Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dumpling Diversion: Cool Cucumber And Seafood Jiaozi At Xi An Gourmet

It was high time to wander off the noodle reservation again for a foray into the land of the noodle's 3D cousin, the dumpling.  It was a woman who put me up to it, namely Lily, the amiable dumpling mistress  at Xi An Gourmet.

The week before, when I was at Xi An Gourmet vetting the lamb noodle soup, Lily recognized me from previous visits and approached my table after my meal to present the case for trying her dumplings.  She was from Qingdao, after all, and knew her shui jiao (boiled dumplings), especially ones in which seafood was involved. She started telling me in halting English about her creation that included scallops and shrimp in the filling,  and if her earnestness in pitching this dish hadn't sold me, the wontons in chili oil I had ordered as a side dish would have.  Also made from scratch by Lily, the thin-skinned marvels bursting with pork and shepherd's purse were so tasty on their own I almost wished I had asked for them without the chili oil. I promised I would return for dumplings.

Lily spotted me from the recesses just after I was seated at my table today and greeted me with a "Hello!"  I waved her over (she was not the server) and asked her what her best dumpling was. Wordlessly, she retreated to the kitchen and returned with a sample, a single jiaozi on a plate. "Seafood and cucumber," she announced.

Sold, I ordered the seafood and cucumber dumplings along with a side dish of some pickled vegetables. (The latter was actually a hastily improvised substitute for "Spicy shredded potato" which they were out of, and turned out to be one of the best appetizers I have had in a while time). Though greatly appreciated, the side dish was hardly needed; the dumplings, 12 in number and plump and pregnant with cucumber, shrimp and scallops, were a hearty lunch-size bellyful.  This dish was not on the printed menu, but priced the same as the other dumpling dishes ($6.95, except for the basic pork and Napa cabbage, which was $1 cheaper).  The dumplings are also available for takeout frozen, at $12.95 for 30, and may be the match for any other in town, based on my one experience.

Where slurped: Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard

Friday, May 23, 2014

Lamb Soup For The Shaanxi Soul: Comforting Bowls From Terra Cotta Warrior and Xi An Gourmet

TCW's noodles (top) had the more unctuous broth,  XAG the heartier noodles

The noodle dishes of Shaanxi Province and its capital Xi'an call to mind sharp seasonings and unusual and aggressive flavors -- that's the reason I became enamored of them. But the belly is not always ready for The Big Show, and therefore every food culture has its metaphorical chicken noodle soup. Shaanxi's chicken noodle soup is lamb noodle soup. Yes, there are spicy noodle dishes with lamb in them on the menus, but shorn of designer labels, "noodles with lamb," as it's called at Terra Cotta Warrior or "lamb soup noodles" at Xi An Gourmet is intended to mean something at once nourishing and comforting. As I did with yangrou paomo, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison (well, three days apart) of the lamb noodles at the two Xi'an food venues vying for my affection.

The Terra Cotta Warrior's Noodles With Lamb ($8.99 - top picture) came with a lavish show of greenery on the surface (but I didn't let that scare me). This included a stem of Shanghai bok choy, a scattering of cilantro leaves and both onion and garlic tops. The broth was subtly vegetal with a garlicky hint end faintly medicinal -- perhaps from a touch of five-spice seasoning. It was reminiscent of a Lanzhou lamian broth, more so than I'd encountered in any other Xi'an noodle dish.  The lamb appeared to be braised, and was slightly fatty, as was the broth itself.  The noodles were wide (not biang biang wide but half-inch wide) and freshly made and nicely chewy.

Xi An Gourmet's Lamb Soup Noodles ($6.99 - bottom picture) came with less of a garden on top, mostly some cilantro leaves and onion tops. There was a slight hint of mint to the broth that I couldn't pin down - possibly from a touch of cumin. The broth was saltier and meatier, but less fatty than TCW's.  The lamb meat came in thick slabs.  According to the Chinese menu it was lamb belly; if so, the fat layers has been excised, as there was very little present.  The meat did have a texture that indicated it might have been smoked, though there was no smoky flavor to it. The noodles were the big winners in Xi An Gourmet's soup. They were approximately the same width as Terra Cotta Warrior's, but fatter, more rough-cut and a real delight to chew on.

On balance, I preferred the fattier, more unctuous broth in Terra Cotta Warrior's lamb noodles, but the caveman in me loved the more brutish noodles at Xi An Gourmet.  Both versions are definitely worth a return visit.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah Street; Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard

Friday, May 16, 2014

Zen Yai Thai's Tom Yum Is Um, Tom Yum-my

Let me make one thing clear: I do not like the Y-word. I never speak the Y-word. I've never used the Y-word before in this blog and never will again after this post. But there's something about Thai food that turns people into bad punsters. If you don't believe me, check out the names of Thai restaurants in your town.  So, excuse me for telling you the tom yum at Zen Yai Thai is tom yum-my. Damn tom yummy. Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy for Zen Yai Thai's tom yum. There, I've said it.

To back up, I was reading notices at breakfast time of a Thai Noodle place in San Pablo and Jonathan Kauffman's descriptions made my mouth water. Not prepared to plan an all-day excursion to get me there and back by public transportation (if that is even possible), I searched my brain for local alternatives and Zen Yai Thai, of boat noodle renown. was right there.

Zen Yai Thai was jumping at 1:45, with a couple of tables full of raucous Thai birthday party-goers. (Raucous Thai, hey, that could be a restaurant name.) I was given a deuce by the window, and pondered the menu. I almost passed on Tom Yum, the ubiquitous and oft-bowdlerized hot-sour soup, but remembered that Zen Yai Thai's tom yum had a place on the "secret" boat noodle menu on the wall in Thai, alongside beef and pork boat noodles, and therefore had some street creds. I decided to go with it.

Zen Yai Tom Yum, as it's called on the menu, is described as "Spicy and sour soup served with shrimp, fish balls, minced chicken, and ground peanuts." At the server's suggestion, I ordered it with wide rice noodles. What arrived at my table was a symphony of flavors (hot, sour, salty, fishy and nutty) and textures, from the soft rice noodles to the firm jumbo shrimp, with crunchy and chewy sensations in between.  As can be seen in the picture above, there was a whole boatload of protein in there, fresh and of good quality, a meal's worth in a bowl of soup. The soup itself, once liberated from its solid contents, was mouth-puckering tart and lip-stinging spicy; delicious as home-made sin to the very last drop.

Zen Yai Thai's Tom Yum is the equal to any I've ever had, if not the best I've ever had. And yes, it was tom yum-my

Where slurped: Zen Yai Thai, 771 Ellis Street, San Francisco

Monday, May 12, 2014

It's Ramen Without Roamin' Again For North Beachers At MuRa In The Old Kirimachi Space

During the lamentably short tenure of Kirimachi Ramen on Broadway in North Beach I consumed more ramen than I otherwise would have.  It was partly because of their superior ramen, but mostly just because they were there, in the hood.  It was easy for me to roll down the hill and lazily stroll over to Kirimachi for some noodles. In the half-year since they closed, my ramen intake plummeted. Now, thanks to MuRa, the Japanese-Korean ramen spot that opened just a week ago in the very same spot vacated by Kirimachi, North Beach once again has a ramen "local" to slurp at.

MuRa currently features two choices, a House Special Chashu ($8.00) and a Korean Style BBQ Pork ramen ($8.50).  Either can be had with a choice of miso or tonkotsu broth. Extra noodles or extra toppings are available for $1.50-$2.00. MuRa's opening menu also lists appetizers ("Small Plates") ranging from edamame ($3.00) to baby octopus ($7.00).  If you are not in the mood for ramen, Japanese/Korean Style sizzling rice plates are available, ranging from Hot Links with Egg or Vegetarian Kimchi ($7.00) to Unagi & Korean Style Beef ($11.00). The latter is the only thing over $!0.00 on the entire menu.

I ordered the "House Special" chashu ramen after the server's initial spiel, before I became aware that I had my choice of broths (assuming, wrongly that "house special" dictated the broth as well as the toppings).  As one might expect, the broth defaulted to tonkotsu, it being America's favorite, or so it seems. I am not a particular fan of tonkotsu broths, and MuRa's did nothing to change that. It was milky and sweet (though not overly salty) but seemed to lack depth and was improved by a few shakes of red pepper. As usually happens, it left a cloying aftertaste in my mouth. (It's not you, MuRa, it's me.)

The rest of the bowl was more successful. There was the right proportion of noodles to broth, and they were medium-thick and on the hard side of al dente (the way I like them).  The chashu was thick sliced, with a ring of fat on the outer edges, tender and moist. The soft-boiled egg, cut in half, was cooked just right and the other toppings, in addition to the usual suspects, included a generous dollop of sweet corn, the only ingredient I ever pay extra for.

The best thing MuRa's ramen (and perhaps entire menu) has going for it is value.  In this era of undersized hipster ramen bowls with double-digit prices, MuRa gives a lot of bang for the buck. The $8.00 bowl I had was larger than average, and the quantity of broth, noodles and proteins generous. I'll definitely be going back for the miso, which I presume I will like better than the tonkotsu (that's almost a given). Even if MuRa's ramen doesn't quite rise to the level of Kirimachi, its pricing will make it an easy repeat.

Where slurped: MuRa, 450 Broadway, North Beach, San Francisco

Friday, May 9, 2014

Yangrou Paomo Smackdown: Xi An Gourmet Versus Terra Cotta Warrior

Terra Cotta Warrior (top) wins on beauty, Xi An Gourmet on heft
With a trip to New York on the horizon, it struck me as a good idea to triangulate the essences of some classic Xi'an foods by comparing the versions at San Francisco's two new shining stars of Shaanxi cuisine, Xi An Gourmet and Terra Cotta Warrior, and revisiting the same dishes at the place I came to love Xi'an food, Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing, Queens.  This, at least, was my rationale for stuffing my gut at lunchtime two days running with Xi'an's most substantial comfort food, yangrou paomo.

Yangrou paomo is a stew of lamb or mutton (yangrou) in a broth with bean thread noodles to which is added a copious quantity of crumbled or chopped flatbread (mo) to soak (pao). POW! The bread used is a skillet bread identical to the bread that puts the "mo" in rouiamo, "Chinese hamburgers." On English menus it is often referred to as "pita bread" but is in fact much more substantial. Traditionally, the bread is broken in pieces into a bowl by the eater, and the cook then adds the soup and meat to fill the bowl.  To simplify matters (and to dodge some tricky hygiene issues) the bread pieces (chopped, not crumbled) are usually added to the stew in the kitchen nowadays.* More that a brutally simple stew, crushed cardamom, onion, "wood ear" fungus, cassia bark and cilantro are other ingredients you might find in it.

"Garlic taste pig's ear"
First up on my trials was the yangrou paomo at Terra Cotta Warrior on Judah, accompanied by an appetizer of "garlic taste pig's ear" (which tasted more of cucumber than garlic).  The following day I indulged at Xi An Gourmet in the Richmond, accompanying my paomo with an order of "celery with bean skin" (tofu skin).  Following is my impression of the two versions of yangrou paomo in San Francisco.  The one I had at Xi'an Famous Foods was six years ago, so I'll wait until I revisit it to toss my impressions in the hopper.

In Shaanxi, yangrou paomao is typically served with pickled garlic and chili paste on the side.  That was not the case here, though both restaurants (like nearly all Chinese restaurants) have chili paste available to the diner.  At Terra Cotta Warrior, the garlic seemed to be more positively integrated into the soup. In fact, the stew's broth seemed more complex, with more notes than at Xi An Gourmet, which featured a more monochromatic broth.

"Celery with bean skin"
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two versions was in the relative proportions of mo (bread) and bean thread noodles. As is evident from the photos, Terra Cotta Warrior's was so full of diced flatbread they peeked above the surface, and there seemed only a token amount of the noodles. This was completely reversed at Xi An Gourmet, whose soup was loaded with the bean threads and held a relatively puny portion of bread cubes. (Though not evident from the pictures, Xi An Gourmet's yangrou paomo came it a distinctively larger bowl, with broth filling up most of the extra capacity).

In Xi An Gourmet's favor is the fact that their version came with substantially more lamb.  What you can see in the the Terra Cotta Warrior photo is basically what I got, lamb slices arrayed on top as in bowl of ramen. Xi An Gourmet's bowl had several large and very thick chunks, so large that I had to break them up with chopsticks and spoon to eat them comfortably.  They seemed fattier, too, and therefore more tasty.

Overall, the two versions of yangrou paomo ($8.25 at both locations) seem reflective of their establishments, with the somewhat more elegant Terra Cotta Warrior offering what appears to be up a more "finished" example of the classic. On the other hand, if you're looking for sustenance and LOTSA MEAT, then a trip to the more proletarian-feeling Xi An Gourmet is mo' better.

*Both restaurants now offer a version of yangrou paomo with the flatbread on the side for the DIYer. No word on whether signing a waiver is required.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah Street; Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Terra Cotta Warrior's Shaanxi Stir-fried Wide Noodles: A Close Cousin to Xinjiang Geiro Lagman

I headed for Terra Cotta Warrior with the intention a trying out the yang rou pao mo there, but my gaze wouldn't break away from the menu item "Shaanxi stir-fried wide noodles" (something about the "wide" in there).  After confirming that the dish had some meat in it (pork) I ordered it along with a side order of "Mixed cold shredded potatoes" (liang ban tu dou si in Chinese), another Xi'an specialty.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but envisaged some flat, belt-like biang biang style noodles. When my Shaanxi chao la tiao zi arrived, I was surprised (but not disappointed) that the dish that greeted my senses was instead a ringer for an Uyghur dish from further down the Silk Road in Xinjiang, geiro lagman.  Like the Uyghur dish, Terra Cotta Warrior's had chubby, irregular rope-like hand pulled noodles adorned with onions, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers and a few slices of jalapeno peppers to add a little heat.

The pork was a giveaway that this was a secular Shaanxi version, of course, and the dish had more sauce to it than its halal cousin would have had, being stir-fried rather than braised, as I believe the Xinjiang version is. But overall, the flavor mix and the robust, chewy noodles (WINNING!) of both versions make for a very satisfying culinary ecumenism, and I left not regretting having let the pao mo wait until another visit.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah Street, San Francisco