Thursday, February 20, 2014

Oo-longing For Udon at Oolong Noodles

A little pan-Asian schizophrenia is to be expected at the premises of 636 Washington Street.  Fifty years ago it was an elaborately appointed Japanese restaurant (whose name I have forgotten*), which later morphed into a "Manchurian" Chinese restaurant with a Japanese name (Ryumon) and mostly the same Japanese decor.  Later it became very emphatically "Louie's California Chinese Cuisine," though it failed to exorcist all the architectural and visual ghosts of its Japanese past. Failing to emerge from the shadows of the City College high-rise construction it changed hands again and, at the end of December, emerged as "Oolong Noodles," with colorful signs promising "Chinese-Style Ramen."

As I circled around this new restaurant's emergence wondering what "Oolong Noodles" and "Chinese Style Ramen" were, the mystery began to unravel.  A little research revealed that the owner of record is apparently the same person as the owner of Kaka Udon Kitchen on Franklin St. (where I'd had a not-too-successful bowl of udon in the past). Armed with that hint, I further discovered that the Chinese name for the restaurant (烏龍麵, wu long mian) is an alternative Chinese translation to 烏冬麵 (wu dong mian) for "udon noodles." Adding in the fact that the noodle dishes are book-ended on the menu by sushi and Japanese grill items, the mystery evaporates: Oolong Noodles is pretty much a straight-up udon house

I approached the menu at Oolong Noodles warily, after my less than salutory experience at its sister establishment, but was pleasantly surprised. The score or so of hand-made "specialty noodles" ($7.50-$10.50 per bowl) featured creative-sounding toppings that were a far cry from formulaic ramen offerings.  From these I chose "Hokkaido Scallops Noodle Soup."  When they arrived, about 10 minutes later, the udon noodles were perfectly chewy.  From their uneven width, it was apparent that these were, in fact, hand made. Indeed, as I arrived just after 2:00 PM two noodle makers were cleaning up from their lunch service efforts in the noodle station in the front window.

The broth in my udon was both slightly sweet and slightly salty (but not in an objectionable way), complex and rich. The major fault with the broth was that there wasn't enough of it. There were about six medium-size grilled scallops accompanied by a porkish meat ball of some sort, half a boiled egg and a plenitude of corn kernels and cilantro. And oh, yes, the ubiquitous pink thing I don't want to remember the name of.  The cilantro was something I don't normally associate with Japanese soups, but consider de riguer for a good Chinese soup -- major strokes for that!

I'm not sure what accounts for the difference in my experiences at Kaka Udon and at Oolong Noodles. Better noodle maker or better chef at the latter?  Simply a bad day at the former?  I've put Kaka out of my mind (hey, maybe it's that name). It's out of my neighborhood to begin with. But I'll be back at Oolong Noodles, oo-longing for more udon.

Where slurped: Oolong Noodles, 646 Washington St. (between Kearny and Montgomery), SF

*A friend who worked there while in high school reminded me the name of the Japanese restaurant was Momokuri (no relation to the Momokuri sake bar of later vintage).

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rainy Day Boar-dom Drives Me to M. Y. China

Wild boar scissor-cut noodles at M. Y. China
I have a distant ancestor named Samuel Wildbore.  I don't know the derivation of his name, but bumping into him in the course of some rainy day genealogical research today reminded me that I had yet to try M. Y. China's Wild Boar Scissor Cut Noodles, recently included in 7X7SF's The Big Eat 2014 bucket list of "100 things to eat before you die."

Thanks to the rainy weather and the earliness of the hour, I had no trouble getting a counter seat by the noodle station at M. Y. China and ordered the aforesaid noodle dish, an order of "Spicy Seafood Dumplings" (M. Y. China's take on Sichuan's "dumplings in chili oil") and a Speakeasy Red Rye Ale before sitting back and watching the ladies and gents in the open kitchen doing their noodle and dumpling things.  Martin Yan's flagship may be a bit up-market and the waitstaff a little too solicitous to my taste, but the long counter is a great place to kick back and contemplate, then enjoy, some of the best noodles this side of the South China Sea.

My spicy seafood dumplings were full of crunchy scallops and shrimp and had spinach wrappers, as promised by the menu, that were of an unnaturally fluorescent jade green. The "ma la" sauce (as the Chinese menu had it) was not particularly "ma" nor "la" but a nice, mildly spicy counterpoint to the sweetness of the seafood filling.

My noodle dish, when it arrived, seemed slightly undersized, portion-wise, but that was more illusory than real.  The dense, meaty scissor-cut noodles were very filling, as became obvious from the first bite. As I've come to expect from M. Y. China's noodles, they were a fresh, chewy delight, and the rough shreds of wild boar, cut to match the noodles in thickness, augmented the impression of great substance to the dish, even though there wasn't an overly-generous portion of the meat. 

Was this my favorite M. Y. China noodle dish to date? Not quite. I found the saucing (this is a stir-fried or, more precisely, a "stir braised" dish) a bit on the bland side, and possessed of a needless starchiness. Abetted by some crunchy beansprouts, the overall impression of this was not unlike a Cantonese chow fun dish, albeit with more sinewy wheaten noodles (and, of course pork instead of the customary beef). Make no mistake, the wild boar scissor-cut noodles is a very good dish of noodles, but if I were one of those 7X7 guys I would have picked M.Y. China's Taiwanese-ish hand-pulled beef noodle soup over it. But stay tuned; there are more noodle dishes on M. Y. China's menu for me to try, including an actual chow fun.

As for the Wildbores in my family tree, the name eventually morphed to "Wilbore" and finally "Wilbur," which may have caught the ear of a more refined porcine creature who decided to use it as his name. Call me a cannibal, Charlotte, but I'd find just the right comfy caja China for that porker.

Where slurped: M. Y. China, Westfield Centre, 845 Market St. 4th Fl., SF

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pork Belly Pad Thai With Naked Heat From Naked Lunch's Chao Mien Pop-up

To begin with, "Chao Mien" is not busted pinyin for Chao Mian (or Chow Mein).  It's the name of a Lao/Thai popup inside the fancy sandwich restaurant on Broadway known as Naked Lunch in the space that will always evoke Enrico's for me.  A sous chef at the restaurant, Sarn Saechao (whence the "Chao") is from Laos and is of the Mien minority nationality, a subgroup of the Chinese Yao nationality, also found in significant numbers in Thailand and Vietnam. The popup happens every Sunday night, and features Chef Saecho's take on his homeland cuisine ("Mien inspired, locally driven" reads the header on his menus). After Champa Garden and Maneelap Srimongkoun, Chao Mien is the third Lao/Thai restaurant (such as it is) to arrive in SF in the past year (after a long period of no Lao culinary presence). Chao Mien, in fact, might be called a Lao/Thai/Mien establishment, though the current featured noodle dish I was there to try -- Pad Thai -- can obviously only be pigeonholed under the middle category.

The Pork Belly Pad Thai is described on the menu as "Tofu, Fried Egg, Bean Sprouts, Chives, Peanut" and, of course Pork Belly. I was asked if I wanted it spicy, and I requested "Thai hot," the house's spiciest category (anything to justify a pint of crisp Trumer Pils).  I am not particularly well-grounded in Pad Thai, since I tend to favor soup noodles over "dry" noodles (and Pad Thai is as dry as dry noodles come), but I enjoyed this as much as any Pad Thai I have had. Although the pork belly component was meager, accounting for little more than a garnish, it was a meal of substance, thanks to the firm toothsomeness of the fat rice noodles and the protein contribution of the tofu and crushed peanuts. It wasn't the spiciest Asian dish I have ever had (that would be a Lao papaya salad) but it lived up to its "Thai hot" label and more than justified my beer order (not to mention a second one) and sent me away with stinging lips and a Niacin rush-like heat on.

Along with my Pad Thai, I ordered a side of Chicken & Cilantro Dumplings ("Peanut, Toasted Garlic, Thai Chile Fish Sauce").  In appearance, they were unlike any other dumplings I have seen, globe-shaped, with translucent, slightly chewy rice flour wrappers, and were a bit on the bland side, prior to dipping. Looking back, I'm wondering if they were a characteristic Mien-style dumpling. [Edit: a commenter pointed out that these are actually a Thai dumpling called Sakoo Sai Moo. A little research reveals that the wrappers are made from tapioca flour, not glutinous rice flour.}

I regret having failed to make it to the Chao Mien popup last month when their menu featured a beef noodle soup, but I'll be tracking menu changes and be back for future noodley offerings and most likely other goodies.

Where noshed: Chao Mien Popup (Sunday nights only), inside Naked Lunch, 504 Broadway, San Francisco.