Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lapping Up The Kao Piak At Maneelap: Chicken Soup For The Noodle Lover Soul

I considered my return trip to Maneelap Srimangkoun Restaurant today to be both a chance to sample the second of two Lao noodle soup specialties on offer there (khao piak sien, listed as kao piak on the menu) as well as something of a sideways tribute to the Campbell Soup Company, which is celebrating the 80th anniversary of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.

In 1934 Campbell's made the discovery that chicken soup and noodles make an awesome combination, and rightly figured that if they put this combination in a can, the World (or at least the U.S. and Canada) would beat a path to their door.  Approximately 10  years after this culinary (and marketing) breakthrough, they provided me with my first ever encounter with noodle soup (and possibly even one of my first solid foods).  Little did they (or I) know that some 70 years later I would be blogging about chicken noodle soups with very distant origins (but not so very distant flavor aspirations from the red and white can with 32 feet of noodles inside).

In recounting my first experience with khao pian sien (a.k.a. kaow paik) at Champa Garden, I noted that it was not so different from a chicken soup my very American farm-wife grandmother would have made (though she'd have put dumplings, not noodles in it). The same could be said of Maneelap's version.  Described on the menu as "Home-made rice noodles with bone-in chicken soup," it featured a broth that was less rich but cleaner in taste than Champa Garden's version, more akin to a pho ga broth with less sharpness in the spicing and milky from tapioca flour. Galangal and lemongrass were likely seasonings, though chicken-ness was lord and master of the broth.  What Lao cooks (as well as Vietnamese cooks and even Campbell Soup Company lab technicians) have learned is that the broth rendered from the carcass of a chicken is already close to soul-satisfying perfection and will countenance only the most light-handed flavor tinkering.  Maneelap Srimangkoun's kao piak was filled with chewy hand-made noodles (slightly less thick than Champa Garden's) and garnished with cilantro and shallots.

My kao piak arrived accompanied by the obligatory condiment caddy containing jars of fish sauce, chili sauces and other seasonings, and I asked the Lao server what was best to add. She responded that she didn't add any, because the broth was already so delicious. I followed her lead (apart from a little tinkering with the last of my broth) and did not regret it. Chicken soup is chicken soup is chicken soup.

I accompanied my soup with a side order of roti (from the "Thai Appetizers" section of the menu). The roti itself was nothing special, but the green curry dipping sauce it came with was superb.

Where slurped: Maneelap Srimongkoun, 4995 Mission St., San Francsco.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mo' Mohinga (continued): The Road To Mandalay

My personal "All the Mohingas" tour of San Francisco reached stop number five (of eight) with lunch at Mandalay Restaurant on Cailfornia St. today. (If you don't know that mohinga is the catfish chowder with rice vermicelli that is invariably tagged as "Burma's national dish," you haven't been paying attention.

Mandalay is San Francisco's reigning matriarch of Burmese cuisine, having dispensed it since 1984 at California Street and 6th Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the more bruited-about but arguably less authentic Burma Superstar.  It also lacks the insanely long lines of BSS, though it doesn't lack for business of its own.  I had only a short wait for a two-top at 1:30 on a Monday, though when I left 45 minutes later there was a mob waiting to get in.

I ordered mohinga accompanied by an order of balada, the Burmese term for paratha, or a multi-layer pan-fried flatbread. I was taken aback when my server asked if I wanted a large or small bowl of mohinga (an option I was unaware of), then suggested a small bowl would be enough since I also would be having the balada. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," as Yogi Berra reportedly once said, so I took her advice and went for the smaller serving. In retrospect, this turned out to be a strategic mistake on my part. Though the large, doughy (but not overly greasy) balada was certainly filling, and the delicious curry dip cause me to eat half of it before my soup arrived, I feel I shortchanged myself for not getting the larger bowl of what turned out to be probably the tastiest mohinga I have yet to encounter.

The breakfast-sized bowl of catfish chowder with the slender rice noodles lurking beneath the surface came relatively unadorned (no slices of hard-boiled egg, for example) but with a generous amount of fresh cilantro and lemon wedges on the side in a condiment caddy.  The chowder was richly fishy (in a good way), thicker and more peppery than other versions I have tried, and had a slight smoky cast to it.  A few sprigs of cilantro and the juice from a single lemon wedge brought the broth to a citrusy perfection.  I drained the bowl (as I usually do) but would have licked it clean if it were big enough to stick my head it.  Next time I'll go for the Big Boy!

I finished the balada as well, and would have drunk the remaining curry sauce from its bowl had I been sure no one was watching, it was that good.

Where slurped: Mandalay Restaurant, 4344 California Street at 6th Avenue, San Francisco

Monday, January 13, 2014

Getting It Up For Some Khao Poon, The "Lao Laksa" From Maneelap Srimongkoun Restaurant

Maneelap Srimongkoun is a new Lao/Thai (or Thai/Lao) restaurant that opened on New Year's Day in the Excelsior district. A neon sign in the window announces "Laos Thai Restaurant" while signage above the door and text on the menu dubs it a "Thai and Laos" restaurant. The dual identity is, happily, more schizophrenia than fusion. Maneelap Srimongkoun serves Thai dishes AND Lao dishes, not mashups of the two cuisines. According to my server there today, the restaurant is the creation of her Lao mother and her Thai aunt, who previously worked together at a Thai restaurant and are intent on their dishes keeping their respective national identities. To avoid guesswork, the restaurant thoughtfully has the Lao specialties organized under a common heading on a separate page of the menu. I, the noodle nudnik,  was there to try a Lao noodle specialty, Khao Poon, due to its rarity (only one other restaurant in San Francisco serves Lao food that I am aware of) but that won't prevent me from returning to try the Thai dishes in the future.

As for the daunting restaurant name, my server told me Maneelap Srimongkoun is the name of a Lao monk known to the family who blessed the enterprise, albeit by telephone.

Khao poon (also spelled khao pun, khao bune or even kapong) is a Lao rice noodle soup which is sometimes called "Lao laksa" for its resemblance to a curry laksa. (It also, I might add, has similarities to a Burmese ohn no khao swe.) The version at Maneelap Srimongkoun is, technically, khao poon nam phik, meaning it is made with coconut milk; according to Wikipedia, there is also a version called khao poon nam jaew which is made without coconut milk. The version I had is described on the menu as "Laos' curry with coconut milk, blended stew, chicken meat served with vermicelli noodle." "Vermicelli" here is a bit of a misnomer, as the rice noodles were more of s spaghetti thickness, happily for me, as I like them that way.  They were quite chewy at the outset but softened slightly as I chomped my way through them, but never got to the mushy stage. The broth seemed quite complex, and most likely contained a number of typical Lao and Thai condiments.  It wasn't as rich as a curry laksa broth nor quite as spicy (but subject to adjustment, of course); on the other hand, it tasted cleaner (less muddy).  The topping of the bowl with a forest of finely shredded carrots and cabbage, along with cilantro. mint and lime made for the kind of textural contrasts you don't often find in a noodle soup, especially one traditionally eaten as a breakfast food.

I augmented my soup (which didn't contain a lot of protein) with an order of Sai Ooa (Lao Sausage), a generous portion accompanied by a raw veggie salad of sorts.  I found the sausage a little on the dry side, though the server said it can be served less dry on request.  I also added a side order of sticky rice. (Hey, this was Lao food, remember? And how often do I get to eat with my hands?) I used the rice to sop up some of the remaining broth in the bowl.

Overall, Maneelap Srimongkoun is a nice new ethnic food asset for San Francisco, family run, with friendly service and delicious food. If only it weren't eight miles from home

Where slurped: Maneelap Srimongkoun, 4995 Mission Street, San Francisco

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ramen Yamadaya's 20-Hour Tonkotsu Ramen: Not Too Rich For My Blood

I've alluded before to my inability or unwillingness to fully embrace ramen culture, for a number of reasons – noodles that lack robustness, broths that tend to be too salty and/or muddy for my tastes, and toppings so skimpy as to provide the purveyors an opportunity to nickel and dime you to death for add-ins. Add to this the assault on my sense of value by hipster ramen-makers who have raised the ante by charging their cohorts $14 for a bowl with the World's Greatest Ramen Broth that they perfected over Spring break just last year, and you'll shed a tear for me. Or not.

On the other hand, there is something endearing about a ramen-ya. Like a pho joint, its sole purpose is to provide you with a bowl of noodles. (I can only dream about Chinese style mian guans dotting the landscape the way those two do.)

In this light, I've been eager to check out Ramen Yamadaya from the day they didn't open on the day they were supposed to open in the old Iroha space on the Buchanan St. Mall, and finally made it back there today. It's an outpost of a Los Angeles chain that ranks highly on local lists down there, and I was eager to see if L.A.'s noodle exports were more worthy than their burger exports. In addition, prices on their on-line menu seemed to be in the realm of reasonableness, though they need to add the caveat “prices slightly higher north of the Tehachapis.”

There was no wait at 1:45 when I arrived, even though the place is still lacking tables. (The whole cener of the room looked like a dance floor; I read somewhere they are planning to install communal tables.)  I ordered the house specialty, “20-Hour Tonkotsu Ramen” with no extra toppings, but with a side of gyoza, after determining that they are house-made, whereas the takoyaki on the menu start out frozen. 

My ramen came in a medium-size bowl, though it was fuller than some larger bowls I've been served, and the broth-to-noodles ratio was salutory. The broth itself was rich in a restrained way, cloudy but without an overt fattiness, and had what I perceived as mushroom overtones. The noodles were of the finest variety (thickness-wise, that is) and retained their springiness and bite to the end. Toppings featured a couple of thin slices of meltingly tender chashu and half a soft-cooked egg; secondary toppings were minimal. 

Service at Ramen Yamadaya was not without glitches, even though it's been open for almost three weeks.  I ordered hot tea, which is on the menu, but was told they were out of it. How can a Japanese restaurant be out of hot tea? Then came the comedy of the side dishes. I intially ordered takoyaki as a side, after being told by the server that they were house-made. After she returned to tell me they were, in fact, frozen and apologized for misinforming me, I ordered the gyoza, which she reassured me were indeed house-made. There were supposed to be six gyoza to an order, but when she served them, there were only four and she informed me I was still owed two. Eventually she delivered three more, so apparently I was comped one gyoza for my trouble. The gyozas weren't bad, so thank Heaven for small favors!

Overall, it was one of the better bowls of ramen I have had (though I would like fatter noodles), and it didn't cost me an arm and a leg. Ramen Yamadaya has somehow found a way to rein in the unctuousness of a rich broth, which I appreciated. (There's a kotteri version on the menu, if you are a glutton for punishment.)

L.A., send us more noodles. (But keep your burgers to yourself.)

Where slurped: Ramen Ymadaya, 1728 Buchanan St, Japantown, San Francisco

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mohing-ing In The New Year With Mohinga From The Lil Burma Truck

I decided to begin a new noodle year with mohinga, the rice noodle catfish chowder that is the national dish of Burma, from the Lil Burma food truck at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, where people were partying at lunchtime like it was 2014. I'd had mohinga from them before, but for a number of reasons (beyond the fact that it is tasty and good pun material) decided on a repeat.

For one thing, I needed a new picture of it for a blog post later this year surveying the eight versions of mohinga available in San Francisco; my previous sampling from Lil Burma was when they'd first launched their truck and were serving mohinga in a cylindrical clear plastic to-go soup container. They're now using bowl-shaped disposable containers which not only make the soup more photogenic, but also provide a better eating experience.

Secondly, it seemed appropriate to toast the New Year with something Burmese because 2014 may prove to be the year of the Burmese noodle for me. After chasing down four more bowls of local moginga soups, I plan to do a similar overview of eight versions of Burmese ohn no khao swe (coconut curry chicken noodle soup) available in San Francisco, and also sneak across the culinary border to Thai restaurants serving the Burmese-inspired but Thai khao soi. 

Finally, I was there to celebrate Thomas and Lewis Eng's achieving permanent residence status -- for their food truck, that is. As of January 1, Lil Burma has become an "anchor" tenant of the street food park, parked there permanently and available for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Thomas and Lewis intend to take advantage of this stability to begin rotating new specials in and out of the menu. They are promising Burmese biryanis, samusas, and new salads (including, if I can lean on them hard enough, a yellow tofu salad).

But I'll never stray too far from their hearty mohinga.

Where slurped: SoMa StrEat Food Park (Lil Burma's new permanent home), 428-11th Street.