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).

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