In China, there is a myriad of regional cuisines, enough to make your head spin. Growing up, we predominantly eat Shanghainese food prepared by my mom — an excellent cook — and then, there is the various Chinese food depending on where we were living at the time. In Malaysia, the cuisine is richly diverse with Hokkien (Fujian), Chiu Chow (Teochew), Hakka, and Cantonese. In Hong Kong, where Cantonese cuisine reigns supreme, you will also find stellar offerings from other regions including Beijing (Peking), Sichuan (Szechuan), and Hunan among others.
There is a huge population of Chinese Muslims in Western China and of course, there is a cuisine to reflect that. This cuisine is called 清真菜 in Chinese — which literally translates to “halal food” — and my parents introduced it to us when we were teenagers. The food is heavily influenced by Beijing style cuisine, except the use of pork. Instead, the menu will focus on lamb or mutton as its main protein.
In Orange County, there are several restaurants which offer 清真菜. One of our favorites is Lotus Chinese Eatery in Huntington Beach. Recently, I stumble across Nomad Asian Bistro in Long Beach, which has some of the best 清真菜 I’ve experienced in a long time. Peruse the menu, but make sure you check out the black board as well.
I start with the Fresh Pressed Ginger Ale ($3.50) which is offered sweetened or without sugar, hot or cold. I highly recommend this heady, fragrant beverage, especially good if you’re a fan of ginger.
Although the menu is not completely traditional, there are many dishes which are. The first thing that catches my eye is the Xi’An Lamb Tripe ($12) an absolute delight with thinly sliced lamb tripe quickly stir fried with sliced scallions and Sichuan peppercorns. The tripe is tender and executed with such perfection it is hard to stop eating.
Next is Cumin Lamb ($16.50) a dish which is the epitome of 清真菜. Thin slices of lamb is rubbed with cumin and then cooked with scallions, ginger and garlic. A little on the oily side, but it is delicious and extremely flavorful.
Instead of rice, order the Thin Sesame Flatbread ($8) as accompaniment. Usually, there is scallion bread of sorts ranging from thin to thick at Chinese-Muslim restaurants. Here, there is the flatbread, or scallion pancake. Go with the flatbread!
Moving on, we select a slightly more Americanized dish to the meal. Garlic Jalapeno Chicken ($14) is reminiscent of General Tso’s Chicken, but not heavily battered, and not as sweet. I mention to my friend how I can’t explain it, but… and he finishes my sentence “how much you’re enjoying it for something so Americanized?” I nod with a chuckle.
I’m a sucker for eggplant, so for a vegetable dish, we choose Basil Eggplant ($9.95), a flavor-packed vegetarian dish which everyone will love. Strangely, with this and the chicken, I prefer to eat them with steamed rice rather than the flatbread. It is the traditional dishes I like to eat with the flatbread.
However, don’t fill up yet because you can’t leave without trying the Handmade Chow Mein ($8.50-$11.50). The noodles possess beautiful texture and a perfect chew. There is Napa cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, scallions, and a soy seasoning tossed in. In Chinese cuisine, the “wok hei” (鑊氣) or “breath of the wok” is very important. It pretty much will make or break a dish. The chow mein has good “wok hei” which seals in the flavors perfectly.
I am frankly, quite pleasantly surprised by this place. Tucked in the back of a strip mall, you’d think no one would find it, but it is absolutely packed with a hoard of people waiting for a table on a week night. We see people of all ethnicities dining here, but mostly, those of the Muslim faith. It makes me happy seeing everyone eating together under one roof. Food really does bring people together!
Nomad Asian Bistro
6563 E Pacific Coast Hwy
Long Beach, CA 90803