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

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