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