Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kalguksu: Handsome Hand-cut Korean Noodles at To Hyang

To Hyang, the modest family-style Korean restaurant on Geary Boulevard, has been on my list to visit for some time. After all, it's been praised to the skies by everyone from my own acquaintances (including the irrepressible Al Cheng) to the Rajahs of Real Food like the Messrs. Bourdain and Zimmern. What's taken me so long is that I do most of my gustatorial field work at lunch time and To Hyang has no lunch service; for another thing, I generally fly solo and it's as hard to put together a meal for one at a Korean Restaurant as it is at a Chinese Restaurant, and there are no "over rice" specials here. I was pleased, therefore, when I perused To Hyang's menu online and discovered that it contained what appeared to be a worthy destination bowl of noodles, a Korean specialty known as Kalguksu, with  in-house hand-made knife-cut noodles. That, my friends, is how I roll..

Kalguksu, literally "knife noodles," according to Wikipedia, is considered a summer specialty, and features fresh vegetables, most often zucchini (as is the case with To Hyang's version) in a rich, complex, slow-simmered broth. To Hyang's savory, but not spicy, broth is made from anchovies, kelp, dried pollock, green onions and a few more ingredients. Some traditional versions use shellfish, but To Hyang's does not, which will come as good news to some of my friends.  The real stars of the dish, as far as I am concerned, are the noodles themselves. Made from just wheat flour and water, they are both thick and wide, irregularly knife cut, muscular and chewy from start to finish. It's a bowl of noodles which, though meatless and containing only razor thin slices of vegetables, will make you feel like you've eaten a meal.

To Hyang's Kalguksu is $10.95, and if you think that is pricey for a bowl of noodles with no meat, think again. In true Korean style, it comes with banchan service, and my banchan came with (count 'em) eleven little dishes of delicious house made pickles. Your bowl of Kalguksu also comes with a lot of hard work and love.

I'll be back.

Where slurped: To Hyang, 3815 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Heading Back For a Cold One: Xi'an Gourmet's Liang Pi

When my visits to New York coincide with a heat wave, I like to fight fire with fire and eat something spicy. More often that not, my lunch choice for this purpose in recent years has been the spicy cold noodle dish known as liang pi from my favorite Flushing hole-in-the-wall, Xi'an Famous Foods. Today in San Francisco both the temperature and the humidity were in the 70s, not exactly a tropical heat wave but close enough to New York weather to give me an excuse to return to Xi'an Gourmet and try their liang pi.

Liang pi, literally "cold skin" noodles are a Shaanxi specialty which is imitated in various versions throughout China. The basic Xi'an version consists of wheat starch noodles, bean sprouts, diced kao fu and a sauce that is both spicy and a little sweet at the same time. The making of wheat starch "liang pi" noodles is a fairly complicated process, but basically calls for rinsing the starch out of wheat flour, letting the starch settle to a paste, steaming the paste after the water is drained, then cutting the "skin" which is thus formed into ribbon-like noodles.  The thick, slightly translucent noodles somewhat resemble wide rice noodles , but for the flavor and color, and are always served chilled.

The liang pi noodles at Xi'an Gourmet are not as sensational as their New York counterpart, largely on account of a lesser complexity and spiciness to the sauce. It must be pointed out, however, that David Shi built his whole Xi'an Famous Foods mini-empire of his family's "secret recipe" sauces,and he is so proud of his liang pi that he adopted "Liang Pi" as a pseudonym which graces his business cards. While Xi'an Gourmet is no match for the King of the Liang Pi Hill, its liang pi is far from something to be ashamed of. It's a spicy, cool refreshing noodle treat for hot (or cold) weather, and, at $4.95, perhaps the best bargain in Xi'an specialties on the menu. It's also worth pointing out that chef, I'm told, will be happy to up the chili oil level on request.

For the record, I paired it with what might be the second best bargain on Xi'an Gourmet's menu, the $3.95 pork roujiamo.

Where slurped: Xi'an Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco

Monday, August 26, 2013

Slurp du Jour: You Po Mian at the new Xi'an Gourmet

You po mian before tossing

As I related in my other blog, I was delighted to discover that San Francisco gained some tasty new noodle options once San Dong House restaurant decided to maximize its use of its Xi'an-born chef's talents and re-invent itself as Xi'an Gourmet Restaurant. After absorbing that news I hastened there at the earliest possible opportunity, which happened to be immediately.

You po mian after tossing
I decided to start the Xi'an Gourmet noodle drill with you po mian, since I would be getting my protein from a lamb roujiamo, which I was also there to vet. You po mian, a Shaanxi staple, literally means "oil sprinkled noodle," indicating that it is a tossed noodle.  It can be made with either a rustic thick round hand-pulled noodle (as is she case at Xi'an Gourmet) or with a hand "torn" flat noodle, as can be found at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York, in which case it is sometimes called you po che mian, the "che" meaning "torn". You po mian is (or can easily be) vegetarian
With my you po mian, the robust wheat noodles were a welcome change after several rounds of more delicate rice noodles or wimpy ramen noodles, and a reminder of why I love noodles in the first place. Thick and chewy as only freshly pulled noodles can be, they are first doused with a mixture of soy sauce and black vinegar, then topped with pieces of baby bok choi, scallions, garlic, ground dried chilis and other spices, and finally doused again with oil that has been heated to the boiling point, cooking the toppings and releasing the dish's fragrance.

The final step is to toss the noodles, costing them all with the fragrant elixir that has been created and EAT them, and that I did with alacrity, gusto, enthusiasm, relish, and glee.

The po che mian at Xi'an Gourmet were the equal of any I've had elsewhere, and I'll eagerly be returning to try the other Xi'an specialties on offer, noodley and otherwise.

Where slurped: Xi'an Gourmet (formerly San Dong House), 3741 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Catching Up: Turtle Tower's Phở Bò Ðặc Biệt and some Festival Noodles

It had been  a couple of weeks since I'd had noodles in a proper bowl (not counting the Ju Ju Woman's home-cooked offerings) so I set out for the Tenderloin on a noodle quest.  My destination was yet another lesser-known hole-in-the-wall with a rarely found item on its menu but I found the restaurant (TBA) closed. (Closed on Wednesday, will I never learn to check?) At the urging of my growling stomach I abandoned my search for the new and exotic and headed for the safe haven of the recently relocated Turtle Tower.

Deep Fried Cuttle Fish Patty
At Turtle Tower I doubled down on pleasing my belly by choosing the Phở Bò Ðặc Biệt, along with a side order of Chả Mực, deep fried cuttle fish patty, for extra protein. Pho Bo Dac Biet is, essentially, the "house special" combination beef pho wherever you co, and I knew Turtle Tower, with its reputation, wouldn't put that tag on something it was ashamed of.  Turtle Tower's combination for dac biet consists of rare beef, "well-done" beef and tripe, arrayed on top of wide rice noodles along with the greens, as can be seen in the photo atop this post.  True to Turtle Tower's northern Vietnam orientation, the accompanying condiment dish contained only a lime wedge and some jalapeno slices (which I am always happy to use all of). The beef appeared to be good quality brisket, and the tripe was as tender as the beef.  The tripe seemed to add an extra flavor dimension to the subtle northern pho broth, something that probably would not be discernible in a more aggressively aromatic southern-style broth. Overall, it was a bowl of goodies that my previously complaining stomach gave two thumbs up to, if that is anatomically possible.

Penang Prawn Noodles
The previous weekend saw the annual La Cocina Night Market and San Francisco Street Food Festival, two must-do, if not noodle-rich, events.  At the Night Market I eschewed the chewy hand-pulled noodles from M. Y. China's chief noodle puller, having had them on several occasions in house at M. Y. China, but found a tasty (albeit disposable) bowl of Penang Prawn Noodles by Chef Alex Ong, late of Betelnut-Hutong-Betelnut.  These were not your father's Hokkien Prawn Mee, but a subtler dish consisting of a generous quantity of prawns in a mildly spicy broth with bean thread noodles. It was a very tasting and pleasing dish, but I found myself wishing for a condiment caddy with some  chili oil or chili flakes to add.

Cold Noodles in Kim Chee Sauce
Saturday's San Francisco Street Food Festival featured more than 80 food vendors, but amazingly few instances of Asian noodles. In fact, outside of a ramen vendor which I'd previously tried,  I was only able to find one noodle offering to tempt me, but a good one it was: Bibim Guksoo (Spicy Cold Noodles in Kim Chee Sauce) from To Hyang, the celebrated home-style Korean restaurant on Geary Boulevard. It was only a "small bite" option but had me wishing for a hotter day and a larger order of the stimulating noodles.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Adding Another Notch To My Vietnamese Noodle Belt: Mi Quang at Ngoc Mai

Mi Quang at Ngoc Mai

I finally got back to Ngoc Mai in the Tenderloin to try out the Central Vietnam noodle specialty known as Mi Quang, after being thwarted on  a previous attempt when the restaurant was closed for a month-long vacation.  Ngoc Mai is a family run jewel of a hole-in-the-wall which I earlier reported on for its Bun Bo Hue, considered by many to be the best in town.  The restaurant's owners are from Hue in Central Vietnam, so it figures that it may have the best (or possibly the only) version of Mi Quang in San Francisco.

Mi Quang is named for Quang Nam Province, and in fact means "Quang noodles."  It's fairly well described by Wikipedia as follows:
The dish is made with rice noodles tinted yellow with the use of turmeric. The proteins are usually shrimp, pork, chicken, or even fish and beef. The broth is made by simmering the meat in water or bone broth for a more intense flavor, seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot and garlic. Extras include hard-boiled egg, crushed peanuts, chả (Vietnamese steamed pork sausage), chili pepper or chilli sauce, fresh vegetables.... and pieces of toasted sesame rice crackers called "banh trang." Ingredients may vary, but peanuts and bánh tráng are most commonly found in Mì Quảng and make the dish unique amongst other noodle dishes.
It is served semi-"dry,"  with the noodles and toppings sitting in a shallow pool of the intense broth and a small bowl of broth on the side to be added as desired after stirring or tossing the ingredients. In some respects, mi Quang is similar to hu tieu Nam Vang and overall, the experience of constructing and eating my mi Quang was similar to that I described for the latter dish when I enjoyed it at Ha Nam Ninh; in the case of the mi Quang, I found the toppings less luxuriant but the broth more compellingly intense than for the hu tieu Nam Vang. On balance, both noodle types make for a very rewarding midday repast, especially for those of us in our second childhood who like to play with our food.  

The DayGlo yellow noodles are rice noodles colored with turmeric

Where slurped: Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, Tenderloin, San Francisco