Monday, November 21, 2011

Slurp du Jour: Bún bò Huế at Golden Flower

My liking for the tremendous variety of noodle dishes at San Sun notwithstanding, I've long felt that the venerable Golden Flower on Jackson Street was the best option in San Francisco's Chinatown for straight up pho. For one thing, unlike some of their newer rivals who use pre-packaged soup bases, they make their broths from scratch, grinding their own spices the old-fashioned way.  Not long ago they added bún bò Huế to their menu.  This is the spicier cousin of pho, and a specialty of the city of Hue (where it's just called "bun bo"). With the chill of Winter in the air, it's what I wanted.

 My bun bo Hue was served in a washbasin-sized bowl, broader but shallower than a typical bowl of pho.  Its toppings included generous quantities of pork pate, crosscut beef shank slices (often mistakenly misnamed on menus as "beef tendon") and one or two leaner cuts of beef, possibly oxtail and loin. It was moderately spicy (default for guilaos?) and the noodles were on the soft side of firm, a little disappointing in this respect.  The lemongrass-ey broth had good depth, apparent even through the chili spicing.  Condiments served on the side included Bay leaf, lime wedges, sliced fresh jalapeno, and mung bean sprouts. 

Although I would have preferred the noodles a bit firmer, I had no trouble downing the whole bowl; overall it hit the spot on  a brisk day. 

Where slurped: Golden Flower, 667 Jackson Street, San Francisco Chinatown.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Back in the Noodle Again at Katana-ya

For reasons related to being on a diet I've been avoiding noodle runs for a few months.  It hasn't helped, so screw that.  Going forward I'm going to build my diet around noodles.  I made that decision walking through the heart of downtown San Francisco a couple of hours ago when my radar picked up Katana-ya.

Katana-ya is noted for its house special everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bowl of noodles, but it was too early in the evening to declare it dinner time so I opted for a bowl of spicy green onion miso ramen.  The toppings included an equal amount of cross-cut spring onions and onion tops and spinach.  There was one thin slice of pork, bamboo shoots and, I think, bean sprouts. The noodles were fresh and springy enough, and the broth spicy enough to clear my sinuses. The miso broth was rich-tasting and not overly salty. (Or was it that the chili oil heat had just shouted down the saltiness?)  Katana-ya doesn't get a lot of respect (other than for its gut-busting house special, which even includes fried chicken in the toppings) but considering its central location, generous bowl size and generally reasonable pricing, it's a decent ramen option in downtown San Francisco.

Where slurped: Katana-ya, 430 Geary Street, San Francisco

Friday, May 20, 2011

Noodling Legalization Approved By Texas Senate

This headline in the Huffington Post caught my eye. Alas, it turned out be a red herring, so to speak. It had nothing to do with noodles (or with music, for that matter). It turns out that in Texas "noodling" refers to catching catfish with your bare hands, though the article gives no clue as to why it was illegal in the first place.

Oh, well. Perhaps some day I'll find a venue where I can get hand-caught catfish fish on my hand-pulled noodles. Are you listening, A Niang?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Filling My Dance Card at the North Beach - Chinatown Noodle Fest

The late newspaper columnist Herb Caen once reported a conversation, allegedly overheard on the street in San Francisco, that went something like this:

"Have you ever noticed how many cities have Chinatown and Little Italy located right next to each other?" said Person 1 to his friend. "Yes," said Person 2, "I think it has something to do with Marco Polo."
Whether you can credit Marco Polo or not, San Francisco is one of the cities (perhaps the original one) in which Chinatown and Little Italy (known locally as North Beach) exist cheek by jowl, along Grant and Columbus Avenues and separated, more or less, by Broadway. This arrangement has experienced tenions in the past, but for the past couple of years the geographical and historical nexus has been commemorated with a "Cultural and Culinary Celebration" called "North Beach - Chinatown Noodle Fest." I'll refrain from questioning why it's not called the "Chinatown - North Beach Noodle Fest," since it was China that invented the noodle some 4,000 years ago (though Marco Polo made Italy its first takeout customer) and just say I'm thankful that the event was created.

At the NBCTNF, for short, you pay $20 for a "dance card" which you can fill with noodle offerings from three of fifteen stalls representing establishments on the Chinatown side of Broadway and three "pasta" offerings from fifteen stalls on the North Beach side, plus one drink from either side (hot tea, milk tea, or coffee). (The full lineup can be seen in this scan of a handout from the event.) There are also noodle and pasta cooking demonstrations, music, speeches, and (this year) Mayoral candidates pressing the flesh.

My three choices from the Chinatown side were Indian Mee Goreng from Penang Garden, Shanghai Noodle with Scallion and Pork from Bund Shanghai, and Cold Szechuan [sic] Spicy House Noodles from The Pot Sticker. I would have preferred to be able to choose all six courses from the Chinatown side of Broadway, but I got to cheat a little by choosing Fat Rice Noodles with Chicken and Broccoli from King of Thai, which bunks with the Italian joints on "upper" Grant Avenue and therefore is a "North Beach" restaurant. For the record, the two non-Asian offerings that filled out my dance card were Shrimp and Chorizo "Potstickers" in Chipotle Creme Sauce from Impala, and Penne Pasta with Wild Boar & Musroom Ragout from Cafe Divine. My drink selection was from the North Beach side, coffee from Caffe Trieste, brewed, I might add, from properly roasted beans.

Of my Asian choices, the winner by default was The Pot Sticker's Cold House Noodles, pictured at the top of this post. I say "by default" because, regrettably, the event is not a favorable venue for hot noodles, which should go directly from the wok or cooking pot to the plate (or paper boat) to the gullet, not prepared in advance and kept lukewarm in chafing dishes. The cold noodles also got an assist from the bright sun and near-80s temperature, whic made their cool spiciness and blend of textures all the more welcome. The Shanghai noodles from Bund Shanghai also made a valiant effort to satisfy, almost savory enough to work as a cold noodle dish, and a texture that held up well to the storage. (These, I should mention, were not the fat Shanghai cu mian, despite the name, but more of a la mian thickness.) The Thai rice noodle dish at least provided some protein, with generous chunks of chicken, but was bland overall, while the poor Mee Goreng didn't stand a chance and came across as a mushy mess.

Although it takes quite a bit of imagination to imagine how most of the noodle dishes would fare freshly cooked and immediately served, there's some residual value in having so many examples side by side for comparison. I became fully aware of the Nort Beach - Chinatown Noodle Fest's shortcomings last year, but still found it worth returning to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Slurping Shanghai I: Fern Root Noodles at Dunhuang Xiao Ting

I’ve had a fascination with Silk Route food for the last couple of years, thanks to encountering good examples of it at the redoubtable Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, and varied noodle offerings are not the least of this cuisine’s attractions. In my last couple of visits to Shanghai one of my missions was to find a casual, inexpensive (yet accessible) purveyor of Silk Route noshes where I could explore this food further, and Dunhuang Xiao Ting (敦煌小亭)seems to fill the bill as well as anything I’ve found. (Like other sophisticated cities, Shanghai tends to present its more exotic “folk” cuisines dressed up and dumbed down on white tablecloths.)
Tops on my list for Dunhuang Xiao Ting on my recent visit was cold “fern root noodles” (蕨根粉, jue gen fen). This is a noodle dish I had yet to encounter anywhere else, and the most frequently recommended item at Dunhuang Xiao Ting by reviewers. The version of 蕨根粉 served at Dunhuang Xiao Ting is simply listed as that, but apparently can be found elsewhere as “hot sour fern root noodles” (酸辣蕨根粉).
Fern root noodles, as the name implies, are made from starch extracted from the common bracken fern, pteridium aquilinum, something perhaps only the Chinese would think of doing. They are purplish black in color, and have a chewy texture not unlike yam root (konjac) noodles. Probably for this reason some recipes pair them with shredded jellyfish. At Dunhuang Xiao Ting they are served cold in a bath of vinegar and chili oil and topped with shredded cucumber. Due to the prominent “suan la” character, it was difficult to attribute any distinct flavor to the noodles, or determine if other ingredients were present, though some recipes suggest that sesame oil may have been included.
Overall, the hot, tangy dressing and the cold chewy noodles made for a very satisfying lunch, paired with a couple of roujiamos (cumin lamb and Xi’an-style pork). Unfortunately (for tasting purposes) it was a mild April day; I can imagine the cold fern root noodles to be a killer nosh on sweltering June day.
Where slurped: Dunhuang Xiao Ting, 333 Changde Lu, Shanghai

Friday, January 7, 2011

Slurp du Jour: Mohinga from Burmese Kitchen

San Francisco is blessed with a number of solid Burmese eating places, including Burmese Kitchen, which I had never visited before today, all serving Mohinga, considered by many to be the national dish of Burma. It was a raw day today, the coldest so far this Winter, and it seemed like a good day to warm myself up with a bowl of Mohinga; not because it is spicy (it is hardly that) but because of the warming richness and depth of flavor that it brings. Burmese Kitchen also happens to be nearby the Asian Art Museum, which was due for a visit by me.

I found the restaurant's dining area attractive and comfortable, if a bit kitschy, with a grass hut motif going. A high counter with stools, similar to a ramen bar, added to the comfort of solo diners like me. I ordered Mohinga with an optional sliced boiled egg in it, and a roti on the side.

Mohinga has been called the Burmese version of pho. It has a number of variations, but the basic version is rice noodles in a fish broth thickened with chick pea flour and seasoned with garlic, onions, lemon grass, and ginger. The noodles are vermicelli sized, called nanthay noodles in Burma. The broth is made from extended (even continuous) simmering of specified fish types (varieties of catfish are acceptable) and may or not contain actual chunks of fish when served (Burmese Kitchen's did not). To add substance, various add-ins are offered. Burmese Kitchen offers fried chickpeas in addition to the sliced hard-boiled egg I ordered. Other toppings may include shredded spring onions, shredded raw or cooked green beans or slices of fried squash. My bowl also came, pho-style, with a complimentary garnish dish containing fresh cilantro and a lime segment.

I found the delicate, complex flavors ot my bowl of Mohinga to be deeply satsifying. The noodles were less toothsome than I'm used to with pho (and all manner of wheaten noodles) but this may be just a Mohinga style; along with the absence of any chili heat, the softness of the noodles seemed complicit in delivering an unctuousness that was not at all unpleasant. I also wished I had order the fried chickpea add-in as well as the boiled egg; even accompanied by a roti (which I found to be a little on the greasy side) my lunch was barely substantial enough to get me through the cold afternoon.

A nice little overview of Mohinga's history and its place in Burmese society by Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt can be found here.

Where slurped: Burmese Kitchen, 452 Larkin St., San Francisco.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year Noodles from San Sun -- House of 5,000 Noodles

It's New Year's Day, so I naturally headed out to down some noodles "for long life." Weather was iffy and my stomach was growling, so I hightailed it to a neighborhood standby, San Sun, which I've come to thinking of as the House of 5,000 Noodles. No, San Sun doesn't bill itself as such but I've done the math. I'll explain below.

San Sun is a venerable Hokkien Chinese-Vietnamese-Malaysian family-run restaurant on Stockton Street in Chinatown which specializes in noodle dishes and other one-plate meals. San Sun's colorful, booklet-style menu lists no fewer than 51 noodle soups. There's a choice of 10 different types of noodle for each, and for 50 cents more you can choose to have any two types of noodles in your soup. This makes for 100 different noodle possibilities for each of the 51 toppings, or 5,100 different bowls of soup. Add to that an additional 40 "dry" noodle dishes (chow mein, lo mein, etc.) with a choice from five different noodle types for each, and you begin to see my point.

San Sun's offerings include Chinese-type noodle soups (with Fujian influences showing clearly in some), Vietnamese Pho, and satay noodle soups (the Malaysian in the family making her influence felt). The house-made satay sauce, incidentally, is so good that it's sold by the bottle by popular demand. For good measure, you can also find a Cambodian-style rice noodle soup and a Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup on the menu, as well as noodle-less soups, congee, rice plates and various house specialties, including an oyster pancake.

For my noodles du jour, I decided to short-circuit the decision making process and honor New Year's Day with the cleanest, lighest option I could think of, the Pho Ga (chicken) with thin rice noodles rather than the heavier wide "ho fun" noodles (and no, I was not hung over). The slight sweetness of the delicately-flavored broth was easily tempered by a squeeze of lime from the condiment dish, and a few slices of jalapeno pepper added all the oomph it needed. The noodles were slightly springy, and the shards of chicken breasts tasted fresh. The Pho Ga at San Sun was the perfect refreshing tonic to start the new year with, and I immediately resolved to return soon for some meatier, satay-laden choices.

Where slurped: San Sun Restaurant, 941 Stockton St., San Francisco*

*San Sun will be mMoving to 848 Washington St. (the former Great Oriental space) "in early 2011," displaced by the upcoming Muni Chinatown Subway construction.