and rolled his noodles out with bamboo sticks, Grandfather had these “modern inventions” shipped from China. These machines will not remain on the premises when the renovations get underway. They will be taken where they belong, to the Taoist Temple Museum, where they will be displayed alongside the bamboo sticks. The history of noodle making in Hanford’s China Alley, pieces of my family’s history, which I heartily embrace. Noodles are often the center of my cooking, very often at the core of my eating preferences, always a tasty delight, beautiful and precious to me as the strands of my family carried from generation to generation.

This week in honor of Great-grandfather’s Beautiful and Precious Restaurant, I’m sharing a recipe for hand cut Chinese egg noodles, a springy, chewy noodle. The dough can be sliced into thin strands or thick ribbons. It’s a very forgiving recipe. Unlike other egg pasta dough recipes, which only need to be kneaded, this Chinese egg noodle recipe requires the dough to be “beaten” with a rolling pin. This technique gives the noodles a bounce, and is reminiscent of the dying art of making “jook-sing” noodles, which requires the cook to pound the dough with giant bamboo poles.

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Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at arianne@ltsue.com

 

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