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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Something Fishy About The Ramen At Hinodeya Ramen Bar



I dashed over to Hinodeya Ramen Bar in Japantown to reward myself for besting my pound-per-week 2017 diet goal for two consecutive weeks.  It marks my quest for noodles out of the house in 2017, not counting the two types of noodles served with out hotpot New Year's Day dinner at Dragon Beaux.

Hinodeya is the first overseas venture for a 130-year old Japanese restaurant group, and is modeled after a Tokyo restaurant noted for its innovative dashi-infused broth. Dashi is a soup base made from dried, preserved Skipjack Tuna and other seaborne ingredient. I've long been a fan of fishy soups, and have written here about Assam Laksa, a couple of Vietnamese Bun Mams and a whole flotilla of Mohingas, s well as a couple off other SE Asian fish-based soups.

Thanks (or not) to my Muni connections being exceptionally expeditious, I arrived at Hinodeya 25 minutes early for its 5:00 dinner service on this crisp Winter day. I was first in line, but the queue that formed behind me filled the restaurant once the doors were opened.

Once inside, I took my seat at the bar and ordered the house special Hinodeya Dashi Ramen, a side order of Crispy Fried Yam and a Sapporo Beer. Service was efficient and friendly if noisy, with greetings and orders in Japanese shouted cross the room in what I assume is traditional fashion, and I soon had my crispy yam pieces with the first bowl of the establishment's house ramen following soon after.

If I expected a revelation from the dashi ramen broth, I was a little disappointed. The soup, a chicken-bone broth infused with a soup base made from kelp, dried bonito flakes and small sardines, according to Hinodeya's Japan website, was perhaps a little too subtle for my untrained ramen palate. I tried to detect a forthright fishiness to it, but could only suss out a faint tuna-y taste, and if you grew up with tuna salad sandwiches as I did, you don't really associate tuna with fishiness. It left a bit of a cloying aftertaste, like the miso broth it much resembled. The toppings, while well prepared, seemed a bit stingy for a $14 bowl of noodles: a single thin slice of chashu, half a soft-boiled egg, a few sticks of menma, a single piece of nori. I couldn't help noticing that the "extras" section of the menu consisited only of more of what was already in the ramen (no corn, alas).  The noodles may have been the best thing about my bowl of ramen; curly and of medium thickness, they held their chewiness to the end.

My side order of crispy fried yam was tasty, mouth-pleasing (the crispiness refers to the interior, not the coating) and came in a nice tangy sauce. Again, though, it was pricey: $8.00 for five chunks of edible tuber. The Japanese woman next to be ordered kar-age, which looked to be a better value -- a quantity of protein approximately equal in volume to my carbs for the same $8 price tag. I guess I should be thankful my bottle of Sapporo was only $6; I had paid $9 for a bottle of beer at Mensho Tokyo.

I'll be writing more about ramen (because it is there) and the more elegant and healthful pho this year as I fit them into my diet regimen. They both are typically lighter meals than my beloved Chinese la mien.

Where slurped: Hinodeya Ramen Bar, 1137 Buchanan St. (in the mall).

Friday, December 2, 2016

Is Ramen the Mercedes-Benz of Asian Noodle Soups?

The Ramen of Mecedes-Benz (RocketNews24 photo)

According to the online journal RocketNews24, Mercedes-Benz is selling ramen in Tokyo, at a cafe attached to their Roppongi showroom.  They feature both surf ("Umi") and turf ("Riku") versions.

$18 Tori Paitan Ramen
I stumbled across this bit of culinary knowledge shortly after a review of San Francisco ramen-ya Nojo Ramen Tavern in the Hungry Onion food discussion forum indicated that a Tori Paitan Shoyu Ramen there cost $18. Although Nojo Tavern's chicken ramen bowl contained a whole chicken leg, which is more protein than one can reasonably expect in a bowl of ramen, some forum participants (including me) found this a startling price. Steep as it is, though, this pricing is not to be totally unexpected; another forum participant found another $18 chicken ramen in town, and in another instance, a local hipster entrepreneur (who shall remain nameless) was so enamored by his own chicken ramen creation that he attempted to get $28 for it.  His business was short-lived.

$6.99 Michelin-starred Ramen
My views on ramen are well known to regular readers of this blog (in short, I consider it one of the less noble forms of Asian noodle soups), but even leaving out qualitative considerations, I consider ramen to be overpriced in general.  For a hearty bowl of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or Korean noodle soup, a sticker price of less than $10 is still the rule rather than the exception, whereas it's nearly impossible to find a bowl of ramen in the single-digit range, and most menus start at least a couple of bucks north of an Alexander Hamilton. And when branding kicks in, people will wait in long queues fo the privilege of paying a Mercedez-Benz price for what the Japanese consider a Daihatsu food. (Tokyo ramen shop Nakiryu was recently awarded a Michelin star; the bite for a bowl of its signature Dandan noodles is US $6.99.)

So much for Mercedes-priced ramen; as far as Mercedes-Benz's own Tokyo ramen goes, that'll be US $10.60 for either the Umi (with scallops) or the Riku (with duck "ham") ramen.

Tori paitan ramen photo by Hungry Onion poster "Mr_Happy." Others by RocketNews24