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