Monday, July 26, 2010

Slurp du Jour: Shoyu Ramen from a Ramen Pop-up in a Salvadoran Restaurant

I don't know if I'm trying to expand my ramen knowledge at the very (presumed) top, or just trying to capture a shooting star before it burns out, but for the third time in a row my bowl of ramen came with a double-digit price, even before any tax, tip or ancillary indulgences. This time it was Ken-Ken Ramen, a Monday night pop-up at a normally Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant, Panchita's #3, and named, apparently, for chef Kenji Miyazaki.

I got there tonight a few minutes before the announced starting time of 6:00, and sure enough, the Ramen lantern was hung outside of Panchita's. I was seated at the bar, the first person to be directed there, even though most of the two-tops were unoccupied. It soon became clear why: within half an hour there was a butt in every seat in the joint and a line outside.

As of the moment, the Ken-Ken menu offers a choice of miso, shoyu, or miso vegetarian ramen, and I chose the shoyu. The non-veggie bowls were topped with chashu, mizuna, nori, a soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots; fish cake and Spring onions. All bowls were $11.00, three bucks less than I paid for a bowl of ramen at Ippudo in New York a few weeks earlier, or a dollar more than I paid for a Hapa Ramen styrofoam bowlful more recently. Compared to either, it was a relative bargain. It came with a free edamame appetizer, was a much larger serving than Hapa's, and came in a real stoneware bowl. Compared to Ippudo's, there wasn't much my novice ramen palate could find to distinguish between the two for tastiness. Although shoyu ramen broth is soy sauce based, it wasn't as salty as I'd feared, possibly not even as salty as the miso broth might have been. It was a clean, savory taste, not as muddy or fatty as Ippudo's (which, to be fair, was a tonkatsu broth). The noodles were curiously yellower than one would expect, but not noticeably acrid from kansui, and cooked just to my liking, on the firm side of al dente. The toppings were generous enough to be filling, though I wouldn't have minded a teensy bit more chashu, since you asked. There was an extra chashu option (for $3) but no extra noodle serving option.

Ken-Ken is a venture I might visit again (after my next big 401k bounce) to check out the miso ramen, though in the interim I need to visit some more proletarian ramen venues to recalibrate.

Where slurped: Ken-Ken Ramen at Panchita's #3, 3115 22nd St., Mission District, San Francico

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hong Kong Cart Noodles: Two Ways to DIY

For someone who doesn't cook and has the habit of marrying women who eschew cookbooks, I've amassed a fairly impressive collection of Chinese cookbooks and books about Chinese food generally, especially books that can teach or entertain. My latest find is Local Snacks in Hong Kong in the "Yellow Bus Loves Hong Kong" series. It features 12 popular Hong Kong street snacks, and what makes the book unique is its treatment of them. Not only does it give some background and a description of each dish, but it it provides all you need (except for the ingredients) to make the dish yourself in two different ways: cook it, or create a paper model from a clip-and-fold page provided for each dish. Hong Kong Cart Noodles is one dish given this honor. This dish, we are told, was popular in the 1950s and featured a sort of buffet on wheels from which you could construct your own bowl of noodle soup by choosing as many toppings as you liked from a wondrous array. Actual noodle carts have been banned from the streets for safety and hygiene reasons but the dish lives on in food stalls and restaurants.

The template at the top illustrates how to make your own cut-and-fold bowl of cart noodles. Clicking it will enlarge it for detail. If all that cutting and folding makes you hungry, Local Snacks in Hong Kong obliges you with a recipe for cart noodles:

  • Soup: Pork rib soup, curry soup, or tomato vegetable soup.
  • Noodles: Thin noodles, thick noodles, instant noodles, udon, Yi Mian, He Fan, rice noodles, etc.
  • Dishes: Fish balls, beef balls, pig skin, curdled pig's blood, Chinese radish, fish skin dumplings, chicken wings, vegetables, dried mushrooms (soake to soften), squid, beef tripe, etc.

Cook noodles and dishes and mix them with the soup.

What could be simpler?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slurp du Jour: Pho Tai Lan at Turtle Tower

I find it hard to walk through the Little Saigon district on Larkin St. without stopping in at Turtle Tower restaurant. Yesterday, on my way to the Asian Art Museum I succumbed to its lure. Not that I have any guilt feelings, however: when I eat pho, especially the northern version (pho bac), I cultivate the impression that I am eating something relatively healthy, compared to, say, the fatty saltiness of ramen.

I settled on the Pho Tai Lan, lightly stir-fried lean beef slices with celery, carrot, onion and leek. As is the case with northern-style pho, the noodles were wide and flat, the broth subtle and minimally spiced, and the little garnish dish held only a lime wedge and jalapeno slices. The slippery noodles were cooked just right, and I only dared use about a third of the jalapenos lest they overpower the subtle beefy goodness of the clean broth. The only discordant note was the carrots, but that's just me. I am not a carrot fan. The man sharing the table with me (the place was packed, even at 2:30 in the afternoon) was apparently not a carrot fan either; after emptying his garnish dish, he filled it with sriracha which he proceeded to use to dip the carrots from his pho ga in.

My "small" bowl of pho was $6.75 ("small" and "large" on the menu translate to "large" and "extra large" respectively). Will I return? I always have.

Where slurped: Turtle Tower, 631 Larkin St., Little Saigon, San Francisco

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Spoonful yummy ramen noodles, yeah it's good to carry!"

Want to fly the noodle flag as a cell phone charm? Look no further than Strapya World, which carries "over 15,000 kinds of mobile charms delivering you 'up-to-date Japan cool/ kawaii culture' w/ more than 60 hard workers in the office." Of the 15,000 cell phone charms (known to Japanese as keitai straps) I am drawn to this one, which comes in both miso and tonkotsu flavors in a red, white or black spoon. I was sold on the product by this product description, and will order one when I figure out how:

Yummy ramen noodles are in a spoon. Yes, it almost gets ready to go in your empty stomach. Noodles and char shu soaked in hot soup. This replica ramen roodles make us feel really hungry and drive to a nearest Chinese restaurant. Instead, you can carry a spoonful of ramen noodles as a cell phone strap.

Remember these words, and if you see me playing pocket pool in the future, you'll know I'm just caressing my noodles. Plural.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Noodles du Jour: Hong Kong Style Seafood Chow Mein from Hong Kong Lounge

Yesterday was Leilani's birthday and we took her to Hong Kong Lounge for a dim sum lunch, her S.O. having first dibs on her for dinner. Our anchor dish was a Hong Kong-style seafood chow mein (identified on the menu as "pan fried noodles"). I'm not a big fan generally of the fine egg and wheat noodles beloved in Hong Kong, especially in soups like the iconic wonton mein; they make me feel like I'm chewing on someone's hair. When used in "Hong Kong style" chow mein, however it's another matter.

In Hong Kong style chow mein the fine noodles are pan-fried to a crisp and topped with a moist topping. The topping serves to soften the noodles on top, leading to a satisfying combination of textures (and flavors, if the topping delivers as it should). A key is having some of the bottom noodles browned, even burnt, to accent the crunchiness and sharpen the flavor, much as the crunchy bits of burnt rice do in a good bibimbap or a Chinese clay pot rice dish.

Our chow mein at Hong Kong Lounge came generously topped with shrimp, scallops and cuttlefish, and was vegged up with bok choy and carrot chunks, infusing the whole construction with subtle but savory flavor. If I could fault anything, it's that Hong Kong Lounge's chow mein seemed to be lacking its full complement of browned/burnt noodle bits -- I had to fish for mine. Overall, I found the dim sum above average and modestly priced. Our whole set (slide show here) of eight dim sum plates plus a communal bowl of congee and the chow mein filled the four of us to satiety for under $50 before tax & tip. Service was good, and the ambience agreeable. I'll be happy to return, though I might just try a chow fun as an anchor dish the next tine.

Where munched: Hong Kong Lounge, 5322 Geary Street, San Francisco