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