Friday, December 28, 2012

Marvel of Survival: Tea Garden and Its Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

Tea Garden's Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup Today

It was something of a marvel when Tea Garden opened a couple of blocks from my office in late 2004, and even more of a marvel that is still exists and apparently thrives today, eight years later. Tea Garden is a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-the-wall restaurant located between San Francisco's traditional Financial District and the booming South of Market area where seemingly every other block is coveted for development of a 50 story luxury condo building. Ostensibly a bubble tea emporium (whence the name) located in a foodie wasteland where Subway has long battled it out with Quiznos, Tea Garden is actually the closest thing to a Taiwanese hawker stall you'll find in the City, if not the whole Bay Area. Its menu includes a couple of beef noodle soups, over-rice dishes including pork chop over rice, gua bao, fan tuan, a host of other Taiwanese pastries, and oh, yeah,  a long list of tea drinks.
Tea Garden's Bento box

When Tea Garden first came to light, Taiwanese small eats fans were ecstatic about the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, proclaiming it on the best and most authentic around. Some were even more blown away when the owners came out with a version of the famous Taiwan Railway pork chop rice bento box. Said one Chowhound: "I had the pork chop over rice and almost fell out of my chair as it brought back memories of childhood train rides in Taiwan."

I've been retired for more than six years, and seldom tread the stretch of Mission Street where the Tea Garden resides, I but find myself checking Yelp reviews from time to time, just to see if it continues to exist. Happily, neighborhood changes and rising rents have not driven it out of the area, nor has lack of business even though it seems to fly under the radar. It was at Tea Garden that I had my first self-identified Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, years before this blog was even a twinkle in my eye.  Would the soup still be good?  Had the restaurant retained its homespun, close-to-the-bone character?

"Beef noodle soup" I said, the minute I walked in the door, as if they might suddenly run out of it if I took the time to peruse the menu.  I took a place at one of the two tables (there is still the long counter opposite the pastry case and kitchen) and looked around.  It seems as if little had changed, other than the prices and the fact that I had my bowl of soup brought to my table by a server (a son of the owners?) instead of having to ferry it myself.  It turns out there are two beef noodle soups on the menu, the House Special "with soy sauce"   and another one "without soy sauce" as well as some dry noodle and some rice dishes.  By not having specified, I was served the "with soy sauce."

My House Special beef noodle soup was basically a red-cooked, stewed beef version with lean, but very tender chunks of beef.  There was perhaps more soy sauce than typical for a red-cooked beef noodle spoup, and little evidence of star anise, but the broth was rich and satisfying. The noodles were of the round "la mian" variety, rather the flat linguine-style noodles I was served eight years before (in a clear broth version, if I recall correctly).  They were a little soft for my taste, but that may have been the result of my arriving at a time when supply had begun to outrun demand.  It was an amply-sized bowl and overall one I'll return for, but not until I've tried the clear broth version. And maybe a bao on the side.

Where slurped: Tea Garden, 515 Mission St., San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Yan Can: M.Y. China Delivers an Exceptional Bowl of Niurou Lamian

When news started trickling down about Martin Yan's glitzy new casual dining venture under the dome at the Westfield Centre, M.Y. China, I was most heartened by the prominence to be given to the craft of noodle-making.  Yan was assembling a whole team of noodle pullers (and cutters, slicers and choppers).  When the menu came out, it promised Hand Pulled Noodles with beef, Knife Cut Noodles with tofu, and Scissor Cut Noodles with wild boar.  There would be Hong Kong Crispy Noodles, Dan Dan Noodles, and Squid Ink Snap Noodles with Seafood.   The menu holds other delights as well such as dumplings (Wild Boar Xiaolong Bao!), wok dishes, roasts, and a variety of small eats,  but duty called me to sample the noodles, beginning with the benchmark hand-pulled beef noodles.

It's listed on the menu as Beef Hand Pulled Noodle Soup, and described as "slow simmered rib eye, baby bok choy, star anise."  Though the M.Y. China menu provides no descriptions in Chinese, It was easy to guess that it was most likely a traditional Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup, or Niurou Lamian. I ordered the Beef Noodle Soup and (because I couldn't resist) an order of  Wild Boar "Juicy Dumplings" (xiaolong bao) to savor while I waited for my soup.

At a venue like M.Y. China, there's the tendency to expect high prices to go hand-in-hand with small portions. That wasn't the case, at least with my $14 bowl of soup.  It was a healthy, meal-sized bowl, and generous with both the succulent slow-simmered beef and the springy noodles.  The broth was rich but not particularly fatty, characteristically sweet and dominated by star anise notes. It wasn't as medicinally complex as some Taiwan-style broths, but was fully satisfying and comforting on a gray and drizzly day.  If there was one fault I cold find with the soup, it was that the noodles, which seemed optimally chewy when I began eating them,  teetered on the brink of being overcooked by the end of the bowl, even though I wan't particularly dilatory in slurping them. It should be pointed out that it was only the second day of operation for M. Y. China, and there was a lot of cheerful chaos about; the softness of the noodles may have been due to a timing issue in the cooking or the delivery.  I was seated at the opposite end of the counter (which extends the length of the open kitchen) from the noodle stations, and was unable to track my noodles' journey from puller's hands to my own eager maw. In addition, though I don't know if it was a slip-up or S.O.P., no soup spoon was delivered with my soup. I ended up drinking the soup directly from the bowl, local style.  But that's really as it should be, Westfield Centre or not.

Where slurped: M.Y. China, Westfield Centre, 845 Market St. 4th Fl., SF

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kirimachi Unveils Tonkotsu Kuro Ramen

Is a media event warranted when a ramen shop adds a new item to its menu? In my humble opinion it is when that item is kuro ramen. I've posted before about kuro, or "black" ramen, made by adding a puree of charred garlic to a tonkotsu broth, and how it taught me I could really love a bowl of ramen.  It's a rare item   which, until the recent opening of Izakaya Roku, was not to be found in San Francisco at all. Imagine my joy, therefore, when my friends from Kirimachi Ramen, fresh from  a research tour of Japan, announced they were introducing it to my own 'hood, North Beach.

I got to sample a bowl of Kirimachi's Tonkotsu Kuro Ramen tonight at a media preview (in reality it was a preview of expanded non-ramen options on the new dinner menu as well).  As is the case with his other ramen offerings, Chef Leo shows a lighter hand than most, delivering a broth that reveals more than just salt and fat. In my limited experience with kuro ramen, I've learned that there is a whole range of "kuro-ness" to the broth, depending on how thoroughly charred (or browned) the garlic is. Far from the inky black color I first experienced in a kuro ramen at Hide-chan in New York, Kirimachi's kuro ramen is a golden brown, not so different in color from shoyu ramen, but worlds away in flavor, with a deep roast garlic flavor enriching the tonkotsu base broth.  My sample bowl came chock dull of chashu, bamboo and a soft-boiled egg.  I'd be tempted to add corn just to add a splash of color; overall, though, it positioned itself as my favorite among Kirimachi's hot ramen offerings, and definitely near the top of all the bowls of ramen I've had in San Francisco.

The ramen was preceded by an appetizer plate representing other likely candidates for Kirimachi's menu: Chicken Karaage with Kewpie mayonnaise, pork and vegetable Gyoza, Uni Donburi (sea urchin and salmon roe over rice).

Where slurped: Kirimachi Ramen, 450 Broadway, San Francisco

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Subterranean Food Court, A Bowl of Bun Bo Hue, And Another Round-eye Runaround

The International Food Court at Bush and Kearny isn't exactly the Heaven-sent and Heavenly-scented rabbit warren that is the Golden Mall Food Court in Flushing, New York, but it has a promising close-to-the-bone feel and a rainbow palette of ethnic cuisines on offer.  There's one vendor each for Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and (soon to come) Korean foods, mostly serving foods their respective homeboys are craving, assuming you overlook the Crab Rangoon add-on option at Lee's Kitchen.

I was both optimistic and curious as I descended the stairs at the Bush Street entrance to the IFC for my date with a bowl of Bun Bo Hue: optimistic because a message board poster had reported getting a bowl of Bun Bu Hue with cubes of pig's blood in it  there, and curious to find out if I would be served the same thing at, of all places, a food court in the middle of the Financial District.

People who know such things will tell you that cubes of congealed pig's blood are one of the hallmarks of an authentic bowl of Bun Bo Hue, along with pig's knuckles, preferably whole and on the bone.  I know from experience that Vietnamese restaurants will hedge on this in the U.S., even in the Little Saigon environs of San Francisco.  Some, like Mangosteen, omit the pig's blood altogether; some, like Ngoc Mai will selectively omit the pigs blood if the bowl is headed for a guilao like me.  Others, like Sao Bien and Ha Nam Ninh include the pigs blood as was meant to be, without misplaced concern for Western sensibilities.  I had no clue as to the ethnicity of the Chowhound poster; would I be served the same bowl he or she had?

At Pho Express you order and pay at a small window on one side of the enclosed stall, then wait for pickup around the corner at a counter with condiments and pre-assembled plates of garnishes. There was a line of a half-dozen people and a 10-15 minute wait for my bowl even well past lunch hour at 1:45, an indicator of how busy Pho Express is.

Pho Express serves a single size of soup, and I'm guessing my $7.95 bowl was between a "small" and "large" serving at a conventional pho emporium.  The broth had a decent depth of flavor, though not particularly complex and only mildly spicy.  It was also a little on the oily side.  The noodles were thick, almost udon-sized, which I like, but alas, they had been cooked to death and were mushy (and a skimpy portion to boot). As far as the toppings went, Pho Express was most generous with the sliced pâté; there was also a reasonable amount of sliced rare beef, and what appeared to be bits of pig's knuckle (off the bone).  And oh, yes, there was no pig's blood in my Bun Bo Hue.  I had been given the round-eye runaround again. 

Where slurped: Pho Express, International Food Court, Bush and Kearny Streets, San Francisco

Monday, November 5, 2012

Slurping with the other half -- Lemon Grass Pork Vermicelli at Charles Phan's Out the Door

I found myself in the not-so-hospitable confines of the Ferry Building this afternoon hungering for something of a noodle-ish mien for a late lunch.  The options were the (seemingly moribund) Imperial Tea Court with its signature spicy IMPORTED from Taiwan (emphasis theirs) noodles for about 12 bucks, or a rice vermicelli plate from Out the Door for a bit less. Since I was sure that OTD's noodles hadn't been imported from anywhere further than San Jose, and a cold noodle dish sounded good on an 80° day (which it was, believe it or not), I went with the Vietnamese option.

I was half kidding (or maybe three-quarters kidding) about "the other half" in the title of this post. It might be a fair characterization of hipster patrons of Out the Door's big sister, The Slanted Door, which features "gateway" cuisine with designer ingredients and designer prices, accompanied by pricey designer cocktails.  Out the Door, however, is at least halfway out the Slanted Door onto the street where real food might be found, and its prices, while not at Little Saigon levels, won't make one blink.  A basic vermicelli bowl with pork, chicken or shrimp toppings will set you back about as much as a bowl of ramen without extras at an aspiring new ramen-ya.

I chose the "Lemongrass Pork With Vermicelli" (which I'm guessing would be called bun thit nuong in the hood).  Chicken and shrimp versions are also available. In toto, the bento-like plastic container amounted to a fairly light lunch (something I looked forward to after a couple of gut-buster noodle lunches at Shandong Deluxe recently.  However, I was struck by the generous quantity of savory grilled pork, as much good lean pork as one would have the right to expect in a noodle bowl of any denomination. The pork had a nice char, the cold rice noodles ere refreshing, and the veggie greens rounded out the dish nicely. In the past I've found myself disparaging Out the Door, largely on account of its kinship with The Slanted Door, which I'm not a fan of, but I found today's lunch satisfying and even reasonable, by Ferry Building standards, and can see myself returning. Perhaps the mini-empire of Out the Doors is Charles Phan's attempt to Keep it Real, which he does, kind of.

Where slurped: Out the Door, 1 Ferry Building #5, San Francico

Friday, November 2, 2012

You could call it Chinese Cioppino: Chao Ma Mian at Shandong Deluxe

Chao Ma Mian, like Zha Jiang Mian is a noodle dish with an identity crisis. Is was born in China, exported to Korea via Shandong Province then reimported to China with Korean characteristics, notably an elevated spice level. To complicate matters further, chao ma mian is similar enough to a Nagasaki ramen variant known as champon (itself an import from China's Fujian Province) that the Koreans call the dish jjamppong.

Whether you call it chao ma mian, jjamppong, Champon, gumbo, or (as occurred to me) Chinese Cioppino, it's a belly buster when combined with Shandong Deluxe's already legendary portion sizing, as I discovered when I  returned to the restaurant to check out the dish today. As can be seen, a mountain of surf, turf and garden goodies blanketed an equally impressive mass of fresh, springy handmade noodles on steroids (no wimpy ramen noodles here). So much do I like Shandong Deluxe's noodles that I found myself impatiently chomping my way like Pacman  through the chicken, pork, shrimp, octopus, cuttlefish, cabbage and a host of other things I didn't stop to catalog to get to the wheaten treasure awaiting me. Not that I had to hold my nose to do so; the toppings were fresh and savory, the textures thoughtfully varied and broth pleasantly spicy.  At $6.95, the bowl could easily covered lunch for two people circumspect about their calorie intake, or fuel a slightly overweight urban hiker for the greater part of a chilly Winter day.

I'll remember that.

Where slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval Street, San Francisco.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Xinjiang Ban Mian at Shandong Deluxe for my Birthday Noodles

This lunch made for the third bowl of noodles in three days, counting the main course at Azalina's Jardiniere popup on Monday night. But heck, it was my birthday and I LURVES me some long life! Besides, I've been aching to get back to Shandong Deluxe to try out the two Xinjiang items on the menu, and with my wife away in Shanghai I wasn't about to tackle a whole "big plate chicken" for lunch by myself.

Yes, there are noodles under there
The server smiled broadly when I confidently ordered "Xinjiang Ban Mian" in my best Mandarin. "Lamb or beef?" she asked, and I opted for lamb. I actually had no expectation for what would arrive at my table; Googling (and Baidu-ing) the dish taught me that the term covered a lot of bases, and I had only one prior experience with lagman (another term for Xinjiang ban mian) at Cafe Kashkar in Brighton Beach. I guessed I would  be getting a dry (i.e. not in soup) noodle dish smothered in a meat and vegetable topping that was colorful, flavorful and spicy. When the dish arrived, I was stunned by the mere size of it.  It was easily enough for two.  It turned out to be just about what I imagined, except for the spiciness, or lack thereof. It was topped primarily with stir-fried lamb pieces, tomatoes, celery, and mushrooms.  Any spicing was done subtly, with most of the flavor being derived from the natural flavors of the toppings, which made it tomato-ey above all. I wished for some dry pepper flakes to dust it with to provide a little heat, but none were available; other than the lack of spiciness, I found it tasty enough that I managed to consume the whole platter in spite of myself.

On both occasions I have been to Shandong Deluxe a pleasant woman sat at a work table at the back busily making jiaozi the whole time. Given that this is a Shandong establishment (at least in name) It's imperative that I return to try them.  On my way out I asked my server (whose name turned out to be Jenny) if the jiaozi were good. "Very good," she said.

I'm willing to believe her.

Where slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Grilled Eel Udon from Kaka Udon Kitchen Was a Letdown

I believe that size matters, when it comes to noodle girth.  In my world, therefore, a good bowl of udon -- if you can find it -- trumps a good bowl of ramen. A bowl of duck udon I had in (of all places) Shanghai ranks among my all-time noodle noshes.  It's really a numbers game, however; there are so many more people intent on making a transcendental bowl of ramen than of udon that the odds are against easily finding the latter.

When something reminded me of the existence of the four-month old Kaka Udon Kitchen on Franklin St., a couple of things raised my expectations. First, the word was that they made their own noodles in house (and how many ramen shops can you think of that do that?); second, I discovered that their menu included Grilled Eel Udon, and I decided I wanted to try that instanter.

Kaka Udon Kitchen's ambience is casual and pleasantly proletarian, down to the plastic decorative teapot my order of tea came in.  The menu offers a mix-and-match scheme similar to that used by the late, lamented Good Earth Cafe on Kearny St.: choose a bowl size (small, large or extra large), a broth type and toppings.  There is also a section on the menu of "Specialty Udon" (large size specified)  from which I chose my Grilled Eel Udon.

While waiting for my noodles, I was brought a complimentary plate of edamame, which turned out to be limp and tired. My "large" bowl of udon, when it came out in a plastic bowl was about the size of a "small" bowl at your neighborhood pho joint, but crammed with noodles and add-ins, enough for a hearty lunch.  There was a respectable, if not overly generous amount eel in the bowl, and it was the best part of the dish. In addition to the usual toppings, enoki mushrooms and cut corn lurked beneath the surface. The broth (apparently default for the eel udon, oddly enough), was a tonkotsu style broth, milky and yellow, but too sweet for my taste. The noodles were the biggest disappointment; although obviously (from their irregularity) hand-made, they came out much too soft, almost gelatinous, with a mere soupçon of chewiness. They were also flavorless, and I felt I was left with a belly full of gummy starch.

Kaka Udon Kitchen's menu, in addition to udon and accompanying appetizers, also has an extensive list of sushi rolls. When I was there at lunch time, a lot of people appeared to be ordering from that section of the menu.  Maybe they knew something I didn't.

Where slurped:  Kaka Udon Kitchen, 1535 Franklin Street at Bush Street, San Francisco

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Shandong Deluxe Brings Robust Noodle Offerings and a Couple of Menu Surprises

"Plain Broth" Lamb Noodles at Shandong Deluxe
After several recent rounds of ramen, I felt the need for a more muscular noodle soup form and Shandong Deluxe, a new place in the Parkside I just got wind of seemed to fill the bill. Shandong Deluxe has only been open for about 10 days, in the space formerly occupied by Ramen Doraku on Taraval St. The awning promises "Hand-cranked Noodles and Dumplings" in English, though the Chinese seems to refer to hand pulled noodles.

The menu at Shandong Deluxe offers not only noodles and dumplings (shui jiao) but also an assortment of other Northeastern China small plates, plus a couple of surprises, which I'll get to.  (Since I was Jonesing for noodles, I didn't pay a lot  of attention to other sections of the menu, and unfortunately they don't yet have tri-fold takeaway menus.) I ordered the Lamb Noodle soup ("plain broth" lamb noodles in Chinese). I contemplated an order of jiaozi (dumplings) as well, and am glad I didn't, because I had already had a light lunch and the noodle portions turned out to be enormous.  My bowl was easily the size of a "large" bowl in noodle and pho joints that offer two size options, and contained a generous amount of tender chunks of lamb as well.  The "plain" broth seemed to be flavored primarily from juices from the lamb, and while tasty enough, benefited from a dab of the orange-colored chili oil provided at the table. The noodles appeared to be extruded (i. e. "hand-cranked") rather than hand pulled; they were slightly flat like linguini noodles only larger, and uniform in girth throughout.  Although two women were kept busy making dumpling wrappers and kneading chunks of dough into noodle-ready portions, I didn't observe any noodle pulling.  That's not a knock; while noodle-pulling makes for a good shit-show, it sometimes results in your noodles being delivered with a bit more alkalinity than you might like. The fresh noodles in my lamb soup were without a trace of bitterness, and perfectly al dente.

Click to Enlarge
As far as the surprises I mentioned (and there may be more in other sections of the menu), they lie in the first two items in the noodle section of the menu.  "Xinjiang styleChicken with Noodl" is none other than the hallmark Uyghur dish known in Chinese as "Da Pan Ji," or "big plate chicken." It consists of a whole chicken, cut up and stewed in a very savory sauce, typically with potatoes. The noodles are served on the side for sopping up  the delectable sauce when most of the chicken has been eaten. "Big plate chicken" is a dish that is very hard to find in the Bay Area. The second item on the noodle section of the menu, "Sam Sun Noodle" is both surprising and confusing. "Sam Sun" usually refers to a Korean noodle dish (not surprising for a Shandong restaurant), but the Chinese identifies it as yet another Uyghur dish, "Xinjiang Ban Mian," otherwise known as lagman.  Perhaps the two dishes are similar enough for it to have the dual identity, or perhaps two separate items got mixed together in composing the menu. In any event, it comes as a surprise to discover a Xinjiang Uyghur presence in a Shandong-style restaurant, at least in San Francisco.

As far as the Shandong Deluxe premises go, little change seems to have been made from its previous use; it looks just like the ramen-ya it once was, down to the big mural on the wall. This makes it at once a perfect place to nosh on noodles, and at the same time a bit jarring. It also makes for a touch of bitter-sweet historic irony, IMHO, with a ramen joint in a Chinese neighborhood vacating and its premises being taken over by a Shandong cuisine establishment.

I'll definitely be back to explore further the delights and mysteries of Shandong Deluxe.

Where slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval Street, between 20th and 21st Avenues, San Francisco

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jay Hamada's Izakaya Roku Opens on Market St.: "Kuro" Ramen FTW!

Two things drove me to the official opening of Izakaya Roku on Market near Octavia Street.  First, it gave me a chance to wish proprietor Jay Hamada well on his new venture.  Hamada is also the proprietor of the JapaCurry truck, whose products, along with Hamada's expansive personality, have spread cheer among food truck fans throughout the Bay Area. (In fact, I had my first JapaCurry curry at Off the Grid's McCoppin Hub venue, a mere stone's throw from Roku's location.). Second, and probably more importantly, the word was out that he might be serving kuro (black) ramen.  Kuro ramen is a ramen that has its broth seasoned with charred garlic; I had my first bowl of the stuff two years ago at Hide-Chan in New York, and it was the first time I truly loved a bowl of ramen. I had yet to find a bowl of kuro Ramen in San Francisco, though there were reports it could be found at a ramen-ya in Mountain View.

Roku's menu features a small ramen section (it's an izakaya, after all, with lots of other small plates) with three varieties of tonkotsu ramen: "white" (regular), "red" (spicy) and.... wait for it... BLACK (charred garlic)!  I ordered a bowl of the "black" ramen and a side of nikumaki onigiri (in lieu of my usual side of gyoza, which isn't currently on Roku's menu).

I wasn't disappointed by Roku's black garlic ramen. While not not as heavily laced with oil from charred garlic as Hide-Chan's "Hakata" kuro ramen (which resembled a miniature of the Gulf oil spill), the charred garlic added enough smoky astringency to de-cloy the rich tonkotsu broth (you might guess I am not a tonkotsu fan).  The toppings included three generously sized fatty chashu slices and a perfectly done soft-boiled egg;   the noodles (sourced from a San Jose manufacturer) were also perfectly springy.  I'll certainly be back to try the spicy tonkotsu, as well as to revisit the kuro ramen and perhaps check out some more of the sundry non-noodle goodies.

Where slurped: Izakaya Roku, 1819 Market St. at Pearl St,, San Francisco

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Couple of Cold Ones at Kirimachi: Hiyashi Chuka Ramen and Tsukemen

Hiyashi Chuka Ramen at Kiramachi (I call this shot my Busby Berkeley view)
With the temperature approaching the 90s on Tuesday, I figured it was an opportune time to try out the cold noodles my local ramen-ya, Kirimachi Ramen, was featuring. It turned out that they had not one, but two cold noodle offerings, Hiyashi Chuka ("cold Chinese [noodles]") and Tsukemen (dry noodles with a dipping sauce).  Since the tsukemen isn't really eaten cold (because the noodles are dipped in a hot broth) I decided to go with the Hiyashi Chuka and try the Tsukemen the following day when odds were that it wouldn't be quite so hot.

Hiyashi Chuka consists of a selection of chilled strips of seasonal vegetable and animal material arranged on  a bed of ramen noodles that have been bathed in a sweet-sour tare. It is served with a dab of very spicy mustard which can be stirred in to add a little heat if you desire (and I did). In essence, it is a cold noodle salad, and as such is very satisfying on a very hot day. The temperature in San Francisco hit 94° that day, hottest of the year, and the cool medley of textures and flavors was indeed extremely refreshing.

Tsukemen with dipping sauce at Kirimachi Ramen
The Tsukemen, which I returned to try a day later, on the other hand, was visually as plain as the Hiyashi Chuka was colorful. A shallow plate of dry (i.e. drained) noodles comes topped with bamboo and green onion, accompanied by a bowl of broth to dip the plain noodles in. The artistry is reserved for the complex broth, which at Kirimachi is pork-based. The naked noodles also give one the opportunity to taste the alkaline noodles for what they are, before dipping them into the broth provided.

To a Tsukemen novice like me, the dish is considerably less appealing than the Hiyashi Chuka ramen at Kirimachi.  However, Tsukemen is reportedly the hottest noodle fad in Japan. Leo and Febry, proprietors of Kirimachi Ramen, will be traveling to Tokyo after the conclusion of the Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center season, and one of their priorities will be to investigate the state of the art in Tsukemen crafting.  I'm looking forward to their help in developing my palate after they return.

Where slurped: Kirimachi Ramen, 450 Broadway, San Francisco

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pad Thai from the Hos at Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center

When the House of Siam restaurant decided to branch out with a food truck name House of Siam on Wheels, they may or may not have realized what they were doing when they abbreviated the truck's name to "hosonwheels" for its domain name and Twitter feed. At the very least they earned themselves some smiles, and most likely increased their exposure at any venue, since HOS veterans are fond of pointing out the tee-hee name to their friends.

When sniffing around Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center tonight for something new (it gets harder after the 68 visits to this venue Foursquare says I've made) I realized that I had never tried House of Siam on Wheels' Pad Thai, so I went for a bowl, er, box of it.  The streamlined Pad Thai we're accustomed to in the US is comfort food at best, but at least it isn't mac n' cheese. From House of Siam's reputation (and what I'd tried of their fare in the past) I expected a serviceable helping of dressed-up noodles, and that what I got.  The noodles were perhaps the best part, just tender enough and blissfully not too dry (which unfortunately couldn't be said of the chunks of chicken breast it was topped with).  The bean sprouts were fresh and crisp, but there was only a mere soupçon of more exotic add-ins and "spicy" as requested was not spicy at all. Overall, I preferred the version of Pad Thai I had from the Phat Thai truck on another occasion, though I did not feel cheated by the quantity and quality of the HOS' version.

Where: Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center, Laguna and Beach Streets, San Francisco (Fridays 5-9 PM)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Yakkin' Up Ya Ka Mein at the San Francisco Street Food Festival

Thanks to La Cocina's San Francisco Street Food Festival, I recently got to sample ya ka mein, a New Orleans street favorite from its most celebrated purveyor, Miss Linda Green, who was imported from NOLA for just that purpose. Though the distant origins of this dish are obscure, we know from restaurant menu archaeologists that it emanated from Chinese-American restaurants and still exists in such restaurants on the eastern seaboard (particularly in Baltimore) as "yat gaw mein."

Perhaps the best resource for understanding ya ka mein's travels and signifcance is an article by noted food writer-folklorist John T. Edge, "Seventh Ward Ramen" in David Chang's Lucky Peach, Issue 1 - Ramen.  According to Edge's description, ya ka mein
usually arrives in a white foam cup, brimming with limp spaghetti noodles, soy-and-ketchup-colored and -flavored broth, chunks of roasted pork or beef, boiled egg halves and a thatch of ragged-cut green-onion rounds....slurped from a bowl while standing on a street corner, [ya ka mein] is also known as Old Sober.
 Linda Green, proprietor of Miss Linda Green's Catering, sells ya ka mein from a booth at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival and from the tailgate of a pickup truck at other events in New Orleans.  Miss Linda is no mere ramen hacker, however. Though she has no formal training, she has the cooking chops to have kicked serious butt on the Food Network's Chopped: Pride of New Orleans episode, coming away with the big prize.

As for my ya ka mein experience?  I found the salty, peppery, bouillon-y cup of noodles comforting, if not  exactly life-changing; to be fair, it must be noted I was cold sober when I downed them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Oh, Man! Men Oh Tokushima Ramen Brings its Pedigree to the Richmond

I busted out of my diet today to check out the SF arrival of a new dedicated ramen-ya with a link to Japan.  That would be Men Oh Tokushima Ramen  (Geary near 15th Avenue) which is still in its "soft" opening period; the official Grand Opening is August 4.

Tokushima is a prefecture of Japan on Shikoku Island, and has its own characteristic ramen style, one of 20 cataloged in Nate Shockey's A Specifist's Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan (Lucky Peach, Issue 1).   Men Oh Tokushima Ramen is a leading purveyor of this style of ramen, with 12 locations in Japan and one other in  the U.S. (in Union City CA).

Tokushima ramen features a tonkatsu-like broth (a legacy of the many ham factories on Shikoku Island) infused with dark soy sauce and uses Butabara (stir-fried pork belly slices) in addition to traditional chashu. Another feature of Tokushima ramen is the provision of a raw egg (still in the shell) for the diner to add to his bowl of noodles.

Men Oh Tokushima Ramen was about 40 percent full at 1:20 in  the afternoon of hump day when I entered. It is a very attractive room with wooden tables and sparse, tasteful decor. Lamentably, there is no counter for solo ramen eaters like me, but I was seated at one of the four or five two-tops.  The menu lists three ramen options: Tokushima ramen, a standard tonkotsu ramen, and a spicy tonkotsu ramen.  There are other dishes and appetizers typical for a ramen-ya, including takoyaki "coming soon."   I chose the house specialty Tokushima ramen and a side order of gyoza, since the takoyaki (as the cheerful server confirmed) had yet to make an appearance. 

As I waited for my noodles, the server brought me the tea I requested and a chilled egg in a little dish.  It was stamped with a red "P" for "pasteurized."  I took the time to ask her about the noodles. Were they indeed "house made" as the restaurant's website indicated? She replied that they were made off-site in South San Francisco, "where our headquarters is."

Soon after my bowl of ramen arrived, another server appeared with a side order of chashu.  "We have to remake the gyoza," she said, and the extra chashu was complementary. I studied my noodles and went about the task of adding the raw egg. The hard part is choosing the most aesthetic location to plump it down.

As usual, the first thing I took note of were the noodles.  They were straight (as I like them) and very thin (which I'm not particularly fond of). They were, however, perfectly cooked, with just the right bite to them. The broth had a great depth and richness, manifestly abetted by the soy sauce, and had a tinge of sweetness to it, something my wife's own Jiangsu-influenced cooking has taught me to tolerate, if not applaud. (In fact, a touch of star anise would have made the broth a ringer for a Suzhou noodle "red" broth.)  The toppings, even without the extra chashu I was comped, were quite generous for an $8.50 bowl of ramen.

And oh, yes the gyoza.  They arrived just as I was finishing my ramen, and were not particularly memorable, being a little too oil-laden.  I'll be back when the takoyaki is up!

Overall, I found Men Oh Tokushima Ramen delivered a solid bowl of ramen at a reasonable price in an attractive environment with friendly service.  I'm no ramen guru, but I predict it will be appearing on all of those "best" lists, and maybe even inviting comparisons with San Mateo and Santa Clara ramen joints.

Where slurped: 5120 Geary Boulevard near 15th Ave,, San Francisco

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thai Beef Noodles (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเนื้อตุ๋น Kuay Teow Neua)

I'll let this video speak for itself. Now the hunt is on to see if I can find a local restaurant serving a version of this street food. The video is from Mark Wiens' great website, .


Monday, June 25, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Hu Tieu Nam Vang at Ha Nam Ninh

My search for a new noodle thrill today took me to Ha Nam Ninh, a nonsdescript Tenderloin hole-in-the-wall on Jones Street for hu tieu Nam Vang.  According to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen's Viet World Kitchen blog, hu tieu Nam Vang is "a Cambodian-Chinese concoction that the Vietnamese 'borrowed' and then made their own. Nam Vang is the Viet word for Phnom Penh, and the southern part of Vietnam has deep Khmer roots." 

Ha Nam Minh's menu lists Hu Tieu as "Chicken Broth & Combination Soup," and, according to blogger Nguyen "combination" is the operative word here: the noodles can be tapioca noodles, rice noodles or wheat noodles, and there is a wide variety of potential toppings.  For the hu tieu Nam Vang, Ha Nam Minh's menu promises "shrimp, fish cake, slices of pork, ground pork, chicken." Mine had all that plus cuttlefish and, I seem to recall, fried onion. 

Hu tieu can be ordered as soup, or, optionally "dry style," i.e. with the soup on the side (think lo mein)All of the buzz about the hu tieu Nam Vang at Ha Nam Ninh on Yelp was about the "dry" version, so I ordered it that way.  My order came on four pieces of crockery: a bowl of pho-style rice noodles with its generous toppings, a plate of the requisite garnishes, a small bowl of a vinegar/soy sauce mixture for dipping and a bowl of chicken broth. In addition, the waiter placed a small jar of chile paste suggestively close to the setup.  The "dry style" approach proved to have its rewards.  The setup allows the eater to conduct a symphony of flavors, textures and mouthfeels, tasting noodles and morsels of toppings naked, dipped in the sauce without or with chile paste added, splashed with broth, etc.  The "dry" approach also ensures more transparency about the freshness of the ingredients, and fresh they were.

Overall, the hu tieu Nam Vang noodles served dry at Ha Nam Ninh amounted to one of the most satisfying bowl of noodles I have had in a while; add to that the bright cleanliness of the place (belying its drab exterior) and the friendly service, and it's a place I will gladly return to.

Where slurped: Ha Nam Ninh, 337 Jones Street, San Francico

Monday, June 11, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Zaru Soba at Mifune Bistro

The weather got almost hot enough to crave cold noodles, but David Shi's liang pi was 3,000 miles away, so I turned to Mifune's Zaru Soba, one of Sara Deseran's "go-to" Asian noodle dishes.  Soba, of course, are noodles made from buckwheat, and a "zaru" is a wicker basket or platform the noodles are served in or on, presumably to drain; "zaru soba" is, therefore a "dry" noodle dish.

I chose the Mifune Bistro (the former Bushi-Tei Bistro) location in the Kinokuniya Bulilding in Japantown over the main Mifune Restaurant, because the latter is in the tunnel-like "restaurant row" in the Kintetsu Building, which I find dark and gloomy.  Mifune's zaru soba is served with a dipping sauce consisting of a dashi-like broth to which one adds and stirs in the wasabi, chopped onions, and grated daikon that are provided on a side dish.  You lift the noodles, dip them in the sauce, and slurp them.  I found the noodles to be fresh and chewy (for a dry noodle dish to be anything but would be a crime) though too plain in their nakedness.  Even the the dipping sauce (and I added all of the condiments) did little to add interest, and I found myself hankering for the complexity and fire of the above-cited cold noodle dish at Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing. Mifune's udon noodle dishes (for which it is known) looked promising, and I will probably be back to try some, being a fan of udon, though I doubt I will repeat the zaru soba.

Where slurped: Mifune Bistro, 1581 Webster Street, Japantown, San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Bun Bo Hue at Sao Bien

Maybe the third time is a charm, when it comes to seeking authenticity in a Tenderloin bowl of Bun Bo Hue. At Mangosteen, where I had my first (not counting a bow at Golden Flower in Chinatown) they eschew an essential ingredient, coagulated pigs blood. At Ngoc Mai I discovered that they selectively omit it (notably for palefaces like me).  "Go to the place across the street from Hai Ky Mi Gia, you'll get the real thing there," said my friend Alice, who is long on knowledge of Vietnamese food but short on remembering restaurant names.  That place turned out to be Sao Bien, formerly know as Vietnam II (alternately spelled as Vietnam Too).

Sao Bien was about 90 percent full when I arrived around 1:00 and was shown to a two-top.  Contrary to some reports by Yelp malcontents, service was both prompt and efficient. Not only does the default version of their bun bo hue come with the pigs blood, but also with a whole pigfoot in addition to the beef and variety meats.  It's up to the eater to opt out with the "just beef" version.  The soup seemed comparable to Ngoc Mai's in complexity and spiciness (a decent amouit of heat) and was filled with similar medium width round noodles; however, today's seemed a bit overcooked and were soft almost to the point of mushiness.  Since it was the tail end of the lunch hour, the condition of the noodles may have been a result of cooking ahead to keep up with a demand flurry. All things considered, I'd say it was a tossup between the Sao Bien version and the Ngoc Mai version.

Where Slurped: Sao Bien, 701 Larkin Street, San Francisco in Little Saigon.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Truck Stop: Garlic Noodles With Lemongrass Pork From Little Green Cyclo

I'm a big fan of Off the Grid, especially the Fort Mason venue, with its Asian and Latin foods focus. In fact I am, ahem, the Mayor of Off the Grid, Fort Mason Center on FourSquare. My usual M. O. is to assemble a menu of  about three appetizer-sized offerings that are new to me. Failing that I look for a meal-sized entree, and the one that drew me like a magnet last night was a serving of garlic noodles from Quynh Nguyen at the excellent Little Green Cyclo food truck.

Little Green Cyclo at an earlier event
The brisk, windy Friday night environment of Fort Mason Center may be ideal for noodles in soup, but it presents a special challenge for "dry" noodle dishes  By the time you carry them to a seating area and (for obsessives like me) get them ready for their photo shoot, they are not as hot from the kitchen as they were meant to be served.  Nonetheless, the copious serving of meat-topped noodles were worth the 10-minute wait at the truck (not counting the line, which was mercifully short at the time I ordered).  LGC's garlic noodles are akin to a chow mein dish (the stir-fried kind you might find on the streets of Shanghai), using medium egg noodles (probably the ones known as mi xao mem in Vietnamese).  They were nicely chewy, just right for a dry noodle dish, and intensely flavorful.  The lemongrass pork topping also presented a challenge: the plastic knife provided to cut it up with was no match for the almost jerky-like consistency of the thin, caramelized filet. I resorted to tearing it apart with my bare hands, which ironically enhanced the primal pleasure of eating something that has intimately known fire.

Overall, it made for a very satisfying light supper, and I undoubtedly will be trying the chicken- and shrimp-topped versions whenever the other vendors fail to come up with novelties to entice me.  It did leave enough room in my gut for for me to manage a dessert of sticky rice and mango from the House of Siam on Wheels truck. I couldn't pass that up because I was wearing the "sticky rice" T-shirt I got from a Lao vendor at the recent Asian Heritage street festival. I would have preferred a dollop of fiery papaya salad to the sweet mango, though the mango did provide a refreshing counterpoint to the tartness of the lemongrass chicken from the Little Green Cyclo truck.

Mentioned: @littlegreencyclo, @hosonwheels

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Oxtail Ramen at Nombe

As mentioned in my last post, I made catching up with buzzed-about ramen offerings in San Francisco a priority after a fun run at rice noodles.  I got it together today to hit brunch at Nombe in the Mission District, the izakaya that topped 7x7's best SF ramen bowls list.  Nombe's new ramen chef is doing something apparently radical for ramen, making stock from beef bones rather than pork bones, and creating two signature toppings for it, beef cheeks and oxtail. (Beef noodle soup, now there's a concept!)  Nombe also serves some more conventional ramens including a Tonkotsu ramen, but I went with what 7x7 found remarkable, and ordered a bowl of Oxtail Ramen with a boiled egg add-in and a side of gyoza.

My oxtail ramen came as advertised on the menu, with scallions, mushrooms, "umami foam" (actually a uni emulsion) and a nice piece of tail. The broth was deep and beefy, smoothed out and made more complex by the foam, a welcome alternative to the aggressively medicinal spicing of Taiwan-style beef noodles, and more akin to mainland China beef noodle soups.  The oxtail, as mentioned, came on the bone, but was cooked to the point where it was easily pulled from the bone with chopsticks. The chief drawback of the oxtail bone in the bowl was to make drinking the last slurps from the bowl awkward (though doing so may be considered gauche in a classy ramen-ya anyway, for all I know).

The one thing I didn't like were the noodles. They were the thin, curly type, and came a little too hard to my taste, reminding me too much of soak-and-serve instant ramen. (What can I say, I'm a la mian kind of guy in a ramen world here -- all my comments should be viewed in that context).  My other bone to pick with Nombe was the room's lack of charm.  I'm not usually a stickler when it come to atmosphere, but I'd expect a ramen joint with a $13 base price for a bowl of ramen (not even including an egg) to have invested a little in decor, and not look so much like the cantina it obviously once was.

Where slurped: Nombe Restaurant, 2491 Mission Street, San Francisc

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Beef Tendon La Mian at King of Noodles

After four straight posts on Vietnamese rice noodle specialties, I figured it was time for a round of ramen, so I rode off into the Sunset (District) with a visit to Saiwaii Ramen in mind. WRONG!  My mission turned out to be a fool's errand.  It happened to be the day of the Bay to Breakers race, and the early morning exertion apparently was followed by an epidemic of major munchies.  Saiwaii Ramen was slammed. as was every other noodle joint in the vicinity. (Hey, aren't you supposed to carbo-load before your race?) Heading toward Izakaya Sozai with foolish hope, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of King of Noodles, the awareness of whose existence I had stored away in the back of my cranium.

King of Noodles on Irving Street is nothing if not a little bit of Northern Chinese soul, featuring dumplings and noodles, mostly of the wheaten variety, and little else. It's a near twin of Kingdom of Dumpling [sic] on Taraval Street, and both are spinoffs of Asian American Foods on Noriega Street, which sells handmade dumplings in both frozen and fresh form for home preparation. Although both King of Noodles and Kingdom of Dumpling feature products of their home company as well as other small plates and noodles, what sets KofN apart from KofD is that it has a resident noodle puller who make the noodles to order for your soup.

When I entered the rough-hewn hole-in-the wall that is King of Noodles, it too was packed, though with nary a presumptive Bay-to-Breaker in sight. Instead, it was filled with young single Asians, Asians on dates, and a couple of Asian families, nearly all speaking in Mandarin (seemingly all at once). Yeah, I was the sole non-Asian in  the joint, and yeah, that always makes me think I'm on to something good. Fortunately, King of Noodles has a counter, where I was able to find a seat.  From my perch I could see a man at the rear of the kitchen pulling noodles, a bowl-full at a time, not as swiftly and gracefully as you might see in a Lanzhou La Mian joint in Shanghai, but effectively nonetheless.

I ordered a bowl of beef tendon la mian (hand-pulled noodles), and a bowl was placed in the kitchen counter queue for me.  I waited patiently as the man pulled the noodles for order after order and the woman beside him converted then to large, steamy bowls of hearty noodle soup. My bowl finally came to me, full of plump, springy noodle goodness, bathed in a sweet, salty, spicy and aromatic "red" broth, supporting tender chunks of beef with chewy membranes attached, and Shanghai bok choy. As I slurped down my noodles, it occurred to me that I hadn't had a bowl of noodles like that in over a year, since my last visit to Shanghai. With ramen, which I thought I was craving, as with pho, it's always about the broth and the toppings.  This day, at the King of Noodles, it was the noodle that was king.  And all seemed right with the world.

Where slurped: King of Noodles, 1639 Irving St., San Francisco

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Slurp du Jour: Bun Bo Hue at Ngoc Mai

Two earlier experiences with Bun Bo Hue, the characteristic noodle soup of Hue in Central Viet Nam, left me wanting more,  and as authentic as possibly can be found in San Francisco.  Some digging through reviews steered me to Ngoc Mai on Hyde Street, just south of Geary, in the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District. Ngoc Mai is a cheery hole-in-the-wall, brightly lit and spartan yet warm, its warmth abetted by the friendly service from the family that owns it. They are from Hue, and bun bo Hue is item number one on Ngoc Mai's menu. What could be more propitious?

My bowl (amusingly called "small") consisted of round bun noodles in a lemongrass, chile and fish sauce infused broth. [Note: The New York Time's style guide has decided that the proper spelling of "chili" is "chile," and who am I to argue?] Toppings included copious amounts of tender beef shank meat, chewy pork loaf and boneless thin slices of pig feet.  Veggies in the soup included onions and Vietnamese cilantro that I could suss out, and mint, lime slices and bean sprouts were served on the side. The noodles were surprisingly springy, more than I thought I could hope for, rivaling even wheat noodles for toothsomeness. (Perhaps that's an advantage of round versus flat rice noodles.)  With my first sip, the broth seemed only mildly spicy, but the chile chile heat intensified as the broth cooled and I ate my way deeper into it. Overall, the spice level was just right, to my taste.  Only a real chili-head (oh, there I go again)  would need to add pepper flakes or squirts of hot cock.

I don't have an authenticity meter calibrated for bun bo Hue, but am comfortable with the provenance of today's bowl of goodness.  It certainly seemed the most complex and different* bowl that I've tried to date.  If I have any complaint, it's that the cook gringo-ized it by omitting the pig's blood cubes that, according to reviews, are typically included in this restaurant.  I'll be back for more, and next time this guilao will insist that he doesn't need to be spared the pig's blood.

*A useful comparison of bun bo Hue and pho, and why bun bo Hue is not pho can be found in this excellent blog.

Where slurped: Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco