Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shaanxi Mian Pi -- And A Couple Of "Roger Moores" At Terra Cotta Warrior

Shaanxi Mian Pi at Terra Cotta Warrior
I returned to Terra Cotta Warrior on Judah after an unconscionably long hiatus of two weeks since my initial visit (so many noodles so little time) to vet another Shaanxi noodle classic, mian pi.

Mian pi (wheat "skin" noodles), also known as liang pi ("cold skin" noodles) is a quintessential hot weather food. When I'm in New York, the fiery version at Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing is an almost automatic lunch when it's 90° F and 90 percent humidity, a condition I'll just have to imagine here in San Francisco.  The noodles themselves are made not from wheat flour, but from starch leached from wheat flour, through a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. The resultant product is more gelatinous, slightly translucent noodles that absorb flavors better than conventional flour noodles and have a great "mouthfeel" when cold. There are many variations on the liang pi theme in China, but the formula for the Xi'an/Shaanxi version is all but set in stone: the broad, flat, slippery noodles are topped with small cubes of kaofu, (wheat bran gluten), mashed garlic. and bean sprouts, then doused with vinegar and a very liberal bath of seasoned chili oil. The kaofu is another great flavor absorber, the bean sprout crunchiness adds counterpoint to the soft wheat starch noodles and the other ingredients speak for themselves, usually quite loudly.

Terra Cotta Warrior's version of liang pi/mian pi is clearly the sharpest-flavored and most satisfying of the three versions I've had in San Francisco coming from our recent spate of new Shaanxi cuisine restaurants. If there's one thing that kept it from being the equal of any version I've had anywhere, it was the lack of chili heat. It's not a question of stinginess with the chili oil -- there is an ample pool hiding beneath the tangle of noodles to splash them in -- but perhaps the intensity of the chili oil itself. I'll plead for it to be a little spicier next time; perhaps they have some high-test chili oil reserved for the homies. Even as it is, it's a "must try" unless you have a very low tolerance for spicy fare.

Basic pork roujiamo
But "Roger Moore"? Well, that's a handy homonymous mnemonic for "roujiamo" created by a Twitter cohort, British blogger/adventurer @foodishboy in a recent useful post on Xi'an street food. Along with my mian pi (it's an appetizer-sized serving, after all) I ordered a couple of Roger Moores, er, roujiamos: a classic pork version ("Chinese burger with pork") and one with pork and jalapenos ("Pork with hot pepper burger"), having dispensed with the ultra-cuminy lamb roujiamo on my first visit.
Although Shaanxi has a large muslim Chinese population and Xi'an dishes are staples in many halal Chinese restaurants, the traditional roujiamo is actually the pork version, as the name implies. In its basic form (which has varied little in all the versions I've had in SF, New York and China) the split flatbread is filled with meat of a fine "pullled pork" consistency, seasoned with a complex but sedate combination of sour, sweet, salty and spicy flavors.

Pork with jalapeno roujiamo
If you want and expect heat, you may find the classic roujiamo a trifle bland.  Terra Cotta Warrior's basic pork roujiamo pretty much fit the norm, though it happily avoided the overbearing saltiness I've experienced in versions elsewhere.  Much more satisfying to my brutish tastes, however, was the "Pork with hot pepper" roujiamo, which used a coarse-ground pork mixed liberally with fresh jalapeno slices, and dressed with a smattering of chili oil.

It was a great sign that Terra Cotta Warrior had a nearly full house even at 2:00 PM when I arrived; it'll be around for a while, which it justly deserves.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah St. at 31st Ave., San Francisco

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In The Soup -- Hu Tieu Nam Vang Remix At Ha Nam Ninh

Friday morning sent me to the TL to vet the Bun Bo Hue at Ha Nam Ninh, which is only offered on Fridays and has reached legendary status. I was hankering for some good BBH since the lamentable closure of Ngoc Mai and got there early (for me), at 12:15 with high hopes. Alas, it was already sold out, and it didn't take me long to improvise a Plan B.

Ha Nam Ninh's everyday landmark dish is Hu Tieu Nam Vang, especially the "dry" version (broth on the side), which is as elegant in appearance as it is tasty. I've always wondered, though, if the dry version, local foodie fetish that it is, was really the preferred version. Vietnamese food authority Andrea Nguyen, in her Viet World Kitchen blog, says she's seen a dry version of hu tieu but never tried it. Why not order it in soup?

When my hu tieu Nam Vang in soup arrived, it deceptively resembled pho ga, presenting a face of a pale broth with bright green islets, the proteins lurking below the surface. (The photo above was after I had added garnish and stirred it.)  A taste of the broth revealed otherwise, though.  It was a very round, slightly sweet southern style broth with a touch of heat even before I added jalapeno slices (the bottom of the bowl, which yes, I always see, revealed some black pepper). I checked off the proteins, which seemed to be the same in amount and number as in the dry version I'd previously enjoyed: shrimp, fish cake, slices of pork, ground pork chicken and some unadvertised cuttlefish.  The broth seemed fuller than supplied on the side with the dry version of HTNV, but that may be because the protein ingredients had already been bathing in it and the fish sauce accounted for.  The shrimp and other ingredients seemed as fresh as in the dry version, as near as could be determined, so fully infused with broth.

In one significant aspect, the "in soup" version of hu tieu Nam Vang trumps the "dry" version: slurpability.  There was no need for decorum, I wasn't in Des Moines. I hunched over the bowl and sucked down the noodles, slurping like a pro. And when there was nothing left but the dregs of broth, I picked up the bowl and drank it down.

And that, my friend, is whay I love noodles. And why I'll return to Ha Nam Ninh.

Where slurped: Ha Nam Ninh, 337 Jones Street, San Francico

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Terra Cotta Warrior Strides Into The Sunset, Bringing Handmade Noodles And Tasty Shaanxi Snacks

 Noodles With Sizzling Oil (You po che mian)
In my dreams David Shih brings a branch of Xi'an Famous Foods to San Francisco and plunks it down in my neighborhood.  The noodle gods aren't so generous, but they've taken to throwing some Silk Road bouquets my way. A little more than six months ago, San Dong House on Geary Blvd. acquired a chef from Xi'an and repurposed itself as "Xi An Gourmet," bringing creditable versions of some Xi'an specialties to their menu. A couple of months later, the awkwardly named "House of Xian [sic] Dumpling" came to my neighborhood bringing handmade noodles and dumplings, but only a short list of characteristic Xi'an specialties.

Last week Terra Corra Warrior swelled the ranks of restaurants in San Francisco promising Xi'an/Shaanxi food to three in number when it opened without fanfare in the space that used to be Kama Izakaya on Judah Street and 31st Avenue. I visited Terra Cotta Warrior today, and based on my first impressions, it may be the best option for experiencing the food from that region in SF yet.

As its name implies, Terra Cotta Warrior was conceived top down as a showcase for Shaanxi Cuisine (the city of Xi'an, in Shaanxi province is, of course, home to the famed Terra Cotta Warrior army). It's menu is compact and focused, with nearly ever dish characteristic of Shaanxi or a neighboring province. It's a noodle-centric cuisine, and as befits a restaurant of this type, noodles are hand-made in house. Included are crowd-pleasing roujiamo ("Chinese burgers") in pork, lamb and pork wiih chili versions, pao mao dishes (featuring broken flatbread in place of noodles) and a variety of intriguing cold and hot dishes and side dishes. (There's no Lamb Face Salad, to be sure; the version served at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York wouldn't be legal in California in any event, according to Chris Cosentino.)

I ordered my favorite benchmark pair of Xi'an specialties, you po che mian ("Noodles with sizzling oil" on the menu) and a cumin lamb roujiamo ("burger").  The roujiamo lamb filling was more intensely cumin-y but less peppery than the version at Xi An Gourmet, and there was less of it; however, the burger was a buck-and-a-half cheaper at Terra Cotta, and just about the right size for a side bite to a big bowl of noodles.  The flatbread "bun" was softer than Xi An Gourmet's, and did a better job of absorbing the juices from the filling.

My bowl of you po che mian was a real winner. It's a dish where sizzling hot oil-based spicy sauce is poured over robust freshly made, freshly cooked wheat noodles (which must also be stirred or tossed before eating). Although the name implies the use of wide, hand-torn ("che" meaning "torn") noodles, it actually came with fat, round hand-pulled noodles, as is sometimes the casse with this dish. (According to proprietor/host David Deng, the flat "biang biang" style noodles will be used on request.)  The shape of the noodles in this dish doesn't matter, as long as they are robust and chewy, as mine were. Either way you get a rewarding, if different mouthfeel.  The chili sauce "bath" the noodles get is from a secret (natch) recipe and is wondrously complex and bracingly spicy. If you have a tolerance for heat at all, you'll want to drink the dregs, as I did.  I'd rank the you po che mian at Terra Cotta Warrior as good as any I've had in China (or New York, Joe Di; I'll report on the liang pi later).

I brought home a copy of the menu and am making a bucket list for many repeat visits. Perhaps Terra Cotta Warrior will make me forget Xi'an Famous Foods once and for all.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah St. at 31st Ave., San Francisco

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pop Goes The Miso: Fujiyoshi Ramen at Kyu Sushi

Ramen service has been literally popping up all over San Francisco. (Okay, figuratively; only weasels and turkey timers literally pop up.)  Initially it was aspiring ramen slingers showing their stuff during down time at unrelated restaurants (like Kenji Miyazaki's popup in a Salvadoran Restaurant called Panchita's #3). Lately, existing izakaya and sushi restaurant owners are caterering to the ramen craze by creating ramen pop-ups during slack times (e.g. lunchtime) within their own establishments. (They're pop-ups, apparently, instead of simple menu expansions because they are given a name of their own.)  Such has been the case with Iza Ramen, within Blowfish Sushi in the Mission, and with Fujiyoshi Ramen, operating in the same premises as Kyu Sushi in, er, "Lower Nob Hill."

I chose Fujiyoshi as my first "kept" ramen pop-up to vet because it happens to be closer to me than Iza. The hipster Mission can wait. Fujiyoshi Ramen and Curry (as it is dubbed on a separate menu) is also close enough to Katana-ya to provide competition to that always-crowded ramen eatery.

There was only one other table occupied when I arrived at my usual late lunch hour (just after two) but there was no problem ordering ramen. (I suspect they serve it up to dinner time.)  I asked the server what she considered the house specialty. "Tonkotsu or miso," she said (which didn't say much for the shoyu, which was the only other choice).  I'm not much of a tonkotsu type, so I ordered the miso ramen, a basic bowl with no extra toppings ($9), but with a side order of house-made gyoza. (Loading up your ramen with extra toppings, IMHO, gets in the way of judging it on its own merits.)

My ramen came topped according to the standard ramen-topping catechism (chashu, menma, onions, shredded wood ear mushrooms, nori and scallions) as well as sesame seeds (no kamboko, thank you very much!). The not-too-heavy miso broth was satisfyingly savory without being overly salty, and served at the right temperature.  The noodles (straight kyushu-style, though curly Tokyo-style are available on request) cooked just right, and the toppings, broth and noodles all were in good proportion to each other. It was a bowl that I enjoyed very much.

The house-made pan-fried gyoza (five to the order, a little on the tiny side) were also tasty enough to order again.

I started this blog as not much of a ramen fan, but I'm tractable, and my learning experience is making me capable of enjoying a good bowl of ramen in its place. Fujiyoshi Ramen at Kyu Sushi seems a pretty good place for it.

Where slurped: Fujiyoshi Ramen and Curry at Kyu Sushi, 639 Post Street, San Francisco