Friday, September 27, 2013

House of Xian Dumpling: From An Under-construction Menu, A Well-built Bowl Of Beef Tendon Noodles

House of Xian Dumpling* recently emerged in the space on Kearny St. that long held Chef Jia's, and did someone say "hand-made noodles," here in my own 'hood? I was so there!

The name "House of Xian Dumpling" may look nice on a sign next to House of Nanking, where it sits, but doesn't tell the full story. House of Xian Dumpling's menu, at least as printed (and I say that advisedly) looks like a culinary map of China, especially Northern China, with Xi'an, Sichuan, Beijing, Shanghai and Shandong specialties that I could immediately spot, and even a few Cantonese Golden Oldies for completeness' (and tourism's) sake. I say "advisedly," because some portions of the menu have yet to be implemented. I asked specifically about the xiao long bao, shengjian bao, and xian doujiang from the "Dim Sum" portion of the menu, and they weren't ready with any of them, nor with skewers from the "Hot Appetizers" menu.  It may be a case of "first design a menu then find the talent" (which certainly has been done before), and since they went to the expense of printing the menu in full-color, I'm assuming they are committed to it. In any event, they were ready with the noodles and dumplings, and noodles were what I was there for.

The noodle section of House of Xian Dumpling's menu, which contained nothing peculiarly Xi'an-ish that I could tell, led off with two hand-made noodle classics, "Braised Beef Noodle Soup" and "Beef Tendon Noodle Soup" and I chose the latter. Despite language on the menu, the noodles are technically not "hand pulled" noodles but rather "knife pushed," as it were --  dao bo mian (刀撥麵). These are made by stacking thinly-rolled sheets of dough in a pile and rapidly chopping and "pushing" the noodles away with a special cleaver, producing narrow, flat linguine-like noodles.  It's possible the the noodle-maker, who operates in a glass-enclosed "cage" in full view of the diners, also makes the more showy hand-pulled noodles, but he didn't do so while I was watching.

My noodles came to my table with an aromatic blast which reminded me more of a Taiwanese beef noodle soup than anything from Xi'an. Tasting the broth, I found the slightly medicinal spicing sharp and nicely balanced, and a default chili heat that didn't beg for augmentation. The beef tendon, accompanied by a few stalks of bok choy, was tender, by and large, though a couple of the larger chunks were on the chewy side. As for the noodles, they were cooked just right, retaining a slight chewiness from start to finish, and as pleasing to the palate as only freshly-made wheat noodles can be. At $6.95 for a bowl the size of a "large" pho serving, it was an ample lunch on its own, and something I will happily return for.

I'm looking forward to House of Xian Dumpling implementing its entire menu, which will  save me some trips to the Richmond and Sunset Districts; in the meantime I'll be checking out more of the restaurant's soups and dumplings. It's great having this font of comfort food within walking distance of home.

Now about that apostrophe.....

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

*西安手拉麵饺子館 ("Xi'an hand-pulled noodle and dumpling shop")

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Slow Food: Liuzhou Spicy Snail Noodles at Oakland's Guilin Classic Rice Noodles

On my recent foray to Oakland to vet the signature offering of the new Guilin Classic Rice Noodles restaurant, I was intrigued by another specialty on the menu, Liuzhou Spicy Snails Rice Noodle soup. At the same time I was a bit wary of this dish, because I didn't know if it had whole snails in it and I didn't relish the prospect of inexpertly sucking the meat out of snail shells in front of an audience of not my peers. Thanks to a post by "Dave MP" and a little additional research, I learned that there are no snails at all in Spicy Snails Rice Noodle Soup, just a broth that is snail-based.

Liuzhou Spicy Snail Rice Noodles, or Liuzhou luosifen, is the most famous noodle dish of Liuzhou, a city to the south of Guilin in Guangxi province. So intimately associated with the city is this soup that Liuzhou uses it to promote itself, and at the 2012 Liuzhou Water Festival an event called "10,000 people eat luosifen together" was held, as reported by veteran blogger Liuzhou Laowai. The blogger also has the best description of "Liuzhou spicy snail soup" I have been able to find, so I will quote him (from the same blog post) here:
It is a dish of rice noodles served in a very spicy stock made from the local river snails and pig bones which are stewed for hours with black cardamom, fennel seed, dried tangerine peel, cassia bark, cloves, pepper, bay leaf, licorice root, sand ginger, and star anise. Various pickled vegetables, dried tofu skin, fresh green vegetables, peanuts and loads of chilli are then usually added. 
Blogger Liuzhou Laowai goees on to add that restaurants' specific recipes are generally kept secret, so what he is reporting is an approximation. I certainly can't confirm the spice mix in the stock of the version I had at Guilin Classic Rice Noodles, except that it was deep and rich.  As for the add-ins in my bowl, they were as reported in Liuzhou Laowai's paradigm, and also included wood-ear mushrooms. The pickled vegetables included Liuzhou's famous sour bamboo (suansun) which, along with the chili oil (and apparent black pepper in the stock) were dominant characteristics of the broth. As there are no snails present in luosifen, what there was of protein came from the boiled peanuts, tofu skin and what appeared to me cubes of fried tofu. The rice noodles in the soup were thinner than the spaghetti-sized noodles in Guilin rice noodles, more "vermicelli"-like, like Vietnamese bun. Not my favorite type of noodle generally, but it hardly mattered here, so satisfying was the "soup" part of the dish, at once sour, spicy, rich, deep and sharp.   

Taking a cue from Chowhound Dave MP in the post cited above, I ordered a youtiao (fried dough stick) for crumbling and adding the my soup once the solids were eaten. The youtiao at Guilin Classic Rice Noodle are house made, and smaller, darker and crispier than typical doughy Chinatown youtiao. Adding pieces of youtiao to a broth already slick from chili oil may not be exactly what the doctor ordered, but heck, it tasted good and I'll remember to do the same when I next drop in for some less-oily Guilin rice noodle soup. Which will be soon.

Where Slurped: Guilin Classic Rice Noodles, 261A 10th Street, Oakland

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Guilao Goes To Oakland For Classic Guilin Rice Noodles

Salty beef and crispy pork noodles, broth on the side

Thanks to BART, I can get from home to Oakland's Chinatown faster than I can to the Richmond or Sunset Districts in San Francisco. Nonetheless, it takes a major inducement to get me to venture to the Mysterious East Bay, and today it was the promise of Guilin mi fen (rice noodles) at a new Oakland noodle shop, Classic Guilin Rice Noodles.

I developed a fondness of for Guilin rice noodles in Shanghai (where they're much more easily found than Vietnamese pho), mostly at  a "Guilin Mi fen" shop on Wuyi Rd. near Tianshan Tea City, a frequent destination. Until now, there has been no venue specializing in this regional noodle style in the immediate Bay Area; Classic Guilin Rice Noodles, in a corner of the old Good Luck Supermarket building on 10th St. in Oakland's Chinatown, changed all that when it opened at the beginning of September.

When I arrived around 1:30 PM, the front room of CGRN was nearly full, but I managed to find a seat at a two-top by the window (I later discovered there is a spacious rear room as well, which was empty at the time).  After perusing the colorful menu, I settled on a combination of salty beef and crispy pork for my toppings, although I had no idea what "crispy pork" was and my server's command of English was hopelessly inadequate to clarify it. (It turned out to be thin, bacon-like slices of pork belly.)

Classic Guilin Rice Noodle's menu consists of a "classic series" composed of five different topping choices (barbecued pork, salty beef, beef brisket, beef tripe, and crispy pork) as well as all possible combinations of two of these items for a total of 15 choices. Noodles with a single topping are $5.50, and $6.50 for combinations.   In addition, there is a "Special Rice Noodle Series" composed of just two entries: Spicy Snails Rice Noodle ($6.50), and "Special Small Bowls Rice Noodle" ($8.50).  This latter is a service of five small bowls with different toppings, akin to the way Thai boat noodles are sometimes offered.

Also on the menu are a handful of medicinal soups/stews in clay pot ($7.25 each) , and three lotus leaf steamed rice and meat entrees, served with soup and vegetable for $6.50.

Unseasoned broth on the side
When my noodles arrived, I recognized most of the usual suspects from my Shanghai Guilin noodle-eating experiences.  There was the same surprisingly robust spaghetti-size rice noodles, the same bland milky white broth screaming for an infusion of chili oil, the same thin slices of beef, boiled peanuts and cut green beans in the topping. One striking difference was that at Guilin Classic Rice Noodles the broth was served on the side in a small bowl. I'm not sure of the reason for this, but it made it easier to spice the broth as desired and to evenly distribute the seasonings in the broth before dumping it into the soup.  For me, a healthy dollop of chili paste, a quick stir, over the top into the noodles, and I was set with a hearty, evocative blast from my Wuyi Road Guilin Mi Fen past.

Classic Guilin Rice Noodles is a bright, spacious, newly built out shop furnished with what might be called Fast Food Modern (seats bolted to the floor, and all that). I discovered the back room, with a huge mural of Guilin karst formations almost covering one wall on the way to the bathrooms. There are separate men's and women's bathrooms, each huge and as spotless as the rest of the restaurant.

Overall, Classic Guilin Rice Noodles is a fun place to slurp some fen, and, even after factoring in my Senior citizen BART fare, probably as cheap a bowl of tasty noodles as I'll eat anywhere in the area.

Where slurped: Classic Guilin Rice Noodles, 261 A 10th Street, Oakland Chinatown

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Khao Piak Sien At Champa Garden -- Not Your Grandmother's Chicken Soup (But It Could Be)

Khao Piak Sien ("Lao's Noodle Soup - Kaow Paik" on menu)
It's heartening so see that Lao food now has a year-round presence in San Francisco (especially since the Lao New Year Festival was a no-show this year) courtesy of Oakland's Champa Garden, which opened a San Francisco branch near City College a week ago. Champa Garden is actually a Lao-slash-Thai restaurant (or a Thai/Lao restaurant, apparently, if you are the person who tagged it on Foursquare) and it takes some parsing of the menu to figure out what dishes are characteristically Lao.  The conventional wisdom (from veterans of the Oakland venue) seems to be to start with the Champa Sampler plate of Lao Sausages, Fried Rice Ball Salad, and Fried Spring Rolls, and go from there, but I was in noodle-tracking mode when I paid Champa Garden my first visit.

Some research pointed me to a dish called "Kaow Paik" (more fully rendered as "Khao Piak Sien" elsewhere) on the Champa Garden menu for my first Lao noodle adventure.  Not only is this soup adjudged characteristically Lao and longed for by overseas Laotians, but the version offered by Champa Garden promised home-made noodles.  Sold!

There is some irony in choosing khao piak sien as a characteristically Lao dish, because it is devoid of a prominent characteristic of most Lao foods, namely spice heat. It is a noodle soup with chicken meat in chicken broth, plain and simple. (Pork can be substituted as a meat, though it would seem silly to do so.)  Khao piak sien is somewhat akin to a Northern Vietnam pho ga, with the broth at Champa Garden seemingly blander, seasoning-wise, but richer in chicken-y flavor depth. In fact, the broth in my khao piak sien seemed almost akin to my grandmother's chicken soup, made from chickens dispatched to the cooking pot when they were too old to lay eggs.  Of course grandma wouldn't have had galangal or lemongrass for seasoning, but her spicing was probably as aggressive, heat-wise, with only black pepper in her arsenal. Even the "pulled" chicken chunks in my soup at Champa Garden reminded me of days down on Grandpa's farm.

It is probably in recognition of Champa Garden's kaow paik's native bland unctuousness that the server volunteered some condiments (not kept on the tables here) for seasoning it, including both sweet and spicy chili pastes and soy sauce.  I used a dab of each of the chili pastes, but what the heck: if God wanted khao piak sien to be fiery, He would have sent it out of the kitchen that way. And it was probably also in anticipation of mildness of the soup that I fortuitously ordered a side of Lao sausage, wonderfully and agressively spiced.

The real highlight of my lunch, noodle-lover that I am, were the noodles themselves. The term "khao piak sien" translates roughly to "fresh rice noodles" or "wet rice noodles" (without the sien the term can denote congee), and fresh they were. These noodles are made of a mixture of rice flour and tapioca starch (with the latter constituting up to 50% of the mix) and formed round and fat, the size of udon noodles.  The tapioca starch gave the noodles a slightly gelatinous cast and a bounciness not typically found with rice noodles.  I suspect it also aids in flavor absorption, though I'd need a spicier soup to test this theory. Let Kingcredible here show you how to make these noodles!

Overall, it was a solid bowl of comfort-giving noodles, in a chicken noodle soup kind of way.  It's probably not a noodle dish I would seek out again, unless I had a killer head cold and there was no matzoh ball soup in sight, but I'll be back to Champa Garden. Next time I'll ask them to hit me up with the fermented bean soup.

Where slurped: Champa Garden, 613 Faxon Ave. (at Ocean Avenue), San Francisco

Friday, September 6, 2013

Xi'an Gourmet's Saozi Mian: A Soup By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Saozi Mian at Xi'an Gourmet

I returned to Xi'an Gourmet to try the third in a triumvirate of hallmark Shaanxi noodle dishes they offer, saozi mian,  臊子面  (listed in English as "Ground Pork, Dried Bean Curd Soup Noodle"). The "sao" character in this food's name, means "the smell of urine, or of the fox, skunk, etc.; foul smell," according to my Pleco Dictionary. The soup does contain a complex broth with sourness as an element, but I've never encountered a version of it that was in least bit "barnyardy" at worst. Interestingly enough, "saozi" with identical Chinese characters as the soup's name is defined by Pleco as dialect for "minced meat (cooked) to be added to noodles or other food before serving." That fits saozi mian to a "T" but one has to wonder which is the chicken and which the egg here; did the term "saozi" exist before the dish, or was it coined to make the dish's name more palatable?  To complicate matters even further, the word "saozi" (嫂子) with a different character for the "sao" means sister-in-law, and some mute inglorious Miltons (or Li Pos) in China have concocted more than one story involving a sister-in-law to explain the dish's name.

I think it's fair to say the origins of the dish's name, as well as of the dish itself, are lost in antiquity. According to People's Daily Online,

Qishan* Saozi Mian (Qishan-style noodles with minced meat) has a long history. It began as early as in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC). It is a kind of noodles poured with pork soups (Saozi means diced meat) plus tofu, dried lily flowers, agaric,kelp, carrots and Chinese chives or garlic sprouts and tastes sour and hot, leaving people delicious aftertastes. 
I can't be sure my bowl of saozi mian contained all of the ingredients mentioned by People's Daily, though the pork, tofu and carrots were prominent and accompanied by egg and a galaxy of savory vegetable matter which I didn't try to map as I enjoyed my noodles. According to another Chinese website, saozi mian is "famous for its five features: thin, chewy, hot, sour and fragrant." I confess to bending the rules by ordering wide noodles. I'll remain recalcitrant on that score; Xi'an makes its noodles to order, and ordering them wide is a luxury I couldn't pass up on. The noodles (wide, not thin) were chewy, and the broth was hot (mostly from black pepper), slightly sour and definitely fragrant -- but not of urine, skunk or fox, I will have you know.

I've had bowls of saozi mian with a more satisfying edge to the broth, mostly through the use of chili oil for heat, but Xi'an Gourmet's approach using black pepper ensures a nearly grease-free bowl of noodles. Given the balance of the lean minced pork, vegetable matter, and toothsome noodles, it's probably one of the healthiest bowls of noodles a carnivore could hope for.

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

*Qishan is a district in Shaanxi reputed to be a cradle of saozi mian, and the dish is sometimes called Qishan mian (perhaps to avoid the "sao" connotations) or Qishan saozi mian. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

America's Cup O' Noodles: Three Flavors from Noodle Me

Thanks to a post by ramen chaser Melanie Wong, I discovered that noodles were being repped in the food vendor area at America's Cup Village (the Marina Green viewing area for America's Cup 2013) by Noodle Me, and swung by to check out their offerings on the last day of preliminary events.

Noodle Me (nice bilingual pun there) is a pop-up enterprise, soon to be a bricks-and-mortar establishment, by two noodle mavens currently operating out of the Dobbs Ferry Restaurant kitchen.  Noodle Me's intended modus operandi is a build-your-own bowl concept, though for practical reasons they are offering a fixed menu at the America's Cup Village.  The menu on my visit included three noodle choices: "5x's Happiness," "Godzilla Bowl," and "Coco Bang Bang." Based on the ingredients (and clues on Noodle Me's website), the first of these is apparently the pair's take on a pho ga, the second a miso ramen (see Melanie's review), and the Coco Bang Bang a variant on the Burmese Ohn No Khao Swè, but using pork instead of the customary chicken.  It was the Burmese noodles that interested me most, and that's what I ordered.

The posted ingredients of "Coco Bang Bang" were "egg noodles, coconut curry broth, fried tofu, chili, pork, bok choy, onions, cilantro, scallion" and all seemed to be present in what I was served. There was a selection of condiments to be added as desired, and I threw in a spoonful of crushed peanuts (which seemed most appropriate for this dish).  In retrospect, it might have benefited from a couple of the jalapeno slices available as well.

There are a number of environmental constraints in serving noodles at an outdoor venue like this, but my bowl fared pretty well, regardless.  It was served with the broth less than piping hot, which was probably circumspect, given that the bowl was filled to the brim and some rather uneven terrain separated the food stall from the nearest picnic table. In addition, during the time it took me to pose the bowl for snapshots and to find my eyeglasses (which had been blown off the table by a stiff breeze), my Coco Bang Bang had cooled further, to barely lukewarm. (Oh, for a heavy ceramic or stoneware bowl!)

Although the bowl was smallish, there was a generous amount of protein in the form of fried tofu and ground pork, though the texture of the ground pork didn't seem right for this dish. Slivers or chunks of pulled pork might have worked better.  I'd also note that though the Coco(nut) component of the broth was well developed, there wasn't much "Bang" in the form of spice heat which, of course, would be easily remediable in Noodle Me's intended DIY environment.

I look forward to meeting up with the Noodle Me folks again in a more noodle-friendly setting.

Where slurped: Noodle Me stall, America's Cup Village, Marina Green (near the end of Fillmore St.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Bun Mam is Fishy at Mong Thu Cafe, But That's All Right With Me

Having had my fill, for the moment, of the robust hand-made wheat noodles I love so much, thanks to near neighbors Xi'an Gourmet and To Hyang at Geary & 2nd, I resumed my Tenderloin quest for outliers in the Vietnamese rice noodle firmament. This took me back to Mong Thu Cafe, which I found closed on a previous visit, for my quarry, bún mam.

Bún mam, sometimes referred to as Vietnamese gumbo, is a specialty of the Mekong Delta. Bun, of course, refers to the thin rice noodles, and according to this article in the Chicago Reader, "mam, as in mam ca loc (fermented fish paste)... provides the elusive element of deep rounded flavor that puts the mam in umami." Noted Vietnam blogger "Noodle Pie," currently writing a book about Vietnamese street food, once dubbed bun mam as the best noodle soup in Vietnam.

As far as I have been able to determine, the modest little Hyde Street noodle and sandwich shop known as Mong Thu Coffee Shop (on its awning) or Mong Thu Cafe (on its menu) is the only place in the San Francisco proper that serves bun mam.  According to Mong Thu's menu, what I had to look forward to was "Fish based soup with boiled pork, shrimp, and fish served with thin rice noodles."

The woman who took my order, in a routine already documented on Yelp, asked me if I'd had it before, and advised me that it was a little bit "strong" in flavor, intimating that I might not like it. I assured her I knew what I was getting into, and loved a good fish flavor.

When my bowl came, it was heavenly fragrant.  The deep rich broth held thin rice noodles (which were a little on the soft side), six prawns, and a melange of bits of fish, fish cake, BBQ pork, beef and whatnot.  A friend says that he gets the impression that Mong Thu cleans out their refrigerator with this dish, but it might be that the pungent aroma just reminds him of the inside of his own refrigerator. It's possible the protein add-ins might make use of leftovers, but the real star of this dish is the broth. It's fishy, in the best possible way.

I've never quite understood people who don't want their fish to taste "fishy." It's like wanting your pork not to taste "porky," or your chicken not to taste "chicken-y" (well, maybe that's what bonelesss, skinless chicken breasts are for). If you're in that category, you might not want to try the bun mam at Mong Thu.  But if you are one of those people who, like me, always feel like drinking the leftover dipping sauce for your Imperial rolls, the broth in bun nam might be the nectar of the gods for you.

Where slurped: Mong Thu Cafe, 248 Hyde Street, San Francisco