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