Just last quarter, Otaco launched their grand re-opening. With mediocre food and average atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the former restaurant closed down.
It didn’t take long for Lao Wang to come and make this restaurant their own. They market themselves as “Asian Street Food,” and their menu definitely reflects that.
The menu is simple, with just a few items featuring variations of malatang noodles, buns, and other sides. Malatang noodles are a combination of noodles and hot pot soups, allowing you to customize the dish to your liking. My photographer and I braved Hurricane Isla Vista in hopes of eating soul-warming food to combat the cold, dreary weather.
Though the inside of Lao Wang is almost the same as Otaco, it has received a much-needed face lift. Lao Wang gives off dining common vibes with the ample amount of seating available. They have bigger tables, which is convenient for larger groups of people.
The condiment bar is a sauce lover’s dream. They offer ketchup, sriracha, chili oil, white pepper, vinegar, soy sauce, and prickly ash oil. Though it sounds intimidating, prickly ash oil is just oil infused with the Sichuan peppercorn.
For the most part, the employees are helpful and more than happy to guide you through the menu. The food came in a reasonably timely manner. I got the Special Hot ‘n Spicy Malatang noodles, which include a free drink.
After you get your food and take pictures for your Instagram, I highly recommend giving everything a good stir. The base is a smooth, clear broth with a slight tang. A good stir will mix all the sauces and ingredients in the soup to make it more flavorful. The soup wasn’t particularly spicy, but the combination of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn gave me a slight tingling sensation.
Malatang noodles originated in Sichuan, China. If you are familiar with Sichuan cuisine, you know that it is packed with bold flavors and often features the Sichuan peppercorn. This peppercorn provides a “numbing” feeling that Sichuan food is famous for. If your mouth feels a little tingly or numb, it’s completely normal and a part of the dining experience. If you’re not a big fan of Sichuan peppercorn, you may want to opt for the dry noodles.
Interestingly, the noodles included were fat, round rice noodles. They were pretty slippery, and kept wiggling out from my tiny spoon. These noodles didn’t complement the soup too well. I feel that thinner noodles would have done the malatang more justice. If you decide to build your own malatang, you do have your own choice of noodles.
My photographer unfortunately built his malatang with the same rice noodles. For his sides, he decided upon beef and beef meatballs. There are plenty of sides to choose from, including fish tofu, broccoli, bok choy, Spam, and black fungus. All these additions are reminiscent of hot pot style Chinese cuisine. He picked up on the peppercorn flavor right away, and agreed that the flavor was pretty glaring. However, combined with everything else, it was easy to put in the back of your mind.
Because of the noodles, it was hard for me to get the perfect, all encapsulating bite. There were also a great variety of ingredients, including quail eggs, fish balls, and corn, among others. They paired well with the soup.
Be careful not to blindly scoop up any bits that remain at the bottom of your bowl. There are peanuts in the soup, but I don’t recommend eating them because they were burnt and left a very bitter taste in my mouth. Additionally, there are a few whole peppercorns in the soup, and eating a full one may leave you with more numbness than you bargained for.
On another occasion, I ordered the popcorn chicken because I love popcorn chicken. The popcorn chicken was crunchy and crispy, which is always a nice touch. Because the chicken used was dark meat, it was nicely moist inside. To add more flavor, I recommend adding a light dusting of white pepper to give it more depth. The popcorn chicken comes with a little side of ranch that is not available in the condiment bar.
Overall, I wasn’t overly impressed with anything I ate. The food was pretty greasy, but it kept my lips moist and saved me on a few Chapstick applications. In true Isla Vista fashion, the prices are pretty steep for the quality of food you get. Admittedly, the portion for the Hot N’ Spicy was big enough it could have been split into two meals. However, the flavors weren’t there for me. I have yet to try the buns, but the prices have me hesitant to take the plunge.
Lao Wang can be described in the same way you might describe your middle school best friend: enough to get you through that time of need, but not particularly memorable.
For Asian street food, Lao Wang does a decent job. It sufficiently fulfilled my noodle soup cravings the way other restaurants in Isla Vista aren’t capable of. If you’re a fan of eating something hot and spicy to cure a hangover the following morning, this might just do the trick for you.