Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Good Start For China Live's Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

China Live is basically in my neighborhood, so I couldn't resist stopping by to visit the grand opening, and once inside, to vet their only noodle soup offering, Taipei Braised Beef Noodle Soup

A couple of caveats here, including the obvious: it was China Live's first night open to the public, without even a a soft opening other than a single benefit preview event, and thus it would be unfair to hold the restaurant to any standard of perfection.  In addition, I can't claim to be a good judge of Taiwanese beef noodle soups, having had fewer than a dozen versions so identified, though I have a fair grounding in Chinese beef noodle soups generally, going back to my first bowl at California Beef Noodle King USA in Shanghai 25 years ago.

Since I arrived at the opening bell, I had no trouble getting a seat at a two-top table in the large, warren-like dining area (though it was quite the scrum by the time I left). All of the cooking stations were in operation, though there was only table service, i.e. no service to bar stool seats at the counters surrounding each station. (This may be SOP at dinner, as one is likely to order from multiple stations at that time.) I ordered the above-mentioned beef noodle soup, a side of shengjian bao, and a glass of the house "China Live" beer formulated by Marin Brewing Company.

"Taipei Braised Beef Noodle Soup - Brisket/tendon, Red Broth" as it is described on the menu is one of many varieties of "Taiwanese" beef noodle soups (a Taiwan-published cookbook I have lists 20). It weighs in $12 a bowl; in light of the understandable priciness of the China Live venue, this seem almost an absolute bargain to those of us sadly inured to double-digit noodle soup prices by trendy ramen joints.

Overall, I would pronounce my bowl of beef noodles at China live a success, with some correctable (and maybe even overlookable) flaws. The good news is that they seem to have the hard parts down -- good broth, chewy noodles and mouthwatering beef.  The broth was deep, rich and beefy, without medicinal or, somewhat surprisingly, very noticeable star anise overtones. It was savory enough nonetheless. The medium-thickness wheat noodles were pleasingly al dente with a little snap to them, just the way I prefer, and the beef was fall-apart tender but....

The major fault I found with my bowl of soup was the noodle-to-soup ratio, or, should I say, the soup-to-noodle ration. There was a respectable serving of noodles in my bowl, but a serious (IMHO) lack of broth; it's a soup dish after all, not a semi-dry noodle offering.  Another failing, less serious, was that the tendon appeared to have been cooked too long, perhaps in search of a guilao-friendly consistency. To me it was too jelly-like, and lacking a satisfying chewiness, But different strokes...

Lastly, not really a flaw but irksome to me, was the way the brisket was cut -- uniformly sliced across the grain, like so many pieces of chashu atop some ramen noodles. I would have preferred larger, irregular hunks. But then again, there wasn't enough broth for them to lurk in.

As for the shengjian bao? They were pricey at $9 for four pieces and, to use an Irish bull, weren't as good as I expected, but I didn't expect they would be.  They were nicely browned on one side, and had a good texture, partly chewy and partly soft-shelled, but the filling lacked flavor and grease. Unlike xiao long bao, the "soup" in shengjian bao should have less collagen and more fat, but in the Bay Area we are just too damn health conscious. In Shanghai, when I eat sanji mantou, as the locals call them, I'm aware I am throwing nutritional caution to the wind; why can't I cut loose here once in a while?

Finally, My China Live Beer ($7 for a 10 oz, glass) was crisp and refreshing, a bit like an amber ale and more tart than hoppy, greatly appreciated by us non-IPA lovers.

Where slurped: China Live, 644 Broadway, San Francisco Chinatown.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Back At Full Noodle Throttle With Wan Za Mian At Chongqing Xiao Mian

My diet regimen finally ran aground, due to a failure of due diligence, so I decided "To heck with it, I'm going back to full noodle throttle." This decision arose out of a fit of blind envy: my TV teased me mercilessly with flickering images of Anthony Bourdain (whom I cannot abide) and his bro Eric Ripert downing all manner of great-looking noodles and other fare in Sichuan and Chongqing, and I cracked.  Why should those guys have all the fun?

Chonqing xiao mian in Chongqing
My first order of business was to return to Chongqing. Chongqing Xiao Mian the restaurant, that is, not the Chinese Municipality. Not because Messrs. B. and R. had been yucking it up in the latter, but because I had unfinished business with the restaurant. After my first visit at Chongqing Xiao Mian when I greatly enjoyed the namesake dish (which I knew to be a hallmark of Chongqing), I wondered about the provenance of the other noodle dishes, some of which I knew were not particular to Chongqing. Then I stumbled across a fascinating article on the Roads and Kingdoms website about one Li Jieping, "Chongqing's Number One Noodle Obsessive."  Josh Friedman, the guilao Chongqing noodle novice assigned to follow him around and sample many, many bowls of Chongqing xiao mian, concluded his favorite was the one known as wan za mian. That particular dish, I recalled, was on Chongqing Xiao Mian's menu, and immediately jumped to the top of my bucket list.

Chongqing Xiao Mian was packed on a Sunday afternoon at 3:00, with all the tables occupied except for the central communal table, where I gladly took a seat.  I pretended to study the menu, but I was already aware of the restaurant's portion sizes and passed on appetizers, ordering omly a bowl of wan za mian, listed on the menu in English as "noodles with peas and meat sauce," and a pot of hot tea.

Chnoqing xiao mian noodle dishes typically involve a range of toppings choices over noodles in the same broth, typically a spicy one (milder options are usually available).  My choice, Wan Za Mian, features yellow peas and marinated ground pork as the main toppings, The yellow peas, also found in Burmese cuisine, are similar to chick peas in texture and flavor, and not at all "mushy."

When my bowl arrived, piping hot and fragrant, I was not disapponted. It was what I would call semi-dry, heavily sauced, but not really a soup. The Mount Emei of noodles sat in an honestly spicy broth, redolent of Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil. There was a generous amount of yellow peas and ground pork on top. The yellow peas had a slightly crunchy texture, and the ground pork was at once sour and salty; additional garnish was provided by green onion tops and a couple of slivers of Shanghai bok choy. I'm not sure if the broth was less spicy than the straight Chongqing xiao mian noodle dish from my first visit, or the additional flavors of the marinated ground pork and the blandness of the yellow peas attenuated it more than the noodles alone would have. In any event, the overall effect was more pleasing and multi-dimensional than the naked CQXM of my first visit, and I would choose it again over that version.

Where slurped: Chonqing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny St., San Francisco

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Terra Cotta Warrior Reboot: Xifu Biangbiang Spicy Pork Noodles Have Silk Road Written All Over Them

I was a bit dismayed last summer when Terra Cotta Warrior closed temporarily "for innovations" even though they promised to reopen "under new management" on a specific date. They did indeed reopen on schedule, and I became warily optimistic when no "downhill reports"surfaced, yet was somehow hesitant to revisit. Then came the news from an impeccable source that David Deng, apparently still the owner, had spent the hiatus beating the bushes in Shaanxi for new recipes for his menu, followed by some blurry Yelp photos of TCW's new menu indicating that he had added some new noodle options, including the missing link on his 2014 menu, biangbiang mian! Needless to say, I was on it, like white on rice.

A comparison of Terra Cotta Warrior 2.0's menu with the original fare indicates a significant fattening out of the "Restaurant Special" portion of the menu, with a dozen items added. There's a new "pita bread" (paomo) option, Hulutou paomo with pork intestines -- no dumbing down there. There are now seven "burger" (rojiamo) compared to the previous three and, best of all, six new hot noodle options, including three in the  biang biang category.

For my first shot at Terra Cotta Warrior's biang biang noodles, I chose "Xifu Biangbiang spicy pork noodles," 西府裤带面 in Chinese, literally "Xifu trouser belt (kùdài) noodles." This is a semi-dry (sauced) noodle dish served in a bowl. A generous mass of robust, irregular "belt" noodles sat in a thick sauce, topped with thick shards of smoky roast pork (reminiscent of Hunan roast pork), spring onion tops and cilantro.  The sauce, red from tomatoes and containing bits of scrambled egg, was more smoky than spicy and slightly sweet. It had a definite Silk Road quality to it, similar in flavor profile to the sauce used in Xinjiang laghman.  So thick was the sauce that it tended to glue the noodles together, making lifting them a chore, like lifting weights.  The noodles themselves were properly cooked and toothsome enough, and I found myself wanting to taste them in a thinner sauce or a more naked form (the noodles, that is).  That said, the dish was tasty enough that I would repeat it, in rotation, to be sure.

If you think tomato and egg seem odd in a dish from the interior of China, you have another think coming. Another dish added to the menu, "Fufeng minced pork noodles soup," according to my server, contains tomatoes, potatoes, tofu and egg." I'll get to that one, sooner rather than later.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah St. at 31st Ave., San Francisco