Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sucking Down Dan Dan Noodles In The Bright Lights Of Broadway At Little Szechuan

The new Little Szechuan Restaurant is anything but little, and its (also not so little) menu isn't exactly dominated by Sichuan cuisine. Little Szechuan occupies the all-but-cavernous two-level former premises of the Impala Lounge at the corner of Kearny St. and Broadway (abreast of the topless joints), complete with the first-floor bar bar and sidewalk seating. It does have a chef from Chengdu, but its 250+ item menu is a mashup of echt Sichuanese, Dongbei, Shanghainese, Hong Kong-Cantonese and Early American-Chinese cuisines. You can have your egg foo young, for example, with a big bowl of spicy duck blood and tripe soup and sides of beef pancake and xiao long bao, and wash it all down with a glass of Hong Kong-style milk tea. But I'm a noodle guy and I was there to vet the dan dan noodles.

Service was prompt (not surprisingly, as I was the only customer  at 1:30) and began with a complimentary dish of kimchi and a glass of cold water accompanying the menus.  "You speak Chinese!" exclaimed Nicki, the pleasant server when I ordered both the dan dan noodles and a side of wontons in chili oil by their Chinese names. "Not exactly," I said. "I eat a lot" (as if that made any sense).

My dan dan mian came attractively plated (bowled?) with a bit of a vertical cuisine flourish (which I promptly undid by stirring the noodles with the sauce beneath).  The robust alkaline noodles were decently chewy, teetering perhaps on the brink of softness; they never did make the leap, though I would have preferred that they teetered the other way.  The sauce was not so successful.  For one thing, there was too much of it -- by the time I finished my bowl, I felt that I was having a soup dish, not a "dry" noodle dish.  It also wasn't thick enough to make the gritty elements adhere to the noodles.  Finally, I felt the sauce was underspiced. (Yes, there was a jar of chili paste on my condiment tray, but I was trying to follow the chef's default spicing through to the end).

Saucing also seemed to be the problem with the hong you chao shou (wontons in chili oil). The wonton's wading pool seemed to lack sharpness, and appeared to have been slightly thickened with starch, which accentuated the blandness. The wontons also appeared to be lacking in garnish.

A lot of work has obviously gone into bringing Little Szechuan to fruition and I'd love to see it succeed. It will be a daunting task to fill the seats in a place of this size in a slightly iffy area on the strength of its food alone. Perhaps it will become a "scene," attracting graduates of the Irving & 21st boba joints with its varied fare and its liquor license.

Maybe the best case scenario is that it will bring a better class of drunks to my neighborhood.

Where slurped: Little Szechuan [sic], 501 Broadway, San Francisco

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Comfort And Joy From Joy Hing's Pho Ga? Phogeddaboudit.

It was Christmas day and of course I could think of nothing more festive for lunch than a good bowl of noodles, so I headed for Chinatown. According to the grapevine,  Oolong Noodles had finally opened and featured a woman making noodles in the big picture window facing the street. When I got there, Oolong was open but looked deserted and the red bagnio drapes in the window were drawn shut.  I decided to defer my vetting of Oolong Nooodles until such time I could watch the goods being made, and headed around the corner to Joy Hing B.B.Q. Noodle House on Kearny St.

Joy Hing B.B.Q. Noodle house, like its erstwhile neighbor San Sun Restaurant, was displaced by Muni's Chinatown Subway station project on Stockton St. and used its relocation settlement money to upgrade its amenities, though definitely not on rent, as it moved to the Kearny St. wasteland between Clay and Washington Streets. As its name implies, Joy Hing has a wide ranging menu of noodle (and some non-noodle) dishes, though "Phở" is prominent on its new signage and now leads off its longish menu, with pho ga (chicken pho) seemingly highlighted as a specialty. I ordered No. 2 on the menu, pho ga long, quaintly labeled as "chicken noodle soup with organs."

Heaven and Nature did not sing about my pho ga long.  When it arrived at my table (a little too quickly, I felt), the broth was salty and oily.  It was chicken-y enough, but had little character otherwise, as if it had been made from canned chicken stock or bouillon. There were large shreds of mostly white chicken meat, and little evidence of giblets. Worst of all were the wide rice noodles, which had been seriously overcooked and had no chew to them at all. If there was anything outstanding apout my pho, it was the two slices of fresh jalapeno pepper that came in the little condiment dish. They packed serious heat, and by themselves added a little depth to the broth. Even so, for once I didn't empty my bowl of broth once the noodles were gone; that's how phogettable my noodle soup was.

To be fair to Joy Hing, pho is just a small part of its many offerings and, in fact, was historically buried deep in the restaurant's menu.  It may not be Joy Hing's best asset. Something has been keeping this vintage restaurant afloat for a long time; I'll find out what it is, and report back.

Where slurped: Joy Hing B.B.Q. Noodle House, 710 Kearny St, San Francisco

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Slurp du Jour: Lip-stinging Habanero Ramen At Ramen Underground

I hadn't done ramen in quite a while, and word of a new ramen-ya opening up in Japantown triggered my last Last In First Out alarm so I set out to vet it. However, it turned out that the new joint's opening had been pushed back a couple of days, so I reached into my bucket and pulled out a ramen hack I had been wanting to try, Habanero Ramen from Ramen Underground.

Ramen Underground originated in a small storefront on Kearny St. Although I walked by it several times a week, I never entered because it was always packed, and a somewhat claustrophobic space to begin with.  But I couldn't help but take note of their addition of habanero ramen to the menu, and when Ramen Underground opened a spacious branch in Japantown, that particular ramen hack ended up on my hot list.

In contrast to the Kearny St. hole-in-the-wall, Ramen Underground in the Miyako Mall was all but deserted when I arrived just after 1:30, though other holiday priorities undoubtedly had their effect on patronage, and a couple of other parties drifted in while I was eating.  "It'll be spicy," warned my server when I ordered the habanero ramen, along with a side order of gyoza. It had better be, I muttered under my breath. Anyone who could even pronounce "habanero" surely would know what was in store for them.

The habanero ramen at Ramen Underground is a habenero-infused shoyu broth. It is gloriously, lip-stinging spicy, more than the presence of a few physical slices of green pepper in the toppings would account for; obviously, some labor and time goes into making it what it is.  The fine ramen noodles erred on the right side of convention, being pleasantly chewy. Toppings included a solitary slice of chashu which seemed to have little flavor left, a generous quantity of mushroom slices and some greenery.  I would have preferred more broth in the bowl, partly because the broth was the most satisfying component, but also because the broth-to-toppings ratio seemed too low in any case.

(I have a friend who is married to a Japanese chef and has lived in Japan who complains that ramen in the U.S. in general comes with too little broth because Americans won't drink all the broth; I may be the exception that proves the rule.  After all, isn't the broth what ramen is supposed to be all about?)

If I have a main complaint about Ramen Underground's habanero ramen, it would be that it is unduly pricey, at $10.95 with no extras, relatively skimpy toppings and not enough broth for the noodles.

Where slurped: Ramen Underground, 22 Peace Plaza, Suite 530 (upstairs in the East Mall), Japantown, San Francisco

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Finding Something Exotic Is As Easy As Dick Soup At Quan Pho Viet

An earlier attempt to score a bowl of pho featuring bull pizzle, um, fizzled when I ordered the Pho Bo Ngau Pin Dac Biet at Quan Bac in the inner Richmond and  was told "We don't have that today" by the server. I suspected at the time they were holding it back from a presumably clueless guilao, avoiding the need to delicately explain what those chewy thingies in the soup were. Not wanting to be a dick about it by accusing them of culturally profiling, I meekly accepted the alternative suggested by the server, Pho Bo Dac Biet -- combination of well-done, rare beef and beef ball noodle soup

Fast forward to today, when, thanks to a Yelp advance scout, I got wind of the newly opened Quan Pho Viet Restaurant on Ocean Avenue. It was also reputed to have a bull pizzle pho and I jumped on the K car to check it out for lunch.  The decor and the menu both had a familiar look to them, and the server confirmed that they indeed were related to Quan Bac on Geary. Here, though, in the more hardnosed Ingleside, they took my order for No. 32 "Pho Bo Ngau Pin Dac Biet - combination beef noodle soup with bull pudendum" without batting an eyelash.

When my bowl of noodles came -- a little too quickly, I felt -- it did resemble (special ingredient aside) the pho dac biet I remembered at Quan Bac.  The generously sized "regular" bowl held a copious amount of fresh brisket, rare beef and beef balls, but there were some glaring faults. I don't know if it was because the restaurant is still in its shakedown period, having just opened, or because my timing was bad, arriving just after the lunchtime peak and just before the staff break for lunch, but the broth was less than piping hot when served and there seemed too low a ratio of noodles to broth.

What about the ngau pin a.k.a. bull pudendum?  The end to my quest was anticlimactic, you might say. I found a couple of two-inch longitudinally-sliced dense cartilaginous strips lurking at the bottom of my bowl; they were difficult to maneuver with chopsticks, even more difficult to chew, and had no taste of their own at all.  At least I got to cross an exotic ingredient off my list.

Bully for me.

Where slurped Quan Pho Viet 1031 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beef Sate Noodles -- Satays-faction at San Sun's New Digs

A thread on beef sate noodles lit a fire under me on this cold day and I hightailed it to San Sun Restaurant in Chinatown, for the first time in a long while. (Foursquare rudely informed me that it had been more than two years -- so much for eating locally.) In fact it was my first trip to San Sun since they moved to their smartly if coldly appointed new digs on Washington St. after being ousted from Stockton St. by Muni's Chinatown Subway project.

San Sun, which I dubbed "The House of 5,000 Noodles" because of all the possible DIY combinations on the menu, is especially noted for its sate noodles; there's a Malaysian spouse in the San Sun family mix, and the house-made sate sauce is so highly regarded it is bottled and sold from the restaurant.

It was the cold weather and my cold that triggered my San Sun run, and nothing seemed better for both than a spicy sate noodle soup.  The menu offers eight different sate soups, and I went for the basic "Sate Bo beef saday sauce noodle" as it's listed (also known as #42) on the menu. The server asked me for my noodle choice. "What's the best noodle for it?" I asked. She read my mind and came back with "wide egg noodle." It's what I would have ordered, but it was nice that my preference had the house's approval. Did I want it spicy? "Yes, definitely," I said.

It's hard to imagine a better sate broth around than the one that came with my noodles at San Sun. It was respectably spicy, not face-meltingly so, nor so chile-laden as to overshadow its smoky background of peanuts, garlic and perhaps shrimp paste.  It was just the right consistency for a soup broth: not muddy at all, not something to dip your hotpot catches in. It enveloped a copious quantity of well-cooked egg noodles, which were topped with thinly sliced beef brisket which was as fresh as you'd expect in a good bowl of pho (San Sun is, after all, a Vietnamese restaurant).  It was garnished with fresh tomato and cucumber slices, as well as a typical scattering of onions and greenery which I was too busy attacking my noodles to catalog.

I've mentioned before that I have a habit of playing with the remaining broth at the bottom of my bowl, doctoring it with potions from the condiment caddy. No so the sate broth at San Sun, which I drank down as is; improving on it was certainly beyond my ken.

$6.75 before T&T.  And did I mention free, fast Wi-Fi?

Where slurped: San Sun Restaurant, 848 Washington St., San Francisco

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mo' Mohinga, After A Circuitous Trip to Burma Superstar

As a rule, I try to steer clear of repetition in this blog, instead favoring the highlighting of exemplary versions (insofar as I can determine them to be so) of as many different Asian noodle preparations as I can find. I'm making an exception with a San Francisco mohinga survey (and perhaps one for mohinga's home boy ohn no khao swe) simply because I've become enamored of Burmese cuisine and also because it's a finite quest; there are eight and only eight definably Burmese venues that serve mohinga (and ohn no khao swe) reachable by Muni, so I'll know when my quest is a wrap.

I was saving Burma Superstar for the last of the mohingas (good pun, eh?) but fate, otherwise known as poor planning, interceded. Burma Superstar is both the most visible and the most controversial of Burmese restaurants in San Francisco, beloved by hipsters, but meh-ed, to put it politely, by Naomi Duguid, who knows a thing or two about Burmese food. By hitting the other seven joints first, I would be better equipped to form a fair assessment of the relative merits of BSS's mohinga.

I set out with great expectations for trying instead the mohinga at Mandalay, SF's most venerable Burmese restaurant. I knew Mandalay was open for lunch seven days a week, but alas, it had the bad manners to be closed for vacation until next week.  OK, my list included Pagan, also in the Richmond, albeit 28 blocks further west, which turned out to be not open for lunch.  Onward, then, with a growling stomach, to Burma Superstar, a mere block from Mandalay.  The one silver lining in all this is that after the time it took me to traverse 57 blocks to negotiate this one-block journey, there was no line at Burma Superstar, a seldom seen sight when one is hungry.

I found nothing particularly distinguishing about Burma Superstar's mohinga, other than its price.  At $10.75, it's the most expensive bowl in town and neither correspondingly bigger nor more generous in toppings than its competitors. What was there was good: the chickpea fritters were crunchy, the egg seemed recently cooked, and the rice noodlles were firm.  The broth had a good fishy depth, but was a little on the timid side, and alas, there are no condiment caddies on the tables at Burma Superstar.  If I were a Yelper I'd deduct stars for that; it's a man's right to chili up and trick out his mohinga's broth however he pleases. I also ordered a balada (or platha, as it appears on BSS's menu.  It was $3.95, but would have been $3.00 more for dipping sauce.  Instead, I used it to soak up the remaining broth in my bowl.

I've previously reported on mohinga from Burmese Kitchen, Sapphire Asian Cuisine, and, in passing, the Lil Burma food truck. Upcoming will be Mandalay, Pagan, Yamo and Little Yangon.

Where slurped: Burma Superstar, 309 Clement St. at 4th Avenue, San Francisco

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Getting A (Duck) Leg Up On Thanksgiving Feasting At Hai Ky Mi Gia

I've established a personal tradition of having duck for my fowl of choice on Thanksgiving, and with the jury (of Shanghainese in-laws) still out on dinner plans, I decided to get a leg up at lunchtime with a trip to Hai Ky Mi Gia.

Hai Ky Mi Gia, which I previously visited in an official blogger capacity for the mee pok, is a Chaozhou Chinese (by way of Vietnam) establishment in the Tenderloin  that ranks up there with Chinatown's San Sun as one of the great bargain dedicated Asian noodleries of San Francisco.  More than any other eating establishment in town, it is associated with duck legs.  Though only three of the 31 soups on HKMG's menu feature a braised duck leg, nearly 60 percent (29) of the last 50 Yelpers to review it mention having (or having had) one of them.  Hai Ky Mi Gia is a hole-in-the-wall-and-a-half is size and is always busy, so that adds up to a lot of duck legs.  You can get the braised duck leg with wontons and noodles, ho fun noodles, or egg noodles (choice of thick or thin). You can also get a duck leg on the side, in case you want a two-legged bowl of noodles.

I hadn't bothered to check if HKMG was even open on Thanksgiving Day, but was guessing that they were. At it turned out, they were open for lunch but closing at 3:00, as were some others of their Larkin St. noodle neighbors. When I arrived at 1:30, the restaurant was packed, and I had a short wait before I was given a seat at a communal 6-top.

As is probably evident to readers of this blog, I have a bias toward wheat noodles over rice noodles, and for robust noodles over dainty ones, and  predictably ordered the braised duck leg with wide egg noodles. Hai Ky also offers the option of having your noodles "dry" (i.e. broth on the side) but I figured getting the duck leg in the full soup would ease the task of stripping the meat off the bones by softening it further. I'm also a noodle eater who typically drinks the bowl dry (after playing with spicing up the remaining broth) and looked forward to the duckiest possible infusion.

It took about 10 minutes for my bowl of noodles to arrive, accompanied by a small saucer of carrot shreds and cucumber slices.  After tasting the broth, I added a little chili oil and a couple of squirts of what I think was oyster sauce from an unmarked mystery squeeze bottle. I eschewed the carrot shreds and chewed the cucumber slices, but declined to add either to the bowl, which was adorned well enough with my favorite rabbit food, cilantro.

The duck leg in my soup was as advertised: lean, meaty and falling-off-the-bone tender (or at least easily pulled off the bone with chopsticks).  It was seasoned with what appeared to be five-spice seasoning, but delicately so, not so intensely as to taste medicinal.  The noodles, of which there was a copious supply, remained chewy to the end.  The broth was rich, tending toward salty, and chicken-y with duck overtones, more so than seemed to be accounted for by the presence of the duck leg. (What happens to the rest of all those ducks, anyway?) I emptied the bowl of everything but the bones, and left Hai Ky Mi Gia sated. It's easy to see why one or another duck noodle dish from this corner of noodle heaven ends up on nearly everyone's bargain bites list.

Where slurped: Hai Ky Mi Gia, 707 Ellis St; at Larkin St., San Francisco

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Call It Mellow Yellow: Ohn No Khao Swe At Sapphire Asian Cuisine

The color of the Burmese noodle soup called Ohn No Khao Swe comes from turmeric, not saffron, but eating it at Sapphire Asian Cuisine today had the 1966 Donovan hit playing in my head (where it's still playing as I write). I've blogged previously about Sapphire Asian Cuisine, the Chinese food steam table joint with a separate menu of made-to-order authentic Burmese food as a seeming afterthought, and of Ohn No Khao Swe, the dish that by all measures should be ranked a close second to mohinga, the catfish chowder considered Burma's national dish.

As was the case with Sapphire's mohinga, their version's broth was as good as any I've tried, even if some solid ingredients had a more meager presence than in some more expensive versions elsewhere. In particular, very little chicken is to be found it it, with as much of the protein coming from the boiled egg slices and the yellow chick peas. It's simply called "Coconut Noodle Soup" on the menu after all, and there is a separate "Chicken Noodle Soup" (which I have yet to try) which presumably has more chicken. The broth. on the other hand, was a remarkable "mellow yellow" mild curry delight which yielded happily to enhancement by the addition of some red chili flakes and an extra squeeze of lime.  Needless to say, I drained the bowl.

Here's a video lesson on making Ohn No Khao Swe, taught by none other than Yadana Nat Mai, alias June Bellamy, last princess of Burma:

[Added 24 November]

Another video lesson for making Ohn No Khao Swe from the younger generation, in the person of London blogger/author MiMi (@Meemalee on Twitter) and a favorite resource for Burmese food knowledge:

Where slurped: Sapphire Asian Cuisine ....Taste of Burma, 475 Sacramento Street, San Francisco

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Cool Mie Tek Tek "Kuah" At The Lime Tree

I was looking to add an Indonesian arrow to my quiver of noodle experiences in the form of Mie Tek Tek and my immediate choices were the venerable Borobudur, it of the $28 rijsttafel, or the newer, more snackish The Lime Tree.  Since Mie Tek Tek is a quintessential  Indonesian street food, the $7.99 version in the casual, fast food-like confines of Irving Street's The Lime Tree seemed a more appropriate choice that the $10.50 version in the more imposing downtown restaurant.

That mi tek tek is a street food above all is evidenced by its very name.  While "mie" simply means noodles, referring to the yellow egg noodles always used, the "tek tek" refers to the sound of  itinerant street vendors tapping their woks with their spatulas to announce their arrival. There are two types of mie tek tek: mie tek tek goreng, meaning "fried" (think chow mein) and mie tek tek kuah, meaning "in soup."

While more often than not "mie tek tek" without qualification refers to the fried version, the "Mie Tek-Tek" on The Lime Tree's menu board is "egg noodle, chicken and vegetable in spicy soup," or mie tek tek kuah, as qualified by its description Along with my mie tek tek I ordered a roti pratha, a layered flatbread which came with a green curry dipping sauce.

At The Lime Tree, You have the option of ordering your soup mild or spicy, though "spicy," as I ordered it, means "not very." There are no condiments on the tables, so it's advisable to put in a request when you order for "extra spicy" if that's what fuels your boat. The not-too-spicy broth came with a copious amount of yellow ramen-like egg noodles, topped with shredded chicken, tomatoes, fried shallots, pickles and crunchy cabbage that I could  detect.  The noodles were nicely chewy, the topping were a nice mix of textures from sost and tender to crunchy, and overall it was a comforting, belly-pleasing bowl, lack of chili assertiveness notwithstanding.

Mi tek tek goreng from Sataysfied
My only previous mi tek tek experience was with a goreng (pan fried) version served an an Off the Grid event by Sataysfied.  That one, topped with soft-cooked quail's egg, was comforting in a blander way, more  like a pancit offering than a spicy East Indies effort.  I'm not sure it was intended that way, but noodles are noodles and I like them all. (Well, almost all.)

Where slurped: The Lime Tree, 450 Irving St., San Francisco

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Slurp du Jour: Braised Beef With Hand-Pulled Flat Noodles At House Of Xian Dumpling

I hadn't had a bowl of noodles, not even home-cooked, for nearly a week and so my internal GPS directed my feet toward House of Xian Dumpling, even though it wasn't lunch or dinner time.  My choice this time was Braised Beef Noodle Soup, with "hand-pulled flat noodle," i.e. biang biang style, if you will.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon and uncrowded, so my bowl of soup came with alacrity. It came well-adorned with cilantro and some stalks of bok choy lurking in the depths of its broth, which seemed more beefy and less medicinally aromatic than the broth in the beef tendon noodles I had on a previous occasion.  As with my first experience, though, the broth had a nice default level of spice heat.  It was certainly not Spicy enough enough to melt your face off, but spicy enough to tell you the chef is in charge here.  The beef, which appeared to be brisket, was lean, tender, and plentiful, though on balance I think I prefer the chewy beef tendon from my first visit. On the other hand, I definitely prefer the wide noodles, especially when cooked perfectly "QQ," as the Taiwanese say. Next time I will have the right combination in mind.

In my first post about this restaurant, I remarked that much of the ambitious menu seemed to be under construction. The proprietress, who must have seen my blog post, made a point of telling me that most of the menu is now available. As this would include the likes of xiao long bao, shengjian bao and xian doujiang, I can see myself returning frequently (but always reserving room in my belly for hand-pulled noodles).

Where slurped: House of Xian Dumpling, 925 Kearny St., San Francisco

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Mohinga At This FiDi Fast Food Joint Is A Diamond, Er, Sapphire In The Rough

When you walk into Sapphire Asian Cuisine in the heart of the Financial District you'll be greeted by the sight of a line passing the cafeteria-style steam table displaying glistening entrees (one item with rice, noodles or vegetable for $6.59, two for $7.59 or three for $8.59).  Your expectations, understandably, might not be high, especially if you've read the pithy caveat of one Yelper:
"The concept is quite similar to Panda Express yet the food isn't even a tenth of Panda's taste and is instead 3/2 the greasy fattiness. Again, I love greasy fattiness but I love it only when it tastes amazing! Usually greasy fattiness and delicious taste tend to go hand in hand (it's one of those culinary unfairnesses) but it was quite far off here."
Fortunately there's a benign "gotcha" here in the restaurant name's extension, "....Taste of Burma." This taste is not found in the Orange Chicken, Broccoli Beef or Thai Basil Pork from the steam table, but in an a la carte menu above the steam table, titled "Made to Order." Made to order (or at least assembled to order) they are, and include a range of Burmese classics like Mohinga (catfish chowder), coconut curry noodle soup, samusa soup, tea leaf salad, rainbow salad and  Shan tofu salad, to name a few.

I chose to first test the mohinga, because a) this is a noodle blog, b) mohinga is considered Burma's National dish and therefore merits one's first attention, and c) I've been on a fishy soup kick lately in any event. I placed my order with the cashier, paid, and found a table where I waited for it to be brought to me, which happened about 10 minutes later.

Mohinga is a chowder made from shredded catfish in a lemongrass-infused broth thickened with yellow chickpea flour, served with rice vermicelli noodles. Garlic, onion, ginger and fish paste and/or fish sauce are also typically used in the broth, and the dish is served with a variety of garnishes which may be already included or served on the side.

My mohinga arrived with a small dish of crushed red chili peppers and a lime wedge on the side. Toppings on the soup included the obligatory cilantro, spring onion tops, fired onions and what appeared to be bits of samusa skin.  As an added bonus, sliced hard-boiled eggs and yellow chickpeas, which are sometimes optional add-ins at extra cost, were included in my $6.59 bowl of soup. 

After tasting the broth, which was complex, citrusy, and slightly fishy, I added a squeeze from the lime wedge and half the crushed dried chilis (which were joined later by the other half).  Although not a lot of tangible shredded catfish was evident, and the noodles were a little too soft (as they could hardly escape being, given their thinness) it was overall a very stout bowl of mohinga, with a broth that was as good as I have had, and well worth returning to. And there wasn't a touch of greasy fattiness (of either the good or bad variety) to it.

Where slurped: Sapphire Asian Cuisine ....Taste of Burma, 475 Sacramento Street, San Francisco

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Swell Ohn No Khauk Swe' From The Lil Burma Food Truck

I've blogged before about my initial encounter with Ohn No Khauk Swe' (a. k. a. Ohn No Khao Swè and other romanizations) and how the Burmese Kitchen version endeared itself to me despite my not being a big coconut fan.  It's a dish that seems tailor-made for cool weather (despite the fact that Burma has precious little of that) and today's slight crispening of our Indian summer's air was excuse enough to intercept the Lil Burma food truck at SoMa StrEat Food Park and try its version on my way to Costco.

As described in my earlier post on the dish, ohn no khauk swe is a chicken noodle soup that features wheat noodles in a mildly curried, turmeric-tinged coconut milk and chicken stock broth thickened with garbanzo bean flour. Garnishes include cilantro, lime, shredded red onion, fried shallots, chili oil and presumably fish sauce. Sit-down restaurants offer hard-boiled egg slices and fried split peas as optional add-ins, but were these were not offered in a food truck environment.

Overall, Lil Burma's version stacked up well to the restaurant version I previously enjoyed, being rich hearty, and savory. As served, it was perhaps too timidly spcied, but extra chili is available for the asking, which I will certainly do on a return visit. The noodles were a little soft to my tastes, perhaps a victim of food truck logistics, or of my ordering past the lunchtime peak. These small faults aside, it was rewarding enough to keep me enthusiastically on the ohn no khao swe trail, which will lead me to other Bay Areea Burmese venues .

Where slurped: Lil Burma Food Truck, SoMa StrEat Food Park, 428-11th Street, San Francisco

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Peek Inside The New Turtle Tower Kitchen

The new Turtle Tower Kitchen is four times as large as the old one.

Thanks to an event organized by new Bay Area startup Simmr, thirty noodleheads were privileged to be given a peek into the workings of the kitchen of Turtle Tower Restaurant at its new flagship facility.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, Chef/owner Steven Nghia Pham's restaurant is considered to San Francisco's premier pho restaurant, featuring Northern Vietnam-style pho and justly renowned for its pho ga (chicken pho).  Earlier this year, Turtle Tower closed its cramped facilities at 631 Larkin St. in the City's Little Saigon area and moved, after an extensive renovation, to a larger facility up the street at 645 Larkin St. Turtle Tower boasts three other locations in San Francisco and one in Beijing, but Larkin Street is where Chef Steven can be found manning the stoves.

After being served drinks of our choice and appetizers of chả mực (deep fried cuttle fish patty) and gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls) we were given a "chalk talk" by Chef Steven on his background and philosophy, then led through the kitchen, table by table, to observe implements, ingredients, and procedures. At the end of our kitchen tour we were given order forms to create our DIY bowl of pho, choosing broths, primary meats, and other add-ins.  Since I order chicken pho on almost every visit to Turtle Tower, I went against the grain and ordered pho tai chin, with rare and well done beef flank.

Chef Steven regaling a rapt audience.

Chicken pho stock, ready to take wing.

Some pho ga add-ins.  TT uses only free-range chickens.

Noodles being drained.  TT goes through 500 lbs of noodles a day.

Chef Steven slicing rare beef (I like to think it's for my bowl)

My rare beef pho

The Food Hoe herself
I was pleased to have my table shared by blogger FoodHoe (Sandy). I think we found each other because we were the only two guests who are, shall we say, of an age that makes us eligible to run for President.

Thanks again to the energetic women from Simmr for organizing, and to the Turtle Tower family for hosting this event.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Burma Road Food: Kyat Tha Khauk Swe' Thouk (What?) From Lil Burma Food Truck

The San Francisco Bay Area, long blessed with a richness of Burmese cuisine choices, finally has its first full-fledged, street legal Burmese food truck in Lil Burma, as reported in my other blog.  Wherever there is Burmese food there are noodles, and after having sampled Lil Burma's Mohinga (the fish chowder noodle soup that is Burma's national dish) on my first visit to the truck, I returned today to vet the kyat tha khauk swe' thouk.

Kyat tha khauk swe' thouk, to use Lil Burma's choice of romanization, is literally chicken (kyat tha) noodle (khauk swe) salad (thouk). This is not your ginned up Chinese chicken salad created for Western tastes, but a hard-core Burmese staple, from a cuisine that celebrates cold salads as fervently as any in the world.  The salad features shredded chicken on wheat noodles anointed with 14 ingredients (according to the posted menu)  These included, as near as I could determine, crushed dried shrimp, shredded cabbage, cilantro, fish sauce, lime and peanut oil.

Tofu salad from Lil Burma
While there, I also got to sample a new menu item, Tofu Salad (Tofu Thouk). Though noodle-less, it's a close cousin to the chicken noodle salad, also containing (the same?) 14 ingredients.  Although dried shrimps and fish sauce are included in accordance to the Burmese canon, it can be made vegetarian on request. Noodle guy and carnivore though I am, I enjoyed the tofu salad almost as much as the chicken salad. Both are marvelous mixtures of flavors (sour, sweet, salty) and textures, and hearty enough for a satisfying lunch.

Where slurped: Lil Burma food truck, SoMa StrEat Food Park, 428-11th St., San Francisco

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fishing For The Other Laksa: Penang Asam Laksa At Penang Garden

If you are a lover of Asian cuisines, you are no doubt familiar with the spicy, coconutty Malaysian delight known as curry laksa (kari laksa) or simply "laksa." Less well known away from its home is a second type of laksa, a sour, fishy version known as asam laksa. In Penang, where asam laksa is the default, the local version is so tasty that Penang asam laksa was ranked number seven on CNN Travel's list of the World's 50 Best Foods.

I crossed asam laksa off my list (or, more precisely added it to my list of delicious things to be on the lookout for wherever I happen to be) with a visit to San Francisco Chinatown's Penang Garden Restaurant. Penang Garden has been around for nearly 10 years, but it's a restaurant I tend to overlook because it's right here on my own turf and therefore doesn't promise the reward that comes with the journey. Its facade has become a bit weathered and sun-bleached and that, along with a Tiki-ish decor and the flowered short-sleeve shirts worn by the servers conjures up a suitable tropical setting.

Penang Garden's menu offers Penang Assam Laksa, precisely the variation that wowed CNN's travel writers, and that's what I ordered, along with a side order of roti canai. My laksa arrived as pho-style rice noodles in a broth red from chili pepper.  "Asam" is the Malay word for tamarind, and that is the basis for the sourness that meets the spiciness in Penang asam laksa.  This "hot-sour" soup is also made fishy by sardines, chunks of which lurked in the broth.  Toppings included thinly-sliced cucumber and red onions, as well as mint leaves and a healthy dollop of shrimp paste.  Chunks of fresh pineapple also appeared as a garnish, augmenting the tartness. I couldn't divine what else contributed to the complex, pungent broth, but it may have included lemongrass and/or galangal, both traditional seasonings for Penang asam laksa.

I've enjoyed hot and sour soups before, and sour fishy soups, but I can't recall experiencing spiciness, sourness and fishiness each vying so determinedly for attention within the confines of a bowl of noodle soup before. I have no benchmark for Asam laksa, this having been my first taste, but the performance of the three flavor elements in unison I which experienced at Penang Garden was a revelation, and a show I hope to come across again in my wanderings.

Where slurped: Penang Garden Restaurant, 728 Washington St., San Francisco Chinatown

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hot Day Treat: Refreshing Fenpi from House of Xian Dumpling

The temperature was pushing 75° F at lunchtime and I declared it a heat wave (not really a stretch, for San Francisco) and an excuse to revisit the newly-opened House of Xian Dumpling and try out a cold noodle offering from their menu.

I was surprised to find a line out the door at House of Xian Dumpling just after 1:00 when I arrived, even as House of Nanking had none (granted that HONK has four times the capacity). When I finally got a table, I ordered the "Wide Bean Noodle Salad" from the menu.  In Chinese it's listed as liang ban fen pi, literally "cold dressed starch jellly/noodles" and sometimes shortened to liang pi. In contrast to the wheat starch noodles used by Xi'an Gourmet, House of Xian Dumpling's are made from mung bean starch.  In either case, a chilled jelly-like sheet is cut into wide strips, forming tender translucent noodles and tossed with a savory "dressing."  At House of Xian Dumpling, the dressing includes julienned cucumbers and peanuts in a vinegary, peppery sauce with a hint of sweetness. The sauce seemed nicely balanced, though I added a little chili oil to bring it up to my preferred level of chili heat. Together with the cool, slithery noodles (less chewy than wheat starch noodles) and cucumber shreds,  my plate of liang pi made for a nicely refreshing hot-weather treat I would gladly repeat.

If I have one misgiving about House of Xian Dumpling's "Wide Bean Noodle Salad" it would be that it seems overpriced, relatively speaking. Virtually everything on the restaurant's menu is $5.95, $6.95 or $7.95, with $6.95 being the mode. The dish (listed as an appetizer) is priced at $6.95, the same as the much larger and more substantial bowls of hand-made noodle soups with their generous protein components.  (To be honest, one could also argue that the liang pi was fairly priced, and the noodle soups underpriced.)

Perhaps anticipating that the cold noodle salad would be less than a meal's worth of eats, I added an order of pork potstickers, one of only two items available from the "dim sum" portion of the menu (the other being green onion pancakes). These were not particularly memorable, reminding me more of jian jiao (dumplings that have been first boiled then pan fried) than guo tie and, while meaty, seemed under-seasoned. They were served with an improbably sweet red vinegar dip that no amount of added chili oil could harmonize.  Like my bean noodle salad, the pot stickers also seemed oddly priced at $6.95 for six pieces, compared to the same price for 12 of the house's signature dumplings (shui jiao).

Speaking of which, I've yet to try the dumplings at House of Xian Dumpling, in deference to my noodle-centric blogging pursuits, but will get around to that, especially since they are in the neighborhood. And though I'm enamored of Xi'an's noodle culture, I'm well aware of the city's claim to fame as the originator of the dumplings known as shui jiao, of which I've downed more than my fair share.

Where slurped: Xi'an House of Dumpling [apostrophe mine], 925 Kearny St., San Francisco