Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tuyet Mai's Nice Buns (Continued): A Festive Bowl of Bun Rieu

A random craving for the tomato and crab soup known as bun rieu (or more precisely bún riêu cuatook me to my New Best Friend in the Tenderloin, Tuyet Mai. I'm a relative newbie when it comes to bun rieu (usually distracted by the other bun, bun bo Hue), having previously only had a sensationally crabby-eggy version at a pop-up by The Soup Junkie at Vinyl Wine Bar, and a lesser version at a sidewalk pop-up by the Rice Paper Scissors collective.

When I got my bowl of bun rieu, along with a side order of cha tom (shrimp patties) I had an inkling of a subliminal factor that may have steered me towards this noodle soup -- its festive colors. The red tomato segments and the bright green coriander leaves in a reddish broth gave it a downright Christmas-y mien; The Vietnamese mint leaves I added with abandon added to the greenery, and made visions of candy canes dance in my head, too.

There are apparently several variants of bun rieu. Tuyet Mai's menu has it listed under "Specialties from Hue City" so it's presumably a Hue version they serve. Tofu, tomato wedges and shreds of crab, along with delicate bun noodles of the thinnest grade inhabited a broth with a prominent shellfish note. Unlike The Soup Junkie's version, it had no visible egg, and tasted less of crab and more of shrimp, presumably from shrimp paste. It also came with a degree of tartness which I enhanced with a squeeze of lemon.  Unlike Tuyet Mai's other notable buns, bun bo hue and bun mam, this is a subtle, contemplative broth, presumably meant to be enjoyed as such, since it came with a garnish  plate that included no jalapeno slices.

And enjoy it I did.

It was good to see Mom Tuyet in the house, bouncing and beaming as she commanded her kitchen. If they'd hung up mistletoe I'd have kissed her.

Where slurped: Tuyet Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Coconoodle Round: A Well-balanced Khao Soi At Amphawa Thai Noodle House

I'm trying (despite the high 60s temps in San Francisco this week) to convince myself that Winter is here, so I can set out on a tasting round of a triumvirate of warming coconut curry wheat noodle soups. namely Burmese Ohn No Khao Swe, its offpring Thai Khao Soi and Malaysian Curry Laksa.  Today's dropping temperatures and lowering clouds provided me with enough entitlement to head for Amphawa Thai Noodle House (which I'd been dying to get back to since enjoying the Kwaytiau Sukhothai) to vet the Khao Soi, rumored to be among the best around.

With my dilatory nature, relocated bus stops and holiday shopping traffic conspiring against me, it was passt 3:00 in the afternoon when I arrived at Amphawa, too close to dinner to order an appetizer. (I so wanted to try the house Sai Oou.). I contented myself with an order of chicken khao soi (there's a choice of chicken or pork) and hot tea.

My khao soi came as a thick tangle of wide, crimped-edge wheat noodles in a mildly spicy, slightly sweet and tart yellow coconut curry broth. Slivers of fresh-tasting chicken, red onions and fried shallots shared the bath, and it was topped with a mountain of crunchy fried noodles, coriander and a decorative slice of red bell pepper.

Overall, my khao soi had a nice mix of crunchy, chewy and silken textures, and rich and rounded broth. If I had any complaint, it would be that the broth was a bit on the sweet side of optimal.  The extra sweetness didn't intrude while I was busy slurping my noodles, but after spooning the last of the broth into my mouth the sweetness was there as a lingering aftertaste. I'd probably have been happier with a little more heat and a little less sweet, but that may just be my personal taste.

Where slurped: Amphawa Thai Noodle House, 5020 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco. ,

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ducking Thanksgiving Turkey With Tuyet Mai's Bun Mang Vit

Continuing my Thanksgiving tradition of having alternative fowl (whether I also fall into turkey or not), I headed for the Tenderloin on a duck hunt. I had no plan in mind, armed with the knowledge that at least Hai Ky Mi Gia (it of the shapely duck leg fame) would be open for lunch, based on past experience. But not to worry: I bagged my prey with my first shot, at Tuyet Mai, open for the day on Thanksgiving.

I didn't have to look far down the menu for my canard du jour: there at Number 4 in the Hue City's specialties section was "Bun Mang Vit, duck with bamboo shoot noodles soup."  For good measure, I ordered an appetizer, Cha Hue, "pork patty." Cha Hue is sometimes described as "Vietnamese ham" but actually is more like the pâté used in banh mi.

The marriage of duck and bamboo shoots is one I'm very familiar with from my Shanghai sojurns, but the Vietnamese seem to have turned it inside out.  Instead of "old" (salted) duck and fresh bamboo shoots, bun mang vit brings fresh stewed duck and rehydrated dried bamboo shoots. The broth is a subtle, gingery chicken-based broth, not too different from a pho ga broth, though the bamboo adds a slight funkiness. Using all the Vietnamese mint leaves and lime wedges provided as condiments brightened the broth considerably. There was a veritable mountain of duck in my bowl, though it was on the bone, which made for a messy experience. (I haven't crossed the cultural boundary of spitting out bones on the table, but clean fingers and a generous supply of napkins saved the day). There was a plentiful quantity of noodles, which, as the dish's name implies, were rice vermicelli, more suited  for slurping than chewing.

I can't say bun mang vit is the most exciting bowl of noodles I've had at Tuyet Mai (or Ngoc Mai in its previous life), but it filled the bill as the un-turkey I was seeking and left me contentedly full without feeling stuffed. The cha Hue I ordered as a side was tasty and a generous portion for $3.70, but it too had an unctuous character and I found myself wishing I had ordered something that contrasted more with the noodle soup.

Thanksgiving 2014, painlessly done.

Where slurped: Tuyet Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ramen Ramblings: Approaching The [Ramen] Bar; Kirimachi's New Space

It started out as a jaunt to Embarcadero 4 to verify the opening of Crystal Jade Jiangnan, and, especially its ground floor takeout operation, Singapore to Go. While the main restaurant indeed opened on schedule, the street food spawn, I discovered, is a month away. This left me hungry and heading to 101 California and Ken Tominaga's Ramen Bar, just a stone's throw away.

I don't often find myself waiting in line for ramen, but it was high noon in the FiDi and lines were pretty much everywhere I would want to eat. It was a fast-moving line, and soon I found myself seated at the counter by the window waiting for order #30, which happened to be "Chasu Miso-Butter Hokkaido."  It was a $14 bowl of ramen, and only once before had I spend as much as $14 for ramen, at Ippudo in New York, though that was in 2010 dollars. I normally would wrinkle my nose at a "butter" broth, but this bowl featured fresh corn (which I love in my ramen) and butter goes with corn like Zhenjiang vinegar goes with xiao long bao.

When my ramen came, my $14 bucks seemed well-enough spent; the butter and corn flavors merged beautifully with the miso broth, making for a broth that was as rich without being as heavy as a tonkotsu broth. Garlic, soy-cured egg and scallion tops and menma also accompanied the thin, tender slices of chashu pork, and there was no stinting in the noodle offering with thin, chewy noodles cooked to perfection.

Where slurped: Ramen Bar, 101 California St. (facing the plaza).

*  *  *  *  * 

Ramen didn't come into my mind randomly after Singapore to Go failed me; I had stopped off earlier on my journey down Clay Street to check up on the progress of Kirimachi Ramen's new venue at Embarcadero 3.  Luckily chef Leo Gondoputro was on the premises. All the paperwork was in, and newly-hired servers were being trained on the POS system as we spoke.  He was free to serve ramen as soon as he wanted, Leo told me, and expected to be  open for business by Friday, Nov. 21 or Monday, Nov. 24.  Kirimachi will be open continuously from lunch through dinner, with "happy hour" specials in between.  Kirimachi plans to make its ramen in-house, but the noodle machine has yet to arrive.  There will be also be a "shake-down" period while Leo tweaks the product to his requirements, so don't expect house-made noodles before the  first of the year.  

Where to go: Kirimachi Ramen, 3 Embarcadero Center (entrance on Clay St. near Davis St.)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lao You Fen: A New "Old Friend" At Oakland's Classic Guilin Rice Noodles

A recent tip from a Chowhound.com poster that a dish called lao you fen was now being featured  at Classic Guilin Rice Noodles in Oakland, where I had previously enjoyed the namesake rice noodles and Liuzhou spicy snail noodles furnished me with a mandate to return to the Mysterious East Bay.

Lao You Fen (老友粉), literally "Old Friend Rice Noodles" is synonymous with Nanning, capital of Guangxi Province.  Here's how it's described on one Chinese travel website:

"Lao You Fen is the most famous Fen dish and has over 100 years of history. Legend has it that an old man went to Zhou Ji Teahouse everyday and made friends with the Boss Zhou. One day he was not able to go because of a cold. Boss Zhou made a bowl of hot Fen especially for his old friend. That Fen dish had so many flavors including garlic, fermented bean, pepper, beef and sour bamboo shoots that it helped the old man recover quickly. From then on, Lao You Fen became popular for its multi-flavors and cold-busting abilities."

Classic Guilin Rice Noodles was packed at 1:15 on a Friday when I arrived, making for a brief wait for a table, but began clearing out quite rapidly around 1:30. The menu had been expanded quite a bit since my last visit, particularly with new lunch combos, and I was handed a stack of separately laminated sheets (including one for the lao you fen) along with the original main menu. The "old friend noodles" are available in a "small" or large bowl, and I wisely chose the small one, which is actually quite large. There's also a choice of beef, pork, or both. I chose both.

My bowl arrived about 10 minutes after ordering, the broth piping hot. It was a deep rich broth, markedly sour and spicy. Research indicates that lao you fen broth typically includes lobster sauce, but I can't confirm its presence in this instance. Fermented black bean was also an obvious contribution. The tartness of the broth comes unequivocally from sour bamboo shoots (an essential ingredient), and the spiciness appeared to come from both chili and black pepper. There was a decently high level of spice heat, enough to clear the sinuses. Also included was garlic, tomato, scallion tops, pickled green beans, and of course, beef and pork, some of which appeared to be chewy offal I didn't immediately recognize. The noodles themselves were up to the heavy lifting required to support the bold, sharp "multi-flavors" of the broth and toppings. Wide and thick enough to provide a good chew, they almost rivaled fresh wheat noodles.

Classic Guilin Rice Noodles is a gem of an operation, one I wish I could transport to my side of the Bay. As it is, I'm not going to wait for it to introduce another landmark Guangxi specialty to return.

Hello, 12th Street BART Station.

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Paper Cup Ramen With A Pedigree: Sachio's Ramen Shop at Seismic Joint

Doing ramen seems to be an obsession with chefs these days, regardless of how many other things they have on their plates. Or in their bowls. Generally these efforts are accompanied by advance social media buzz (which seems to be go hand in hand with ramen). As a result, it came as something of s surprise to me and apparently food media people when the otherwise undistinguished coffee and pastry bar Seismic Joint, attached to the Exploratorium, began offering ramen created by a legendary sushi chef who once presided over what the San Francisco Chronicle considered to be San Francisco's best sushi spot.

The chef in question, Sachio Kojima, once of Kabuto, currently serves up sashimi at Seaglass, the high-end cafeteria-style restaurant attached to The Exploratorium at the business end of Pier 15. Recently, and without fanfare, he added ramen to his repertoire, served at "Sachio's Ramen Shop" within Seismic Joint, at the Embarcadero end of Pier 15, next to the Exploratorium gift shop and just a few steps from the sidewalk. On offer are four different broths (shoyu, miso, Sea Salt, and a cod sour broth) either vegetarian for $8.50 or with chashu for a dollar more. Curry ramen is also available according to the chalkboard menu.

Seismic Joint is primarily a takeout joint with little seating (there are three tables outside) so the ramen is served in disposable containers.  I carried my order of miso ramen with chashu gingerly to one of the tables (all were available at 2:15 today). The thick and not overly salty miso broth was comforting, and chock full of curly medium noodles on the harder side of al dente, but not objectionably so. The two slices of chashu were savory but overly soft, having spent too long in their warming place (ramen service is from 11:00 to 3:00, and here it was almost 2:30). They did have a nice fringe of fat on them.  There was also the obligatory nori "flag", half a boiled egg, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shooots, onions, cherry tomato and green beans.

By its nature, Sachio's Ramen Shop could not be considered a destination, but certainly would always be in play for lunch if I worked in the area, and may well be graced by my presence again if I am wandering by and hungry.

Where slurped: Sachio's Ramen Shop (inside Seismic Joint), Embarcadero at Pier 15.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Noodle! New Cookbook Takes You From Ants On A Tree To Zaru Soba

I seldom never have reviewed cookbooks in this blog, but one has just come down the pike that I've been enthusiastically awaiting and not at all disappointed to receive just today. It's Noodle! --`100 Amazing Authentic Recipes, by MiMi Aye.  

A disclaimer here: I don't cook and my wife (a pretty good Shanghai jiachang cook hereslf) eschews cookbooks, but at first look the the book appears to be an excellent resource for discovering, understanding and de-constructing the whole broad spectrum of noodle dishes from Persia (Ash-e-Reshteh) across Asia to Hawaii (Saimin). It's almost like a catalog of the various noodle dishes I've found or are still looking for in the San Francisco Bay Area for my blog, including a few I haven't even thought about or heard of.

The roster of slurpables in Noodle! begins teasingly with Chicken Chow Mein (yes, that's a real Chinese dish) and ends on a light note with the author's own take on Keizo Shimamoto's Ramen Burger.  In between is a whole galaxy of familiar and unfamiliar classics like Ants Climbing a Tree, Laghman, Thai Boat Noodles and Bukkake Udon, which I didn't believe was a thing until I encountered it myself a couple of weeks ago at Udon Muzigo.

MiMi Aye is a Burmese Londoner, and as such the book is rich in recipes for Burmese classics (more than a dozen), a fact that will play well in the Bay Area with our inexplicably lively Burmese food culture.  But also in the palette of this rich noodle tapestry you'll find Chinese, Filipino, Hong Kong, Indonesian, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Malaysian, Nepalese, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Thai, Tibetan and Vietnamese contributions to noodle heaven. You'll find stir-fried noodes, soup noodles, dry (sauced) noodles, salad noodles (Oh, Burma!) and even snacks made with noodles (try MiMi's "Cheat's Bombay Mix").

The one dissonant note here may be the book's availability. It's a direct import, and I'm not sure about the distribution channels. I got mine through Amazon just today, after ordering in May, and their website currently shows only one copy remaining! I'm guessing Kinokuniya Books might be a good place to look, and I'm going to lean on the Asian Art Museum Store (generally a good source for Asian cookbooks) to carry it. Meanwhile, if you see it, let me know. And grab a copy!

Noodle!: 100 Amazing Authentic Recipes by MiMi Aye
Absolute Press, UK
$23.00 US ($17.25 on Amazon

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Slurp Du Jour: Red-Cooked Beef Hand-Made Noodles At China North Dumpling

After seven straight posts featuring exotic Vietnamese,  Japanese or Burmese noodles, I felt like I had returned home from a long journey when I sat down to a simple bowl of muscular hand-made wheat noodles with red-cooked beef at China North Dumpling. China has never actually been my home, at least not for more than a month or two at a time, but it's the place I developed a love of noodles, expecially hand-pulled wheat noodles. Chinese restaurants are also places where I can exhibit a little menu-reading competency.

"Number 1 Beef Noodle," I said to the server. "It's not spicy," she said. I shrugged. "Hong shao," I said, to confirm my choice. "Hong shao," she repeated, nodding.  It was the first time I had been warned by a server in an Asian restaurant that something I ordered wasn't spicy.  The reason, I postulated after looking over Yelp reviews and photos of China North Dumpling, is that No. 2, "Spicy beef noodle soup" (which I previously reviewed) is extremely popular and the servers may have come to expect it to be the choice when someone points at that section of the menu.

No. 1 on the "Hand Made Noodle" section of China North Dumpling's menu is listed simply as "Special Beef Noodle Soup" in English, or hong shao niu rou mian (red-cooked beef noodles) in Chinese. Being married to a Shanghainese woman who cooks, I can confidently explain that "red cooked" meas there is a lot of soy sauce involved (and yes, a smidgen of sugar). Red-cooked beef noodle soup is a basic Shanghainese/Taiwanese soup form that cries out for noodles of great substance. It can be made spicy or not, faintly or sharply aromatic and medicinal, and can have any number of veggies thrown in to dude it up. But it must have noodles that can walk the walk.

China North Dumpling's red-cooked beef noodle soup is of the most basic, noodle-enhancing variety. A generous portion of red-cooked beef brisket in a soy sauce broth that is slightly sweet and slightly aromatic, and two stalks of Shanghai bok choy propped up by a tangle of thick, chewy noodles whipped out by the two ladies in the back of the store.

Lift the noodles out of the broth, admire their heft and suck them down.  It's an act of worship, I tell ya.

Where slurped: China North Dumpling, 1311 Noriega St., San Francisco

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Return To Tuyết Mai II: Bún Mắm, Hot Damn!

On my visit documented below to newly gussied-up Tuyết Mai (nee Ngoc Mai) to reaffirm the excellence of its bun bu Hue, I noticed bún mắm on the menu.  A little research confirmed that it had been there all along. This came as a surprise for me, as I had labored under the mistaken impression that the shoebox-sized Mong Thu, three blocks down the street, was the only place in town that served this delicacy. This discovery was excuse enough (as if I needed one) to return to Tuyết Mai a mere five days after my previous visit.

I ordered a "small" bun mam.  Although Tuyết Mai's menu only lists a single price for its bowl of soups (the "small" size), a large size is also available. The  smaller bowl is plenty for lunch, even for Generation XL types like me.

Bun mam is akin to a gumbo or a chowder; the broth is flavored with fermented fish paste (its tare, so to speak, to use a ramen analogy).  Its toppings are primarily seafood, with the addition of pork of one form or another.  The overall flavor profile is sour, spicy and fishy, in a positive way.

Tuyết Mai's bun mam came with a broth that seemed a bit less fishy than Mong Thu's but with more tartness and spiciness; in short, balanced in a way that seemed more multi-dimensional -- the three slices of jalapeno and the squirt of lime I added from the obligatory condiment dish were all but superfluous.  I was especially surprised (and pleased) by the degree of peppery heat; it was nearly as spicy as the house bun bo Hue. Toppings included prawns, octopus, fish (possibly catfish), thin slices of pork pate and sliced eggplant. The robust rice noodles were not mushy, as had been Mong Thu's. In sum, it was a bpwl of noodles that was both comforting and exhilirating, and one I'll gladly repeat.

The word is that Mama Tuyết's "retirement" will include her hanging around the kitchen for another three years, as she was today and on my last visit.  Bún mắm. thank you ma'am!

Where slurped: Tuyết Mai, formerly Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ngoc Mai Re-Emerges As Tuyết Mai, Its Bun Bo Hue Reputation Unscathed

Those of us who mourned the apparent loss of Ngoc Mai and its superb bun bo Hue have cause to rejoice; it recently re-emerged from behind its papered-over windows as Tuyết Mai.  There's been a bit of a makeover, but it's the same owners, same staff (including kitchen staff), and basically the same menu. So why the name change?

It's quite simple, really. "'Tuyết' is my mother's name," said the young woman who seated me, when I asked her the question.  It turns out that the elders in this multi-generation family restaurant are retiring, and the younger generation who are taking over the business have renamed it to honor the matriarch.

The family that runs the restaurant hails from Hue, in Central Vietnam, and and their version of Hue's namesake noodle soup bun bo Hue is considered by many (including me) to be the best in town, or at least the best everyday version. (I've yet to catch up with Ha Nam Ninh's near-mythical Friday-only version, which may or may not still exist.) Ngoc Mai was also known for its ban xeo (Vietnamese crepes)  but it was the Tuyết Mai era bun bo hue that I was there to vet.

"With everything." I said, "including the blood." I wasn't about to get the round-eye runaround that I had the first time, when I neglected to specify. Sure enough, the traditional cubes of congealed pig's blood were present when my bowl arrived a few minutes later. It may have been a side effect of my insisting on "the real thing" but my broth was also spicer than I remembered on my first try at the dish at Ngoc Mai and required no augmentation, heat-wise. The soup with its riot of flavors held medium rice noodles, and was chock-full of lean beef slices, pork pate, and a ceremonial pig knuckle.

The Tenderloin's best bun bo Hue is baaaaaack, and thank you, Tuyết!

Where slurped: Tuyết Mai, formerly Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Friday, October 3, 2014

Spicy Niku Bukkake Udon: A Nice Faceful At Udon Mugizo

On Monday I was thwarted in my plan to check out Udon Mugizo by failing to have done my homework and finding out they are closed on Mondays. Today the fates were kinder to me when a striung of errands ended with me at Kaiser Pharmacy, where an easy stroll to Japantown  would get me to Mugizo without too much time to kill before they opened for dinner service.

For all my reservations about ramen, I've always left the door wide open for udon, noodles that really deserve to be call noodles, generally served with less heavy-handed broths and more sensible toppings than ramen.  One of my all-time favorite bowl of noodles anywhere was a bowl of duck udon served at a small udon shop in Shanghai, of all places.  And Udon Mogizu is a veritable temple to udon, which they make fresh in house every day. Mogizu's "temporary" menu (they are still in soft opening) features no less than 35 udon choices, including 16 "warm" udon selections, nine cold udon offerings, and 10 Mugizo "signature" udons. The last category includes "Sea Urchin Cream Sauce Udon," the most expensive bowl in the house at $13.95. Udon Mugizo even managed to work fried udon into one of its desserts.

The uni udon will have to wait, though.  It was  93° F in the Western Addition as I made my way to Udon Mugizo and I had cold noodles in mind all the way. Blocking out all other columns of the menu, I studied my options and chose something provocatively named Spicy Niku Bukkake Udon. The "niku" (meat) in this instance was warm thinly shredded beef, served on a generous bed of cold udon. The "bukkake" (it literally means "splash," you of the dirty mind) is an intense dashi based broth, served cold in a little pitcher that looks like a creamer.  The drill is to pour all or some of the "bukkake" over the dry ingredients and mix them all together. In other words, it's a "dry" or "tossed" noodle dish with analogs in virtually every Asian cuisine.

This was definitely a cold treat on a hot day.  The udon noodles has a bold snap to them, the beef was fresh and savory, and the dashi "bukkake" was intense without being overpowering.  As for the "spicy" part, I'll just say it was Japanese spicy, not Thai spicy, which means it wasn't really spicy at all. But Japanese food was never designed for chiliheads.

I'll be back, Udon Mugizo!

Where sluped: Udon Mugizo, 1581 Webster St. (Kinokuniya Building, 2nd floor), San Francisco.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Classy Pho From Little Green Cyclo For Half The Price Of A Lap Dance At The Hall On Market St.

I've been a fan of the Little Green Cyclo food truck(s) since the early days of Off the Grid, and therefore was pleased to see they snagged one of the spots at The Hall, the new temporary food market in the space that once embraced lap dance palace L.A. Girls and billiard palace Hollywood Billiards.

I hit the grand opening of The Hall on Tuesday without a food plan, thinking, perhaps, I would go for some wacky Moroccan-Peruvian fusion from Cassia, but Quynh Nguyen of Little Green Cyclo collared me and persuaded me to try a bowl of her pho. Little Green had never peddled pho from their trucks before, due to the logistics, and she was eager to see how it went over. They were offering two versions, a sirloin pho bo and a pho tai nam with brisket (both also came with beef balls), $10 each.  I went for the pho tai nam.

from You might think $10 a little steep for a smallish bowl (I'm thinking of you, Yelper!) but nothing could be further from the truth, given the venue's location (proximity to tech moola), the provenance of the ingredients, and the care that went into its making.  The broth is from a pot with equal volume of beef bones and water, simmered all night, in order to achieve its depth of flavor without MSG, which Quynh eschews. It certainly achieved its purpose, coming to me as a deep beefy broth that stood well up to bold traditional spicing.  The beef brisket was good, but the beef balls were an absolute marvel, all beef and no evident fillers, unlike any you've ever seen in a bowl of pho or  fished out of  a huo guo pot. Add to that extra wide fresh rice noodles, and you've got a bowl of soup that's a keeper.

And for only half the price of a lap dance.

Where slurped: The Hall, 1028 Market St., San Francisco

Monday, September 29, 2014

Just Plain Good House-made Ramen Noodles From Sapporo-Ya

I headed out to Japantown to check out Udon Mugizo, a promising new venue featuring hand-made udon and a creative menu (sea urchin cream sauce udon, anyone?) but alas, it's closed on Mondays. Not to fret, because literally steps away was Sapporo-Ya, the only ramen joint currently on my short list and it was open.

I'm pretty much done with ramen unless it brings great celebrity or some other novelty attraction with it, but Sapporo-Ya is that rarest of birds, a ramen-ya that makes its own noodles.  It's one of my pet peeves about ramen that while its purveyors loudly trumpet the effort that goes into their broths, so little concern is typically shown for the provenance of the noodles themselves.  A recent article posted on Eater.com revealed that of ten top ramen destinations in New York (as adjudged by New York Times taste-makers), nine of them get their noodles from what is IMHO essentially a large industrial noodle maker, and only one (Ippudo) makes its own noodles in house.

Sapporo-Ya not only makes its noodles in house, it has been doing it for three decades, and is obviously very proud of it. This pride is evidenced by the vintage noodle machine on display in the front window, and by the top-listed item on the lunch specials portion of the menu, "Plain Ramen with 1/2 Gyoza," which is what I ordered. (Sapporo-Ya does have a full menu of ramen broths and topping options, but what better way to feature the noodles themselves than with a "plain" ramen option?) The "1/2 Gyoza" is half a full order  of gyoza, which also are made in house, and no, they are not served IN the ramen.

My ramen came with straight, medium thickness (by ramen standards) noodles in a subtle porky broth that was only slightly salty and slightly oily, a medium that definitely wasn't designed to upstage the noodles. It was perhaps too demure until I enhanced it a bit with a few shakes of ground red pepper.  It was not a totally plain bowl, as their was some greenery atop, mostly scallion tops. Not complaints here about the hotness of the broth -- it came almost scalding hot, and I manged to burn my lips sampling it. Even with the heat of the broth and the extra time it took to cool down and consume, the noodles retained their chew to the very end.

Overall, the "plain" ramen was a pleasant experience, and a great alternative to the salt and fat bombs we habitually expose ourselves to  in eating ramen.  It was a bit like eating a Suzhou-style "white" soup with freshly made noodles, so ubiquitous in Shanghai.  The gyoza, I'll add, were also very good.

Where slurped: Sapporo-Ya, 1581 Webster St. (Kinokuniya Building, upstairs opposite Kinokuniya Bookstore), San Francisco.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gambling On Pho At Boathouse Asian Bistro

The other day my wife cajoled me into joining her on a trip to the glitzy new Graton Casino in Rhonert Park. It was a deal I couldn't refuse: free round trip transportation, $25 free slot machine play credit and a $10 food voucher. It was the latter, plus the proximity of Graton (only an hour by bus from Chinatown) that sealed the deal.

When I had burned off my gambling credit, my stomach was growling. I eschewed the M.Y. China anchor tenant (been there, done that) and headed for the food court area, which includes Boathouse Asian Bistro, a sister restaurant to Santa Rosa's Kettles Vietnamese Bistro.

Boathouse Asian Bistro features phở and bún, with a few Chinese-y steam table dishes for aficionados of "combination plates." The noodle soup choices included "Chicken Phở Soup," "Beef Phở Soup," and "Spicy Beef Soup." I ordered the last, guessing it to be Boathouse's take on a Bún bò Huế.  If so, it was a dumbed down version, with no pork blood cubes, pig knuckle, or pork of any kind. The only meats present were  steak and brisket, and it lacked the lemon grass background flavor of BBH.  On the other hand, it did seem to have a more northern-style broth, without pronounced medicinal overtones of star anise or 5-spice, though it came with a southern-style array of add-in garnishes on the side.

Overall, it was not a bad almost-free ($10.95, or a buck more than my voucher) rice noodle soup by any name, considering the environs. The broth was clean, with a mildly spicy bite to it, the rice noodles neither over-cooked nor under-cooked, and the beef fresh and of decent quality.

Now about those slot machines.....

Where slurped: Boathouse Asian Bistro, Graton Casino, Rhonert Park CA

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ohn No Khao Swè Round: Hitting The Midpoint at Mandalay

A few months back I wrapped up a survey of all eight Burmese mohingas available in San Francisco, just because they were there, and it occurred to me recently that I might as well do the same with the Burmese noodle dish Ohn No Khao Swè. After all, I had already randomly covered the dish at three of the eight Burmeses restaurants in town*, and certainly wasn't averse to going for five more.

While mohinga is considered Burma's national dish, Ohn No Khao Swè, the curried coconut chicken noodle dish. might be considered the people's choice. It's certainly grown on me, having overcome my distaste for coconut (largely due to this very dish), so I resumed my quest today at Mandalay.

Like Mandalay's mohinga, the restaurant's ohn no khao swè comes short on adornment, but long on flavor depth.  It's placid golden surface is broken only by a topknot of fried shallots; no chickpea fritters or crunchy samusa shell shards. It's literally deep, too, as Mandalay seems to favor smaller circumference but deeper bowls. The chicken and boiled egg slices (which came first?) lurked beneath the surface of the broth, supported by a modest bed of wheat noodles (light on the noodles seems to be another Mandalay characteristic).

My ohn no khao swe (it's called Ong No Kaw Soi on Mandalay's menu, but I'm sticking with the first transliteration I used in this blog) was accompanied by a condiment caddy with lemon wedges and cilantro. There appeared to be a whole lemon's worth of slices, and a veritable garden of cilantro. The broth, however, came already pleasantly tart and in need of only a couple of token squeezes. I used the cilantro liberally, however, and added some pepper flakes from a shaker to kick up the heat.

While a satisfying lunch, on balance I'm not sure Mandalay's ohn no khao swè will stack up against the competition as well as their mohinga.  The flavor depth was admirable, but this type of soup cries out for a heartier complement of noodles and some textural add-ins such as chickpea fritters or other crunchies.

Four down, four to go!

*See previous reports for Burmese Kitchen, Sapphire Asian Cuisine, and Li'l Burma.

Where slurped: Mandalay, 4344 California St. at 6th Ave., San Francisco

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Clear Case For Hand Pulled Noodles With China North Dumpling's "Qing Tang" Beef Noodles

I've written abut how the ubiquitous "Lanzhou Lamian" noodle shops of Shanghai made me a confirmed noodle lover with their on demand hand pulled noodles. Contrary to popular belief, "Lanzhou Lamian" doesn't refer strictly to a noodle making technique, nor to the place where the technique originated; the term is inclusive of  a method of preparation of a "clear broth" (清湯, qing tang) soup which has been a traditional medium for showcasing hand-pulled noodles for over 100 years.  The very subtle broth, said to be devised by one Ma Baozi in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, has an obvious purpose: to stay out of the way of the handsome fresh hand-pulled noodles, so they can be appreciated on their own merits.  In a way, Lanzhou lamian is the polar opposite of Japanese ramen, where the broth is all-important and the noodles are almost an afterthought.

Lanzhou Lamian in Shangha
After an initial visit to China North Dumpling on Noriega St. a couple of months ago to vet  the hand-pulled noodles I noticed that an item simply titled "Beef Noodle Soup" on the menu was listed as "Clear Soup Beef Noodles" in Chinese and wondered if this was a nod to "Lanzhou Lamian" style soup.  A return visit today confirmed that it was, or at least appeared to be.  The subtle, faintly aromatic broth was reminiscent of numerous bowls I have had in China under the blue and white "Lanzhou Lamian" signs, and adding a smidgen of chili oil made it even more so.  The beef was even more uncannily familiar: thin, dry slices (possibly of beef shank) that would be disappointing in almost any other context but totally appropriate here. The only thing lacking was cilantro, and the hearty stalks of bok choy (almost de rigueur in San Francisco) seemed out of place.  For their part, the noodles did not disappoint, Large, thick and chewy, they knew themselves to be the center of attraction and strutted their stuff with noodle pride.

If you are in the mood to savor the glorious, glutenous, wheaten goodness of hand-pulled noodles for their own sake, "Beef Noodle Soup" at China North Dumpling is what you need.  If you are craving an aggressively broth and showy toppings, no soup for you.

Where slurped: China North Dumpling, 1311 Noriega St., San Francisco

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Well-endowed Bun Bo Hue At O'Mai Cafe, Oh My!

The recent opening of O'Mai Cafe stuck in my head on account of early Yelp reports that they were offering a Kobe beef banh mi. I was about to meet Andrea Nguyen at a book signing of her new Banh Mi Handbook, and it was a bit of intelligence I knew she would be interested in. The Yelpers had also mentioned a Bun Bo Hue at O'Mai, but I didn't give that a second thought.

I've been craving a good Bun Bo Hue since Ngoc Mai closed down and Ha Nam Ninh apparently stopped offering it as a Friday-only special. But a hip new place in Burma Superstar territory pushing a Kobe beef banh mi would be serving up a gueilao-friendly, toned-down version, right?

Exactly. Except, as I learned from a posting by Rachel Khong on SFGate.com this morning, the accessible version was the "regular" Bun Bo Hue.  For a buck more, they offered a "Special" version, made the old-fashioned way. I was on it immediately.

O'Mai Cafe, in the space that recently held Cafe Barley and before that Java Source, has a simple lunch menu that includes "Salad Rolls," a couple of Banh Mi sandwiches (including the aforementioned Kobe beef), "Crepes"  and "Vermicelli Bowls" but seems to want to put Bun Bo Hue at the center of attention. In addition to the entry level and full monte BBHs, a (gasp!) vegetarian version is also offered.

According to O'Mai's menu, their basic Bun Bo Hue includes thin slices of marinated and boiled beef shank, pork shoulder,  oxtail and Vietnamese ham along with the luxuriant vegetation that goes into the broth. The "special" version adds the requisite cubes of congealed pork blood and "pizzle," (a. k. a. bull penis) and at least all of the above were present in my soup.  (Online dinner menus and some accounts refer to "Rocky Mountain oysters" but not pizzle, but the naughty bits in my soup were definitely the latter.) The udon-esque rice noodles were nicely al dente.  With Ms. Khong, I found the broth a little under-spiced, and requiring augmentation beyond addition of the jalapenos from the garnish dish (they, too, seemed to lack heat.).

Along with wishing for a more aggressive broth, I'd hope for the oxtail to be cooked a bit longer, as the meat didn't separate from the bone easily enough.  Other than those two shortcomings, my Bun Bo Hue was a pretty ballsy bowl of soup to find in the midst of hipsterland, and one that I will gladly return for.

Where slurped: O'Mai Cafe, 343 Clement St., between 4th and 5th Aves., San Francisco

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Quick Look: House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup at House of Xian Dumpling

The flat wide noodles I specified for my House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup at House of Xian Dumpling were on the ragged side, though of uniform thickness and consistent in bite. I felt they were too thin overall, though, and became too soft by the end of my slurping. The broth was gingery and only medium spicy, but probably appropriately so for a chicken soup.  The nuggety chicken pieces had a strange, soft, mystery meat texture to them.  Veggies were mostly green and red bell peppers, some celery and a stalk of bok choy.

The Bean Curd Sticks Salad With Cilantro I chose as an appetizer was mostly just that, with a bit of celery and a bland dressing. It was not nearly as exciting as the spicy version with cucumber and peanuts I've had elsewhere.

Overall, I preferred the braised beef noodles and especially the beef tendon noodles I had previously at House of Xian Dumpling, and probably wouldn't order the House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup  again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Kuaytiaw Sukhothai At Amphawa Thai: The Best Thai Noodle Dish You've Never Heard Of?

Itching for a new noodle thrill, I contemplated heading for Amphawa Thai Noodle House on Geary Boulevard for khao soi, having heard good reports on their version.  While perusing an online menu, however, another noodle soup item which I'd never heard of before caught my eye, Sukhothai Noodle Soup, described as "hot & spicy noodle soup with roasted pork, ground pork, fish balls, green beans, cabbage and peanuts."  A little online research uncovered a couple of interesting things about this dish: for one, a CNN Travel post pegged Kuaytiaw Sukhothai (i.e. Sukhothai Noodles) "the best Thai dish you've never heard of." Secondly, as far as I could determine, Amphawa Thai is the only restaurant in San Francisco serving this dish, at least under that name.  Bingo! My lunch plan was made.

Amphawa Thai Noodle House, which I'd so often passed on the #38 Bus, is as tidy as it is tiny inside. It has the appearance of a family-run restaurant (by a family with pride in its product) and serves family-style Thai meals. It was about half full at 1:15 on a Wednesday, and I was seated at a cozy corner two-top and promptly served.

Amphawa is named for a district of Thailand on the Bay of Bengal, not far from Bangkok. Sukhothai noodles are named for an ancient inland city in Thailand*, but popular in the Bangkok vicinity, according to the CNN post.  I placed my order for the noodles, a roti with a peanut dip, and a Thai iced tea.  My pleasant server asked me what type of noodles I wanted. "Whatever is traditional for the dish," I replied.  (I had already read that in Thailand it was always made with sen lek, Thai rice stick noodles, and happily that was what I ended up with.)  She also asked me how spicy I wanted it.

"Very spicy," I said.

"Are you sure?" she said.


I am happy to report that if you ask for spicy at Amphawa Thai you will get spicy. When my bowl came, the broth was glorious spicy and gloriously tart at the same time, with only a soupçon of palm sugar sweetness, something like an X-treme tom yum broth  The thin rice noodles started out slightly hard, and remained chewy enough while I worked my way to the bottom of the bowl. The toppings included barbecued pork slices, pork pate slices, a copious amount of ground pork and fish balls. There was probably as much protein in the dish as in any other bowl of noodles I have blogged about here. On the veggie side, in addition to thinly sliced green beans and chopped peanuts (shades of Guilin mifen), was what appeared to be fried or pickled garlic, chewy white strips of what might have been pickled daikon (or not), cilantro, chili paste and lots of ground chili.

The server came came to refill my glass of ice water just as I was reaching the bottom of my bowl. "Oh," she exclaimed "you can eat spicy!" I am from Mars, apparently.

I'll have to add that there was nothing special about the roti, which was a bit on the oily side and oddly overpriced at $6.50 for a small portion.  As for my $8.95 bowl of Sukhothai noodles, however, it is in strong contention for a spot on my not yet existent "10 Best SF Noodle Dishes" list.

Where slurped: Amphawa Thai Noodle House, 5020 Geary Boulevard, between 14th and 15th Avenues.

*I came across an interesting post by Thai blogger Natayada on Sukhothai noodles and his quest for an authentic version in the city of Sukhothai. Unable to find them in that city at all, he developed a theory that the dish may have been created at Sukhothai Palace in a district of Bangkok known as Sukhothai. He also highlights the differences between Sukhothai noodles and Tom Yum, whic also has a spicy-sour-sweet broth.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Noodle Break At Aruba, Island Of Taiwanese Street Food In An Ocean Of Boba Joints

There's a stretch of Irving Street from 19th to 24th or 25th Avenue I like to call "Boba Central" because it has the greatest concentration of Bubble Tea, Fruit Smoothie, and Pan-Asian snack shops in the City. The new kid on the block is a hole-in-the-wall (to put it generously) curiously named Aruba (阿滷吧). It emerged, a couple of weeks ago, literally sandwiched between the two Teaway outlets between 22nd and 23rd Avenues.

Aruba is not named for an island in the Netherland Antilles. According to a Taiwanese woman of my acquaintance, "Aruba" is a wordplay on some off-color slang young people will catch onto. I don't know her well enough to have asked for specifics, but a little research tells me it's probably 阿魯巴, which you can read about here. The 滷 substitution in the snack shop's name appears to be a reference to 台式鹵味, "Taiwanese Marinated Food," a specialty of the house, according to  a sandwich board sign in front.

This "Taiwanese Marinated Food" refers to a long roster of offal-centric meats, veggies, and tofu, any number of which will be cooked in a five-spice flavored soy sauce "gravy" on request and served, garnished,  in a cup as walkin'-around food. Aruba's grand opening promotion is two items for $3.00 and, I believe, $1.50 for each additional item.

Aruba also has a specials board and, luckily for me, today had udon and knife-cut noodles available as a base for the marinated goodies for an additional $2.00. Also luckily for me, one of its two tables was available to me for a sit-down meal.   I went for the knife-cut noodles with chicken hearts and "QQ Tofu" as toppings. I didn't ask about the provenance of the noodles; they obviously weren't made to order in that small space, and possibly not even in-house, but the "knife-cut" designation assured me that someone had made them by hand, at least. My faith in that was justified, when they came, strong, a bit wabe and properly chewy.  The chicken hearts were thinly sliced, making them easy to chew.  The firm tofu was, as the "QQ" suggests, also pleasantly chewy. The soy sauce"marinade" (broth, in this context) was familiarly 5-spicey and slightly sweet, and benefited from a few squirts from the nearby sriracha bottle.

My bowl of noodles was not large and not really a destination bowl of noodles, but for $5 was a solid and tasty mid-afternoon snack which I will not hesitate to drop in and repeat (trying different toppings), assuming they continue to make the noodles available.

I haven't seen a unified menu, and am not sure what their other regular offerings or specials will be but based on Aruba's Facebook page and Yelp reviews, pork rice plates and skewers have been available. Aruba is worth keeping an eye on.

Where slurped: Aruba, 2146 Irving St., San Francisco