Thursday, February 15, 2018

Two Roads To Laghman, Part I: Eden Silk Road

Laghman at Kashkar Cafe, Brooklyn
I've been fascinated, if not always totally enthralled, with the traditional Uyghur noodle specialty known as laghman since first sampling it at Kashkar Cafe on Brooklyn's Brighton Beach Avenue nine years ago. It's a Central Asian noodle dish, popular with China's Xinjiang Uyghurs as well as the populations of neighboring "-stans"* generally.  While laghman invariably starts with bouncy, muscular house-made noodles and colorful. toppings, the flavor profile it brings to the palate can sometimes be underwhelming.  Here's a clue from the excellent blog The Silk Road Chef
[Laghman]...  is noodles topped with a sauce of meat and vegetables. Basically anything is game – lamb, beef, chicken, green beans, bell pepper, bok choy, squash – whatever fresh vegetables are on hand. However, there are a few common points: onion, garlic, tomato sauce, and bell pepper are almost always present [emphasis mine].
Sound familiar? From too-timid hands, laghman can come to you tasting like under-seasoned spaghetti from too far up the Silk Road.

As happened with my side-by-side comparison of two relatively new self-serve udon shoips, my erratic scheduling afforded me the opportunity to do the same with two very different venues offering laghman, Eden Silk Road and Silk Road Express, this time with separate posts.

Laghman at Eden Silk Road

Eden Silk Road on O'Farrell St. in San Francisco's Tenderloin District (a.k.a. "Lower Nob Hill")  is one of three similarly named Bay Area outposts of  Xinjiang Herembag Trade Co., a Xinjiang-based empire of halal food venues. Eden Silk Road is a sparely but nicely appointed room that considerable thought and investment has gone into, and its managably-sized and well-focused menu offers many near eastern and Uyghur specialties that I will be eager to try. But first the noodles.

Eden Silk Road was nearly empty when I entered just after its opening for dinner service, understandably, since it was on the eve of Chinese New Year Eve. The restaurant closes for two hours after lunch service to prepare for dinner service, and prepared they were to hit the ground running, unlike some restaurants where my 5:00 entrance awakened a snoozing chef or two. 

I ordered laghman with lamb (beef is the default but lamb is available for the same price) and a side order of samsas (two to the order). Being a halal restaurant the serve no alcohol, so I ordered tea. (I suppose I could have brought my own flask of vodkas, like the good ol' boys at halal Kashkar Cafe in New York.) My samsa arrived promptly, followed by my main dish after a suitable interval. Thanks to the alacrity of service, both dishes arrived piping hot.

If I were to describe my laghman at Eden Silk Road, it would be healthy. The saucing was devoid of oiliness (the same could not be said of the samsa), and even the sparse lamb chunks were lean, yet tender. The veggie matter was cooked to the right degree of crispness, and the hand-made noodles (so claimed by the menu) bouncy and bitey. Alas, the "secret" Laghman topping was a bit bland to my taste (and there was nary a chili pot on the table to sex it up with). The visible ingredients were primarily the obligatory tomato, onions, bell pepper and garlic (eith too little of the last). Only the presence of some chewy "wood ear" mushrooms  gave a "made in China" stamp to the dish; the overall personality of the dish was sedately Mediterranean, with a very faintly spicy tinge.  I don't know if they accommodate adjustment requests, but if I ordered it again I would ask for more spice heat, which would, in my mind, make it a very solid dish. As for the samsa, they were tastefully filled with a lamb and spinach-like filling, but distressingly oily. Next time I'll try the manti.

Where slurped: Eden Silk Road Cuisine, 572 O'Farrell St. San Francisco

*According to Wikipedia it is especially popular in Kyrghistan and Kazakhstan, and also popular in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, northeastern Afghanistan and in regions of northern Pakistan,

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Instant Gratification: DIY Snail Broth Rice Noodles (Luosifen) From Luobawang

This is my first review of an instant noodle product, and it's a lulu (or maybe a 螺螺*). 

Several years ago I discovered Liuzhou Luosifen, a spicy rice noodle soup with a rich, tawny snail-based broth, thanks to Oakland's Guilin Clissic Rice Noodles. Surprising as that discovery was, I was just as surprised to discover a DIY instant version, in the form a large packet from Liuzhou company "Luobawang" staring up at me from the sidewalk bin of a Chinatown grocer. I snapped one up, and after admiring it on my mantle for a few days and with my kibitzer-in-chief away for rhe evening, I steeled my nerves to tackle it.

This was no 10¢ packet of Top Ramen. The $2.99 package weighed in at 280g (10oz) and inside were eight separate ingredient packets. In addition to the packet of dried rice noodles, there were separate packets for the snail soup base, sour bamboo shoots, pickled long beans, chili oil, vinegar, peanuts and dried bean curd skin (the last two for garnish).  Once I figured out which packets were which (there was no English on the small packets) the instructions (in English on the main packaging) were concise and clear: (1) Pre-soak the dried noodles for an hour in cold water, drain and set aside. (2) boil 500ml of water, add (in order) the soup base, sour bamboo, pickled beans, and the pre-soaked rice noodles. (3) simmer "until the rice noodle can be cut off by chopsticks" and (4) pour into a bowl, add vinegar and chili oil to taste, and garnish with the peanuts and dried tofu. 

The trickiest part was the done-ness of the noodles, since cutting off noodles with chopsticks is not my forte; I used the bite test, testing continuously until I had them just right.  The end product was a very tasty and filling bowl of noodles.  I don't think the broth was as rich and deep as the restaurant versions I have had, but I made the mistake of adding some of the (very potent) chili oil before tasting the broth, so I can't fairly describe the subtleties its character.  Overall, though, it was a good bowl of soup for three bucks, and I'll be buying more of the fixin's.

Product: Luosi Rice Noodles, by Luobawang
Place of Purchase: Komi Foods, 898 Stockton St., San Francisco

*Luo luo, "snail snail."

Friday, January 19, 2018

Self-serve Udon Slurpdown: Kagawa-ya Udon Noodle Company Versus Marugame Udon and Tempura

Image from Gurunavi -- learn about Udon the fun way

With the arrival of a branch of Japanese mega-chain Marugame Udon (990 stores, including 786 in Japan) at Stonestown Galleria, San Francisco now boasts two "self-serve" udon restaurants, including the local independent Kagawa-ya Udon at 1455 Market St. (known to some as "The Uber Building"). The "Grand Opening" of Marugame  (after a month-long "soft" opening) this week spurred me to catch up with Kagawa-ya, which had the bad taste of holding its grand opening last Spring while I was out of the country (slurping noodles in Shanghai) and atthe same time do do a quickie comparison between the two.

The two restaurants have several things in common, including, of course, "self-serve" (cafeteria-like) dining.  This involves ordering your noodle choice (and bowl size, if applicable) and sliding your tray down the track to choose additional toppings/sides (mostly of a tempura nature) while your bowl is being prepared. Kagawa-ya offers seven different bowls of udon, Marugame 10. (I won't go into udon esoterica, not even to tell you about bukkake udon, but you can learn a lot here). Both have a variety of tempura (nine for Marugame, a"variety" for Kagawa-ya -- I didn't count them) including a potato croquette  For additional sides, Marugame offers four varieties of musubi, plus inari. Kagawa-ya offers Spam musubi (reflecting the chef-owner's Hawaii origins) plus onigiri.

Both Kagaway-ya and Marugame specialize in sanuki udon (udon with a square cross-section), and both venues make them in-house.

1. Kagawa-ya Udon Noodle Company

First up was Kagawa-ya. An upside of being away when it opened, is that any opening day story I might have essayed would have ended up in the long shadow cast by the prodigious coverage by Japanese-American food blogger Foohoe (Sandy Wada).  Read it and become her fan here. Note,  though, as she acknowledged, her meal was comped.

Kagawa-ya was forlornly empty when I arrived, just before 1:45 on a chilly Tuesday afternoon and placed an order for the dish I hoped would be useful for comparison with Marugame's fare, Niku (beef) Udon (described on the menu as "Soy braised sliced beef, sweet onions, green onions, ginger and toasted sesame seeds").  As my noodles were being prepared, I slid my tray down to the tempura section and picked a shrimp tempura and a potato croquette as add-ons. Somehow I missed the step where I could have had the woman behind the counter add a soft-boiled egg, which would have made my bowl more comparable to what I was contemplating ordering at Marugame.

The ingredients promised by the menu came in a slightly, but not offensively, sweet (dashi?) broth, whose sweetness appeared to come from the onions.  The coarsely shredded beef was the weakest part of the dish, being overly chewy and not particularly flavorful. The restaurant's headliner, udon noodles, were nearly perfectly chewy, though teetering a bit towards over-cooked, perhaps due to the lateness of my lunch hour. The two pieces of tempura I selected were as expected, though the potato croquette was peculiarly limp, as if underdone.

A bit of sticker shock will hit you at the register at Kagawa-ya; my bowl of noodles and two pieces of  tempura came to $17.20 before tax & tip (there is a tip jar). Had I found and added the egg I craved, it would have been over $20 with tax, steep for lunch (unless you happen to be part of the gray hoodie target market).

2. Marugame Udon and Tempura

Compared to the loneliness of Kagawa-ya on a Tuesday afternoon, Marugame Udon was a veritable happening upon my Friday visit. Arriving at 2:25 PM, I joined a serpentine line outside Marugame's new digs at Stonestown Galleria, not in the food court, but at street-level between Olive Garden and Chipotle. The vast majority of the cheerfully anticipatory crowd were college-aged (and some high school-aged) Asians. 

Thirty-five minutes after getting in line, I was able to place my order for a large bowl of Nikutama Udon ("Served with Sweet Flavored Beef, Soft  Boiled Egg, and Kake Sauce." and proceeded to the tempura station where I selected, as I had at Kagawa-ya, a shrimp tempura and a potato croquette.  Once you've paid for your order, there is another station with free toppings, such as spring onion, cilantro, wasabi, ginger and tempura flakes. I added sparingly from this bar because I wanted to appreciate the flavor as prepared by the chef.

Marugame, unlike Kagawa-ya offers two bowl sizes,"regular" and "large." For comparative purposes, the "large" Marugame bowl appeared to be larger than the Kagawa-ya bowl, if only marginally so. The contents turned out to be quite different, particularly the "sweet" beef in Marugame's bowl. It was sliced much thinner than that of Kagawa-ya's and, as advertised, was sweet, very sweet, cloyingly so, as if it had been candied.  Oddly, the broth itself did not seem to pick up this sweetness, as it seemed less sweet than the broth in Kagawa-ya's niku udon. Other than the difference in sweetness, the broths seemed similar, perhaps both  were of the Kansai dashi variety (hey, I'm learning!). The noodles themselves were perfection, chewy without being overly firm or mushy. The "soft boiled" (actually poached) egg was an additional blessing.

Cash register comparison? Not even close.  My beef noodles with an egg and two similar pieces of tempura came to $13.60 before T&T at Marugame.

An Eater Los Angeles article proclaims that "Marugame Udon Might Be the Most Authentic Japanese Restaurant in LA" in the sense, I suppose, that McDonald's might be the most authentic American Restaurant in Tokyo. You might, in fact, get the impression that you are actually in Japan, especially if, like me, you've never been there. 

Where slurped: Kagawa-ya Udon, 1455 Market St., San Francisco; Marugame Udon, Stonestown Galleria, San Francisco