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