Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Slurp du Jour: Ajisen Ramen rides into town

Ajisen Ramen is a fast food noodle chain which originated in Kumamoto, Japan and is growing rapidly, especially in Asia. In Shanghai, where I had my only previous Ajisen experiences, there are at last count 189 outlets, by way of example. Today the first Ajisen Ramen shop in San Francisco opened in the basement food court of the Westfield San Francisco Centre, leaving us only 188 behind Shanghai. Despite being somewhat olfactorally challenged, thanks to a head cold resulting from our endless non-summer of 2010, I decided to check out Ajisen SF on its first day.

I arrived at Ajisen in late afternoon (4:00) in order to avoid the hectic first-day lunch period and found the dining area still about 75 percent full. I pondered ordering the Spicy Beef Noodle option from the laminated picture menu to see if it corresponded to the honestly spicy "Volcano" noodle dish on Ajisen's Asian menus; my condition, however, combined with the absence of cold beer from the menu, steered me to blander fare. My choice, the "Supreme" Pork Ramen, appeared to be Ajsen's tonkotsu broth option, though the two servers I queried could only confirm that it was a pork broth. This broth was almost offensively unctuous and creamy, though blessedly not overly salty. It went well with my cold, though I doubt I would choose this option while in full health. The razor-thin pork slices were surprisingly dry, reminiscent of the shavings of beef found in Lanzhou lamian soups in China, functioning more as condiments than as protein sources. I know nothing of the provenance of the noodles used by Ajisen, but they were the most satisfying component of my bowl, having been cooked to just the right degree of al dente goodness.

Ajisen's noodle bowls range from $6.50 for the eponymous "Ajisen Ramen" bowl to $9.25 for the seafood bowl. There are also appetizers like gyoza, fried tofu and edamame. A separate laminated menu is offered for drinks, which include bubble teas. They offer an unsweetened cold green tea beverage, but I was told they were out of it when I ordered it. I'll most likely return to vet the Spicy Beef noodle option, and perhaps some of the other more demure broth-based bowls.

Where slurped: Westfield San Francisco Centre, 865 Market St. (food court below Nordstroms), San Francisco

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Slurp du Jour: Tempura Udon at Not-Quite-the-Same Kui Shin Bo

At the Nihonmachi Street Festival yesterday the charcoal-grilled meats were enticing, but my visit followed upon my eighth straight Friday night at Off the Grid, so I decided to forego street food for the quietude of a former favorite noodlery, Kui Shin Bo. Kui Shin Bo is in a forlorn second-floor corner of the equally forlorn Miyako Mall (which is overshadowed by the bustling Kintetsu Mall); on arrival I noticed changes, not the least of which was a friendly server for a change. Subsequent research confirmed that the place had indeed The changed hands since my last visit.

The chashu udon which I had a sudden craving for was not to be had on that visit, so I opted for the shrimp tempura udon. I liked the spartan presentation, just the udon noodles and onions in a clear broth with the tempura on the side (it has not always been that way). The soup had a refreshingly clean, if salty, taste, and the noodles were perhaps a bit too soft. Portions of both the udon and the tempura were generous, though less batter and more shrimpmeat and vegetables would have been nice. As always, the price was right, $7 for a decent sized lunch.

Would I return? Perhaps, for another shot at the chashu udon, though the consistency of the noodles seemed off, and I DO miss that cranky waitress of yore.

Where slurped: Kui Shin Bo, 22 Peace Plaza (in Miyako Mall), San Francisco.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Biang! Biang! You're Fed

Biang biang mian, a.k.a. you po che mian at Xi'an Famous Foods, Flushing

"Biang Biang" noodles are the stuff of folklore. Not because of the dish itself (though it deserves to be legendary) but because of the very name. The word "biang" is a Shaanxi localism not found in any modern Chinese dictionaries, famous for its complexity. It is written with 57 strokes, and pity the poor sign-maker that has to paint it twice. No one knows for certain where the name originated, but the most plausible guess is that it represents the sound of the noodles being slapped against the work surface when being made. This theory is advanced by Xi'an Famous Foods' Jason Wang in this video. Biang Biang noodles, being "as wide and thick as belts" are also famous for that reason as one of the "ten strange wonders of Shaanxi." But don't look for "Biang Biang" noodles on your menu; although phonetic substitutes like 棒棒麵 (bàng bàng miàn) or 梆梆麵 (bāng bāng miàn) may sometimes be used, according to Wikipedia, the dish is most commonly listed on menus outside of Shaanxi as you po che mian (油泼扯面).
You po che mian, roughly "oil-sprinkled torn noodles" are wide wheat noodles tossed (or stirred) with chili oil and some or all of: bean sprouts, crushed garlic, chili flakes, cabbage, and cilantro. The noodles are made by tearing wide strips of noodle dough in two lengthwise, rather than iteratively pulling them to thinness as done with "hand pulled" noodles (la mian). Traditionally they were supposedly made more than an inch thick and a meter in length, but fortunately are found in a more manageable size nowadays. Biang biang mian/you po che mian is an excellent hot weather dish, hard to find even in China outside of Xi'an. If you're lucky enough to be in New York, though, head for the nearest outlet of Xi'an Famous Foods for the excellent version depicted in the photo at the top of this page.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How Much Do You Love Noodles? (Rated R)

I suspect this is mostly true of rameniacs, for whom "using your noodle" takes on a different meaning.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lanzhou La Mian -- Part II

Note: This post originally appeared in my other blog in a slightly different form

In the last post, I documented my love for the Lanzhou Zheng Zong Niu Rou La Mian shops which can be found all over Shanghai (but especially the one on Hainan Xi Long). As promised, Here is a bit more of the science and history of this saving dish.
Making hand-pulled noodles requires an exceptionally supple dough; in practice this is usually achieved by the addition of kansui (jiang shui, or 鹼水), an alkaline solution of potassium and sodium carbonates, or a powdered base for same. Historically, however, the noodles were actually made supple by kneading lye from wood ash directly with the wheat flour. According to this article, "lye-kneaded wheat noodles" have been found in only three places in the world: Lanzhou, Gansu province, China; Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Okinawa. This practice probably was developed in China and introduced to the other two venues by Hakka travelers. Lanzhou is the only place in China where the practice persists. There, the lye is derived from burning mugwort grasses (peng cao) in a hole and extracting solidified rock-like mugwort ash (peng hui , 蓬灰) by a dripping method. The traditional use of peng hui can be seen in this video.

Lanzhou beef noodles as we know the dish is said to have originated with Ma Baozi
(马保子,1870-1955), a member of the Hui nationality, in Lanzhou at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He first sold his noodles of the street, and achieved such fame fame for their tastiness that in Lanzhou they became known as "Ma Baozi Beef Noodles." In 1919 he opened his first "bricks and mortar" shop. Today, there are around 1,000 beef noodle shops in Lanzhou. The traditional characteristics of Ma Baozi Beef Noodles are said to be "one clear, two white, three red, four green, five yellow" (一清、二白、三红、四绿、五黄), a reference to clear soup, white daikon radish, red chili oil, green cilantro and yellow noodles. (The use of an alkali imparts a yellowish tint to the noodles, which use no egg.)
I'm indebted to Sunny's Sohu Blog for the picture of the Ma Bao Zi restaurant at the top of this page. I learned a lot about Lanzhou and the background of Lanzhou la mian from her post. Please visit it for more tempting photos of the restaurant and its wares.

Lanzhou La Mian -- Part I

Note: This post originally appeared in my other blog in a slightly different form

On my periodic tours of Shanghai, I'm usually on a mission to visit as many different far-flung notable small eats establishments as I can get to, which means very few repeat visits. However, when I reviewed my notes for my April stay last year, I found (not surprisingly to me) that I had visited one restaurant no less than 10 times in the space of a month. This restaurant happened to be a noodle shop of the "Lanzhou La Mian" stripe, Lanzhou Zheng Zong Niu Rou La Mian (兰州正宗牛肉拉面), roughly translated as "Authentic Lanzhou Hand-pulled Beef Noodles."

Why so many visits to this shop? For starters, it was just steps from the apartment hotel I stayed in. It was also open early and late (7:00 AM to 4:00 AM), was extremely inexpensive, and its products were tasty and filling. Thus, if it were raining (which it often was), if I were late getting around and famished, or just too plumb lazy to go further, it was there; but most of all, I had come to love the noodles from this shop from my previous visit in October 2008.

Shanghai has some 250 "Lanzhou La Mian" styled restaurants, judging from the listings in About 50 of these, like the one across from my hotel, are "official" Lanzhou La Mian Shops, with identical names, identical signage, identical menus, identical prices and more or less the same modus operandi: although there is a kitchen at the back of the shop, the noodles are made when ordered at a work table at the front of the shop, and passed, when finished, through a sliding window into a large pot of boiling water on stove set up outside. After all, who wants large pots of boiling water inside an un-air conditioned restaurant in a Shanghai summer?

In addition to the beef noodles, Lanzhou La Mian establishments will also offer lamb (but no pork, being Muslim and halal) noodles. In addition to pulled noodles they will have knife-shaved noodles (刀削面), lamb or beef pao mo (泡 馍), or hand-torn steamed bread in soup, and other non-noodle and non-soup foods characteristic of the Lanzhou region. Despite this fairly extensive menu, the hand pulled beef noodles are always the main attraction, but don't go for them because you are a beef-eater. The thin beef slices, along with generous sprigs of cilantro are little more than garnish for the fresher-than-fresh noodles in a skillfully complex broth. A "small" bowl (enough for a hearty lunch) will set you back 4 yuan (about 60 cents), while a dinner-sized bowl if 5 yuan (about 75 cents).

It's notable that although the name and the origin of the specialty noodles come from Lanzhou, Gansu province, more often than not the Lanzhou La Mian restaurants are operated by Hui nationality Muslims from neighboring Qinghai Province. The history (and science) behind Lanzhou La Mian, and the development and popularization of today's bowl of beef hand-pulled noodle soup by one Ma Bao Zi in the early 20th Century, are fascinating subjects that will be touched on in a subsequent post.