Friday, May 31, 2013

Slurp du Jour: Pho Bo Dac Biet (Hold The Ngau Pin) At Quan Bac

Pho Bo Dac Biet at Quan Bac
As I pondered the (hopefully imminent) re-opening of Turtle Tower in its new digs, I recalled some posts about inner Richmond restaurant Quon Bac, which I'd never visited, also being a Northern-style Vietnamese restaurant of some repute. To add to my interest, Quan Bac's pho menu led off with Pho Bo Ngau Pin Dac Biet, or "combination beef noodle soup with bull 'pudendum'," an ingredient I've never caught up with in a bowl of noodle soup.

Settling into a seat at the comfortably appointed Quan Bac at Geary and 5th, I confidently ordered #38, Pho Bo Ngau Pin Dac Biet.  "We don't have that today," said the server, steering me to #41, Pho Bo Dac Biet, "combination of well-done, rare beef and beef ball noodle soup." Dac Biet is a term familiar to pho-goers, basically meaning house special, though to me today it meant "hold the ngau pin" and I wondered if they would have had it if I were not Caucasian. To accompany my noodles, I ordered an appetizer Cha Ca Chien,  or deep fried fish cake.

I've read comments in some quarters (which shall remain nameless) about Quan Bac being a little "pricey" but that's a canard, or in this case, bull bleep. My huge "regular" size bowl was $7.50. Imagine a bowl of, say, ramen anywhere at that price, especially one as huge as my bowl of pho, with as great a richness of animal flesh, residing in a delicately fragrant broth that you don't get mugged by. The fish cake appetizer might seem a dollar or two high in price at $7.25, but it came beautifully plated with a small mountain of vermicelli and enough shrubbery to feed a hungry rabbit; by itself, it would have made a light lunch for a finicky eater.

I thought both my pho (bull pecker or not) and my fish cakes were excellent. The pho's broth seemed perfectly balanced with no need for adding flavor-enhancing condiments (though I can never resist throwing in all the jalapeno slices), the meats were fresh and tender, and the flat rice noodles done just right. The fish cakes, though described as deep fried, were entirely greaseless and delicately flavored, and I much preferred them to the Thai version I had recently at House of Thai.

Quan Bac is a notch "nicer"in ambience and marginally pricier than the proletarian hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants in the Tenderloin that occupy a special place in my scheme of things; combining this with Quan Bac's value and authenticity, another question comes to mind: who needs places like The Slanted Door?

Where slurped: Quan Bac, 4112 Geary Boulevard at 5th Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bowled and Beautiful: Yen Ta Fo From House of Thai

I headed for the Tenderloin today, intending to check out the mi quang at Ngoc Mai, the only place in town I know of that reputedly makes a good version, but Ngoc Mai had closed for vacation for the next two months, and I soon found myself at the door of House of Thai, née Thai House Express on Larkin. After some head-scratching, I decided on a go at House of Thai's yen ta fo.

It was an appreciation of yen ta fo at Lers Ros Thai that inaugurated this blog nearly three years ago, and I was eager to revisit this pink marvel once again, to compare HOT's version with LRT's, insofar as my memory (and initial blog post's assessment) allowed. I won't belabor the dish with excessive explanation again, except to say it's a seafood (and sometimes pork) intensive rice noodle dish with a pinkish red broth derived from fermented, red rice colored tofu, sometimes with an assist from tomato sauce.

House of Thai's menu describes their yen ta fo as "Shrimps, squid, tofu, fish balls and shrimp balls and spinach in secret bean curd sauce soup." Greenery is added in the form of both water spinach and cilantro. In comparison with Lers Ros Thai's version, I'd have to say I was bowled over (so to speak) by the quantity of fishy matter delivered by House of Thai. Elsewhere in this blog I described a chao ma mian I reviewed as a "Chinese cioppino;" the bowl I had today could be called a "Thai cioppino," even down to its color. Not itemized on the menu were a couple of masses of white fungus, which had little flavor other than what they absorbed from the broth, and added a verticality to the presentation which enhanced the dish's overall attractiveness. The fish balls, shrimp balls, fried tofu and the one solitary large shrimp in the soup were tasty and not overcooked. The broth, compared to what I recall of Lers Ros Thai's version, was less spicy (always remediable via the condiment tray), slightly sweeter and more tomato-ey. It's a fair bet one of the ingredients in the house "secret sauce" is either tomato sauce or Thai ketchup.

In sum, I'd say House of Thai wins with the toppings, but Lers Ros Thai wins with the soup, so I'd call it a draw. Both versions are bowls of noodles worth returning to.

Where slurped: House of Thai, 901 Larkin St., San Francico

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Noodle Trifecta At The Burmese Water Festival, And Yes, That's a Thingyan

Khauk Swe Thoke at the Burmese Water Festival
I headed out to Union City today for the first time in my 50+ years in San Francisco, attracted by the expectation of good home-style Burmese food at the San Francisco Bay Area Thingyan Festival, a. k. a.  the Burmese Water Festival, a. k. a. the Myanmar New Year Festival. It took place at Kennedy Park, which fortunately is adjacent to the Union City BART station.

A Thoke Sone
It took seemingly forever to get to Union City on BART, and by the time I got there, cased a long string of food booths, bought the tickets that were legal tender for food, and returned to the food booths, some items were already selling out and I felt fortunate to grab a cold noodle salad (called a thoke sone, according to the man who took my tickets and a fork and napkins).  It was a (literally) hand-mixed salad of broad rice noodles, rice vermicelli noodles, green papaya shreds, cabbage, and a host of condiments that I probably cannot pronounce.  One gets the choice of mixing it oneself with ones own bare hands (and eating it with the same bare hands, in traditional fashion) or having the expert hands of the preparer mix it. Since I had already been handed a fork, I chose the latter. After I devoured it,  I returned and another cold noodle salad caught my eye (see the photo at the top). This one (if I understood the server correctly) is called khauk swe thoke and is made with egg noodles and dried shrimp.   By default it's served not spicy, but they had some crushed dried chilis at hand to remedy that.

After my second helping of noodles went down as easily as the first, I returned to the tents and finally found some protein in an attractive form: a  Shan tofu salad, strips of yellow tofu made from chickpea flour colored with turmeric, topped with a savory sauce and plenty of crushed peanuts and cilantro. It was soothing mix of the sharp and the bland, the crunchy an the smooth. Belly full, I proceeded to walk off my lunch by exploring the rest of the event, and was shocked to discover another bank of food stalls I had overlooked on the opposite side of the park, with more substantial meat and seafood fare, still serving long lines of hungry people. A mohinga stand anchored the far end of this pod of food stalls, and I decided it would be a sin to leave without sampling the signature Burmese catfish and rice noodle chowder, full belly or not  It was as good as any restaurant mohinga I have had, and just as I was waiting to order, their production line paused while they were pretended with an award certificate.

As unprepared as I was, I managed to pick three noodle winners. Next year I'll come early, forewarned, and with a plan of attack in place.

Where slurped: San Francisco Bay Area Thingyan Festive, Union City.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Zen Yai Thai's Boat Noodles: Thank Heaven For Small Favors With Big Flavors

Beef (left) and pork (right) Boat Noodles at Zen Yai Thai
I finally got around to checking out Zen Yai Thai and am kicking myself for not starting to enjoy the charms of this Tenderloin gem sooner. If you've heard of Zen Yai Thai, you've probably heard of its secret menu of $2.50 "Boat Noodles" listed only in Thai only on the wall.  This "secret" is one known to nearly everyone who's been there or is planning to go there, and is even mentioned on Zen Yai Thai's English-only website as being for "adventurous eaters." In short, Zen Yai Thai's "secret" menu is about as secret as In-n-Out Burgers' is.

One thing that adds to the mystique of the secret Thai-menu-only fare is the fact that the broth in boat noodles is thickened with animal blood, but don't fret; you wouldn't even know it was there if you didn't know if it was there, to coin a phrase. (You can also request it be made without blood, but you'd be losing a dimension.) The blood is blended with a thick broth made from boiling beef bones to make a rich smooth puddle that is almost a tare for the noodles and their toppings to sit in, waiting to be strirred.  You have a choice of noodles, either the thin "pad Thai" type or broad rice noodles (the default) and can choose the degree of spiciness. I went for the fat noodles and answered affirmatively to "a little spicy?" which was proffered too literally; next time I'l reply "a lot spicy."

To the noodles, sitting in the broth, are added slices of steak, meatballs, crushed peanuts, onion, pork cracklings, cilantro and what appeared to be boltonia. A tray of condiments is brought to your table th dress up your noodles as you will. (It thankfully includes chili paste.)   In addition to beef, there is also a pork version and a tom yum version of the boat noodles, They are available in large bowls. but the practice is to order two or three small bowls of noodles to take advantage of different flavors. (In addition to the boat noodles, small bowls of tom yum and yen ta fo are available for $3.50.) I ordered small bowls of both beef and pork boat noodles, not knowing the serving size going in, but could have easily handled three as a comfortable lunch.

The boat noodles turned out to be exhilarating melanges of flavors and textures: sharp, sour, and slightly sweet broth, and crunchy, chewy, and soft add-ins. The venue is comfortable and casual, the service cheerful, and the opportunity to linger over two or three bowls of noodles, perhaps with  some Thai BBQ  or a cucumber salad in such an environment is little short of paradise.  It's a little like dim sum for noodles, and that would be my idea of paradise.

I am indebted to Leela Punyaratabandhu of for this translation of Zen Yai Thai's wall noodle menu:

Where slurped: Zen Yai Thai, 771 Ellis Street near Polk St., San Francisco

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dumpling Diversion: Momos and Mo' Momos from Red Chilli and Binita's Kitchen

Chicken Momos from Red Chilli
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across new Tenderloin restaurant Red Chilli, self-identified as an Indian Nepalese restaurant, in its "Grand Opening" phase. I had just eaten lunch, so I filed it in my now-faulty memory banks.  It was only when it showed up in Yelp's New Business Openings listing today that I remembered I had forgotten about it. Did it have momos on the menu? Yes indeed, and since I am on a perennial momo hunt I decided to check it out at lunchtime.

Momos are Tibetan-Nepalese-Bhutanese dumplings with meat or vegetarian fillings that come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are analogous to a number of Chinese dumplings. Red Chilli's hand-made momos come in the familiar crescent shape similar to Japanese gyoza or (some) Chinese jiaozi/pot stickers, and a choice of chicken or vegetarian filling is offered. (Red Chilli serves Halal food, and all entrees are either vegetarian, chicken, or lamb). They come ten to an order, accompanied by a house-made dipping sauce.  Together with a small bowl of lentil soup, an order of Red Chilli momos made for a substantial lunch.

Red Chilli's momos reminded me of those I've had at a number of places in New York's Jackson Heights, where crescent-shaped dumplings seem to prevail; Binita Pradhan (see below) tells me this is the traditional Tibetan style.  The nicely spiced, finely minced chicken filling and slightly chewy thin wrappers brought back memories of 74th & Roosevelt, and I'd say that Red Chilli's were as good as any I've had in Queens.  The house dipping sauce, too, may be the best I've had with this style of momos. Red Chilli's momos are as good an introduction to Tibetan-style momos as you are likely to find in San Francisco. There are a lot of other items to try on Red Chilli's menu, of course, and I plan to return for more. The menu includes useful explanations of items, and Nepalese specialties are flagged.

My momo lunch put me in the mood to drop by Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center to say hello to my Nepali friend Binita of Bini's Kitchen, and maybe talk momos.  She, of course, twisted my arm and I ended up with an order of her turkey momos for an early dinner.  Bini's Kitchen's hemispheric momos were the traditional Nepali shape, she said, and she prefers them because they hold more filling (confirmed by what I recall from my 10th grade Solid Geometry class). The amount of filling in eight of Bini's bigger, more pillowy dumplings exceeded that of the ten crescent shaped ones from Red Chilli, and was just as savory. If I had one request, it would be a little more spice heat in the orange sauce that topped the Bini's Kitchen Momos.

In New York I once sampled the momos at four different establishments, all in a short walking distance  from the same subway station, in the course of an afternoon. They were smaller servings, I recall six to eight per plate. That feat is not possible in San Francisco, but with 10 momos at lunch and 8 larger ones at dinner, I came damn close today.

Where noshed: Red Chilli, 522 Jones Street, San Francisco; Binita's Kitchen, Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ddukbokki Etc. At Aria Korean American Snack Bar (And Yes, We're Talking Noodles Here)

An earlier version of this post appeared in part in my other blog.  It occurred to me only tonight, while enjoying some Korean fried chicken along with a bowl of ramyun at Aria, that the tubular pasta used in ddukbokki emphatically are, in fact just big, fat rice noodles and worthy of Full Noodle Frontity's stage.

Ddukbokki (as fun to eat as it is to spell out) from Aria Korean-American Snack Bar is a recently discovered spicy treat for me. Aria is a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall that opened about a year ago in the space that held the venerable Old Chelsea Fish and Chips shop for nearly 50 years. Every time I've walked by it I have vowed to try the ddukbokki, dowel-shaped rice pasta akin to Shanghainese nian gao (which usually takes the form of flat slices), served in a spicy sauce, and finally got around to it a month ago. I had only had one previous ddukbokki experience, on the streets of Shanghai, of all places, and it was disappointing. The pasta was under-cooked and the sauce tasted mostly of catsup and was only slightly spicy). The Koreans had to do it better, I theorized. at Aria, I ordered the ddukbokki and an order of fried mandoo, the Korean version of jiaozi/gyoza. I wasn't disappointed. The ddukbokki had great body, firm and chewy, but not jaw-crampingly so. They came in a savory soup-like bath in a shallow dish. The sauce was honestly spicy and so good one could slurp it as soup, which I did, until the chili heat got to be too much. The ddukbokki at Aria definitely belongs in the comfort food department, especially if a moderate spiciness is in your comfort zone.

The shop itself is a joy, though tiny. There's barely room for two four-top tables and a two-top of sorts, so Aria does mostly a takeout business, like its predecessor establishment. It's not only the very definition of a hole-in-the-wall, it's also literally a mom-and-pop enterprise, with a beaming mom doing the cooking and polite, mellow pop taking the orders and manning the cash register.  I returned tonight to sample the snack bar's real raison d'être, KFC (which means Korean fried chicken hereabouts). With a side of spicy-sweet dipping sauce and the accompanying pickled daikon, it was as good as has been bruited about but that's a matter for another blog. I ordered it with a bowl of ramyun ("Korean ramen" on the menu).  This turned out to be underwhelming, little more than a bowl of instant noodles (most likely Nong Shim brand) gussied up with some fresh onion tops and perhaps some ancillary spicing. But not to worry; with ddukbokki designated a noodle dish by (my) decree, Aria Korean American Snack Bar has noble noodles to recommend it.

Where slurped: Aria Korean American Snack Bar, 932 Larkin St., San Francisco

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

God of Thunder Brings Affordable Ramen To Taraval Street

It's called Raijin Kitchen, but wants to roll off my lips as Ragin' Cajun, which is understandable since raijin means God of Thunder in Japanese (no crawdads here, though).  It opened on Taraval St. in the Parkside about a week ago in the space that formerly held a gelato and crepe shop. Raijin Kitchen serves ramen and Japanese curry, and is located in the middle of what I see as becoming a noodle and dumpling corridor stretching from House of Pancakes and Shandong Deluxe on the east, to Kingdom of Dumplings on the west. (I can dream, can't I?)

[Update: I found a Facebook page for Raijin Kitchen, which reveals that Raijin Kitchen is a sister restaurant to Men Oh Tokushima Ramen and Waraku Ramen, both of which I've blogged about before.]

Raijin Kitchen has the feel of a real ramen-ya. It's tiny, with a limited menu and a focus on ramen. You walk in, place your order, pay up and take a seat and wait for your noodles to be brought to you. Yes, there are some curry dishes, sides and beverages, but no up-sell.  It's a place you can feel comfortable sitting down with just a friggin' bowl of ramen to commune with.

There are four ramen choices on Raijin's menu: Raijin Ramen, Tan Tan Men, Curry Ramen, and shoyu ramen. I ordered the Raijin Ramen (presumably the house special), which turned out to be a tonkotsu ramen, with perhaps a bit of shoyu blended in (it was a shade darker than a typical tonkotsu broth, though there was no telltale soy sauce saltiness that I could detect).  The broth was as thick as any I have experienced, almost gravy-like, and to make the dish even heavier, the chashu was in the form of a whole mountain of streaky pork belly (look at the cross-section and you'll see bacon). This is definitely a cool weather ramen, made for the Sunset for days like today when it was chilly at 23rd & Taraval even while hot downtown. The broth overall was rich, though not cloyingly so, and very filling.  The noodles, on the large side for ramen noodles, were not quite as chewy as I would like, but not a disaster, by any measure.

Perhaps the best thing about Raijin Kitchen is its pricing. If you are tired of forking out $12 or more for a bowl of noodles, take heart: nothing on the menu is more than $7.95, including my house special Raijin Ramen, and two of the ramen choices are a dollar cheaper.  That alone will get me back to try the other ramen options.

Where slurped: Raijin Kitchen, 1353 Taraval Street (across  from McCoppin Square), San Francisco.