Friday, June 20, 2014

A Spicy Beef Noodle Week Continued: Bun Bo Hue From Tin Vietnamese Restaurant

It was Friday and that Pavlovian bell rang, but I recalled again that the reputedly peerless "only on Friday" bun bo Hue at Ha Nam Ninh may be becoming a dim memory, so I went to my bucket list and picked off Tin Vietnamese restaurant on Howard Street. Tin's location (and suspected gentrification role) as well as its menu descriptors suggested that this was a "gateway" restaurant, but it had ended up on my bucket list based on the recommendations of two people whose knowledge of Vietnamese food I highly trust. I only had to jump on the #30 Bus and I would be right there, and they had bun bo Hue on the menu. 

Tin's menu is laudably modest, suggesting that they stick to dishes they know they do well. From the eight-item "Noodles With Broth" section of the menu, I ordered my BBH and a mini-pot of Red Blossom Tea's excellent Tung Ting oolong tea to accompany it. While I was waiting for my soup, the little garnish dish arrived containing, in this instance, jalapeno slices, bean sprouts and shredded cabbage. Why do they always bring the garnishes well ahead of the soup, I wondered. Do people munch on them? I was; in fact, gnawing at some cabbage shreds as these thoughts went through my mind.

When the soup arrived I inventoried the contents. It seemed a classic broth, red with chili and containing chopped cilantro and spring onions, onion slices and Vietnamese flora that I am not on a first name basis with. It tasted meaty with lemon-grassy undertones, and a little shy of spicy (though addition of the jalapeno slices brought it to the nasal drip-inducing stage).  As I expected, there were no blood cubes adorning the bowl (hard to come by, even in the Tenderloin).  As advertised, there was both rare, thinly sliced beef, and equally thinly sliced beef shank. Instead of a pig's knuckle, however, there were slices of pork pate (pork "bologna" on the menu).  No blood nor bones were to be found in my bun bo Hue.

Overall, there were generous portions of the proteins, and everything (both meat and veggies) appeared to be fresh. the only thing that marred a strong, if slightly eccentric, bun bu Hue were the noodles. They were the right size, and in the right proportion to the broth, but on this occasion overcooked and too soft for my taste -- a fault easily avoided with due diligence.

Where slurped: Tin Vietnamese, 937 Howard St. nr. 6th St., San Francisco

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Slurp Du Jour: Spicy Hand-pulled Beef Noodles at Xi An Gourmet

I've been accused of being fixated on Terra Cotta Warrior on account of the number of noodle-ish dishes I've reported on from there, and it's true I was (and might still be) Mayor of TCW on Foursquare. But when it comes down to a basic bowl of hand-pulled wheat noodles, my heart belongs to the more homely Xi An Gourmet.

Case in point: today's bowl of "Spicy Beef Soup Nooodles" (in Chinese on Xi An Gourmet's Hand-Pulled Noodles  menu as Chuan wei niu rou mian). The bowl was large, the noodles muscular and chewy, the broth dark and beefy with a meal's worth of tender braised beef brisket. and enough cilantro and Chinese mustard to let me know I was getting my vegetables.  What more could I want for $6.99? Also available in lamb.

Where slurped: Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Blvd. at 2nd Avenenue, San Francisco

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sure It's The Same Old Shalala: Mountain View Standout Opens SF Japantown Outpost

When ramen guru Melanie Wong spotted the "Shalala" sign going up at the storefront on the Buchanan St. mall vacated by Sushi Aka Tombo, she wondered if it was related to the highly regarded Ramen Shalala in Mountain View. The paper trail she followed indicated it was indeed under the same ownership, and that gave me a reason for checking it out at the earliest opportunity. I had a second reason, or so I thought, in the word "Kuro" which I spotted on the posted menu when I buzzed by the previous Saturday on my way to the Northern California Tofu Festival (hey, I'm an omnivore, you know?)

It turned out "Kuro" ("dark") in this case did not refer to the Exxon Valdez-grade blackened garlic oil ramen I became enamored of at New York's Hide-chan a while back, but to one of the two broth styles offered by Ramen Shalala's new venture, described as "Deep and Thick Tonkotsu (Pork Bones) Broth with Soy Sauce Base flavor;" in other words, a tonkotsu-shoyu broth. Shalala's other Japantown offering is "Shiro" ("light"), a tonkotsu-shio (sea salt base flavor) ramen.  Nicknames aside, these constitute two-thirds of the basic offerings at Ramen Shalala in Mountain View, where a miso option is also available.  At both locations variations are available, such as negi (spring onion), moyashi (bean sprout), vegetarian and kitchen sink options. The appetizer and side dish offerings at Shalala Ramen are pretty much a subset of those at Ramen Shalala as well.

Disappointed though I was upon learning no blackened garlic oil was involved, I ordered the $8.95 dark "Kuro" ramen with eyes open anyway; no extra toppings save the $1 spice bomb.  I also went for an order of gyoza, after determining they were house made (good move that; they were well-browned garlicky ingots that went down well).  My ramen came piping hot; hot enough to burn my tongue while tasting the broth even after pausing to pose my bowl for a couple of Obnoxious Foodie pictures. The tawny potion was a deep rich wonder, and the added spice neutered any cloying quality it may have had (as tonkotsu broths sometimes do)  The three razor-thin chashu slices were tender if a little dry, and the whole half-cooked egg was suitably runny at the yolk. The thick, curly noodles were nicely chewy, and the negi, kikurage, nori and sesame seeds complemented the main players nicely (if this was theater, I'd say there was great chemistry, but that doesn't work for soup, huh).  

It's the same old Shalala, ownership-wise, and two-thirds of the same old Shalala menu-wise; is it the same old Shalala quality-wise?  Not having tried the fare at the mother ship, this ramen novice noodle nudnik can't say. But I found myself thinking that perhaps I was finally beginning to get ramen, so maybe there's something of Ramen Shalala's reputation that came through in the translation to Shalala Ramen in San Francisco.

Where slurped: Shalala Ramen, 1737 Buchanan St. (on the pedestrian mall), San Francico

The "Shalala" name is hidden by the tree; it's not a.k.a. Tombo

Friday, June 6, 2014

Go For The Karaoke -- Stay For the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup At Dragon Gate In Oakland

It's been eight months (thanks, Foursquare!) since I've been sucked through the Transbay Tube to Oakland for a bowl of noodles. The last time it was for Liuzhou spicy snail noodles at Guilin Classic Rice Noodles; today it was for Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Dragon Gate, a new cocktail lounge/karaoke bar that happens to have excellent food, as reported  by the always reliable Luke Tsai in the East Bay Express.

I felt a little naughty going for noodles at a cocktail bar that has waitresses in slinky cut-off qipaos and private karaoke rooms in the back. But Dragon Gate is definitely G-rated at lunch time (though I'd say the waitresses were Gee!-rated even then). They don't even hustle drinks to the lunchtime crowd; my server asked if I would like cold water or hot tea to start off with. I chose the tea, which came in an attractive tetsubin, or iron teapot, accompanied by a stoneware teacup.  After pretending to study the menu, I ordered the beef noodle soup (which was my mission) and an order of fried tofu, upon learning that they didn't have stinky tofu.

When my beef noodle soup arrived, the first thing I did was cancel the tofu order. My bowl of noodles was so flippin' huge, I couldn't imagine having room for the tofu; in retrospect, I think that was a wise assessment.

My expectations for the Taiwanese beef noodle soup, based on Tsai's report, were high, and I was not disappointed. A sip of the tawny, deeply rich tomato-based beef broth revealed it to be both aromatic (with the expected star anise notes) and spicy -- not face-melting, but sinus-clearing spicy. After testing the broth, I went to work on the veritable rock garden of chunks sitting atop the bed of chewy wheat noodles underneath and supporting the pickled green foliage. There were big chunks of tender beef brisket, and of impossibly tender tendon, and big chunks of luobo and hong luobo (known as daikon and carrot, when they are at home). This was a chunky soup Clay Matthew's mom could only dream of.

Not having been to Taiwan, I haven't had a lot of opportunities to enjoy real Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup, and therefore can't really comment on authenticity. I'll take Luke Tsai's word for that. But if I were writing down my top ten Bay Area noodle experiences right now, Dragon Gate's beef noodle soup would be on it.

Where slurped: 300 Broadway, Oakland CA (entrance on 3rd St.)