Friday, May 26, 2017

Slurping Shanghai: The 25th Anniversary Noodle Tour

I've just returned from my eleventh trip in Shanghai in 25 years, this one overlapping the 25th anniversary of my first visit in April and May of 1992.  They weren't all noodle-focused trips, to be sure, though noodles were always lurking in the background, but this time I had little else on my mind. My strategy was not to chase down noodle destination in this city of 50,000 restaurants, but to wander and let the noodles find me.  Slurp randomly found noodles I did, from fine bean thread noodles to bedsheet-sized biang biang noodles, topped with pork, beef, lamb, clams, tofu and even donkey meat, mostly in the Zhabei neighborhood where I was staying.  Without further ado, here are some tour highlights, in chronological order:

Lamb with hand-pulled noodles (Yang Rou La Mian) at Xi Bei Niu Rou Mian - classic Hui Muslim style noodles at the first mian guan I came across wandering down Pingxingguan Lu toward Zhabei Park. Thin slices of meat (in this case lamb) garnished robust hand-pulled to order in a subtle clear broth.  I was home, I felt.

Saozi Mian at Yu Shan Fang (dry version) - Yu Shan Fang was my big find of the trip, a spare and cheerful Xi'an food outpost just two bus stops from my apartment, good enough to make me forget Xi'an Famous Foods. Vegetables, tofu and a bit of ground pork sauced with a now-familiar sour Silk Road flavor which is as much Mediterranean as Chinese topped linguini-like noodles in an exemplary Qishan saozi mian.. 

You Po Che Mian at Yu Shan Fang - I couldn't, and wouldn't wait to return to Yu Shan Fang for what is perhaps my favorite of Xi'an noodle dishes, spicy you po che mian. This dish, like the one above, is presented as a thing of art, but must be stirred vigorously to coat the noodles with the toppings (and some underlying chili oil) before consuming.

Biang Biang Mian "4 Ways" at Yu Shan Fang - Xi'an restaurants typically have house special combinations of 3, 4, or even 5 toppings  YSF's, if I recall correctly, were pork, tofu, bean sauce and tomato & egg. Like the two dishes above, the topping were meant to be stirred into the bedsheet-sized biang biang noodles (some heavy lifting there!).

Hong Shao ("Red-cooked") beef hand-pulled noodles at Hong Shao La Mian - tearing myself away from new best friend Yu Shan Fang, I found this gem of a hole-in-the-wall on Yanchang Lu, opposite the entrance to Shanghai University's Yanchang campus. More of a Taiwanese style than a Lanzhou style, it featured high-quality beef in a very beefy broth.

Clam Ban Mian from Gourmet Noodle House (Raffles City branch) - Gourmet Noodle House (家有好面 in Chinese) is a popular Shanghai chain that may or may not be related to the San Francisco noodlery of the same name. Although parts of the menu are similar, I couldn't resist this "tossed" noodle dish featuring a small mountain of shelled clams, not found in San Francisco. Even in the tacky Raffles City mall venue, GNH lived up to its reputation for good noodles with this dish.

Qishan Saozi Mian (wet version) at Yu Shan Fang - having initiated my romance with Yu Shan Fang with the sauced version of saozi mian, I of course had to try the soup version and was not disappointed.

Lamb Noodles at Muslim Boutique Beef Noodles (Luochuan Lu) - sparkling clean and, yes, a bit boutique-y in appearance, this place had the lowest prices and possibly the biggest menu of any mian guan I encountered. The lamb here was of much higher quality than the standard Hui brotherhood places.

Curry Beef and Bean Thread Soup at Hutu Shengjian - A bean thread soup with either beef or tofu is a traditional accompaniment to an order of Shengjian bao, and the version at Hutu was by far the best of three I tried. Not only did it have the desired beefy flavor, its garnish even included a couple of hard-boiled quail eggs.

Donkey Noodles at Donkey Daddy (Lu Ba Ba Lu Rou Huo Shao) - It took a bit of research to find donkey noodles in my neigborhood. Donkey Daddy didn't have the Henan hui mian version I was looking for, but I was able to pair it with my first donkey sandwich (lu rou huo shao) of Beijing fame. I found the donkey meat blander and a bit sweeter than beef, and distressingly soft in texture.  

Liang Pi at Yu Shan Fang - A 100° day sent me back to Yu Shan Fang for a cooling liang pi accompanied by a large bottle of pineapple fruit beer (lurking in the background). I can recommend the former much more heartily than I can the latter.

Ji Dan Hui Ma Shi ("Cat's Ear" Noodles with Tomato and Egg) at Yu Shan Fang - my last go at Yu Shan Fang.  The combination of cat's ear noodles (elegantly translated by my Waygo application as "Orecchiette") and the tomato-based silk road flavors of this dish gave it a particularly Mediterranean character, almost like a minestrone.

Niu Rou La Mian at Muslim Boutique Beef Noodles - Back to the "boutique" for one last classic Lanzhou style soup with clear broth an better than usual beef -- all for 9 yuan ($1.35).

Yellowfish Wontons at Gourmet Noodle House - Wontons may not technically be noodles, but I have to pass along a recommendation for this one.  It's a spectacular dish, and one that I hope the San Francisco Gourmet Noodle House copies.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Respectably Fiery Chongqing Classic From A Shanghainese Noodle House

Gourmet Noodle House's version of Chongqing Xiao Mian

My favorite SF noodle houses of recent vintage are Chonqing Xiao Mian, which flies the flag of Chongqing's signature dish of the same name high, and Gourmet Noodle House, which is so thoroughly Shanghainese  it would fly the flag of Yellow Croaker Noodle Soup if it had a flag. It never occurred  to me that the two noodle cultures would sometimes intersect, so it came as a surprise  to me when I headed to Gourmet Noodle House to recalibrate my tastebuds for an upcoming trip to Shanghai and found that Chongqing xiao mian (the dish) had been added to the menu.

I'd already had most of the Shanghai noodle classics on Gourmet Noodle House's menu, so I decided to take a flyer on the CQXM to see how it stacked up to the version at its namesake restaurant. Quite well, I can report. The noodles were fresh and springy, and the broth was respectably fiery; any fear I might have had about them dumbing it down was not justified, though I did notice a not displeasing difference in the ma-la balance between the two versions.  Gourmet Noodle House's version seemed a trifle more ma (numbing) and a trifle less la (spicy), but with no distance between the two broths in terms of their ability to please a spice-lover's palate.  One structural flaw, if such it be, was the ratio of broth to noodles; the copious leftover broth was a bit too oily and spicy to down as soup. Nonetheless, it had a side benefit; there was too much to discard, so I brought home a sufficient quantity to add some cooked-up noodles and make my own Chongqing xiao mian.

Since Gourmet Noodle House only offered the plain version of Chonqing xiao mian (no toppings other than garnish), I added a side order of malantou (a finely chopped mix of dry tofu and the tart, slightly bitter herb-like vegetable know as Indian Aster).  This cold salad dish made my meal undeniably Shanghinese, as well as adding the desired protein to my early dinner. It was as pleasing a version of the dish as I've found.

Where slurped: Gourmet Noodle House, 3751 Geary Blvd. at 2nd Ave., San Francisco

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ducking High Noodle Prices At Yin Du Wonton Noodle

I was tiring of stratospheric noodle prices like $16 for chicken ramen at the latest name-dropper ramen-ya or $14 for a bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup at China Live (where they raised the price two bucks after I convinced them to add more broth to the bowl), so I decided it was time to return to more proletarian-priced renditions of The People's Food. Where to begin?

I have the bad habit of ignoring places in my own back yard, but a couple of metaphorical taps on the shoulder sent me to Yin Du Wonton Noodle on  Pacific Avenue, which I hadn't been to since it replaced a middling walk-away dim sum shop four years ago. The first nudge was its inclusion in a  article recommending an array of Bay Area noodle joints, and the second was my reaction to an attractive picture on Yelp showing duck wonton noodles at Yin Du.  As you know, "Duck" is my middle name.

My #9 Roast Duck Wonton Noodles included about five five irregularly-shaped, bony pieces of duck flesh, not the neat, thicker slices found in some of the Yelp photos (perhaps because it was late in the day). There was enough skin to add a duck-fat sheen to the broth, but not enough meat to add any ducky intensity to it. The broth, which came a couple of shades hotter than lukewarm, was overall on the bland side, so I used a little soy sauce and black pepper to kick it up, as no other suitable condiments were available. The wontons were the best feature: plump, with some shrimp crunchiness, The noodles were ample in quantity, but as I've written before, I'm not fond of the traditional fine "dragon's beard" noodles, which make me feel like I'm chewing on someone's hair. I think there was an option for substituting fun noodles, but I generally try to stick to traditional forms the first time around.

I probably could have gotten a more sumptuous and well-endowed bowl of wonton noodles for a bit more at ABC or Washington Bakery a couple of blocks over, and pound-for-pound my bowl of wonton noodles at Yin Du brought nowhere near the gut-busting value of Chonqing Xiao Mian's $7.95 namesake noodles around the corner on Kearny St., but at $5.75 before T & T it was probably the cheapest bowl of noodles I will have all year.

Where slurped:  Yin Du Wonton Noodle. 648 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco