Sunday, July 27, 2014

Manchu-ey "Northern Noodles" At Sungari Dumpling House

"Northern Noodles" turned out to be my old friend Zha Jiang Mian

I don't know if there's such a thing as Manchurian cuisine in San Francisco, but at least we now have a candidate (he he) in Sungari Dumpling House out in the Excelsior district, the latest addition to our stable of Dongbei (Northeast China) restaurants. "Sungari" is the Manchu name for what is now called the Songhua River, a tributary to the Amur River that cuts through Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces on its way. The restaurant is, in fact, called Songhua River Dumpling Garden (松花江水餃園) in Chinese.

For the non-Chinese-literate patron  (like yours truly), dining at Sungari is bound to be an adventure. For one thing, the staff, or at least the (mom and pop?) couple manning the stoves on a Sunday afternoon are all but devoid of English comprehension.  Then there's the menu, a real work in progress, containing English translations which are either inadequate or incomprehensible.  What will I get, for example, when I order "Hongyun Crocodile Pot" under the Clay Pot menu? (For the record, my Waygo translation app reads the Chinese as "alligator" rather than "crocodile" but I'll give them a pass on that.) "House Soup Gross Blood Mong" turns out to be congealed duck blood and sauteed eel in Chili sauce (mao xue yang), one of several Sichuan dishes on the menu.  I'll wait on that one, because I'm dying to try the "Secret Burning Pomfret."

Joking aside, the woman serving me was as friendly and willing to please as she was incapable of enlightening me about anything on the menu.  She brought me tea and complimentary dishes of spiced cabbage and peanuts while I pondered the menu. I was there for noodles, and between English, Chinese and pointing was able to successfully order the "Northern Noodles." The Chinese on the menu was no less vague on what that meant, and I prepared myself to be surprised.  At least it would be something "Northern" (beifang).

When my "Northern Noodles" came, they turned out to be nothing other than my old friend zha jiang mian. At least I don't have to explain zha jiang mian again, just point to my last post. Sungari's ZJM, however, was a different version than Xi An Gourmet's. The sauce, lighter in color and thinner than my previous foray's version, was also blander (but not sweeter) and more copious. It was served atop rough, thick hand-cut noodles that were perfectly chewy. Instead of just julienned cucumber, it came with three vegetal condiments in little dishes -- cucumber, bean sprouts, and chopped fresh cilantro. I added the contents of all three, as well as the remnants of my spiced cabbage to add a little heat.  I could have added some chili paste from the table's condiment tray, but the fresh cilantro added a complexity that extra heat might have masked.

My "Northern Noodles" turned out to be a damned fine hearty lunch for $6.95, and I will be back to Sungari Dumpling House to try more noodles and dumplings, and maybe even a Spicy Mix Fountain salad.

 Where slurped: Sungari Dumpling House, 4543 Mission St., San Francisco

Friday, July 11, 2014

Slurp Du Jour: Tasty Zha Jiang Mian at Xi An Gourmet

It seemed time to pay another visit to my friends at Xi An Gourmet and try yet another of their noodle offerings. Perusing my paper menu in advance, I set off a ping-pong game in my head between dan dan mian and zha jiang mian. Neither is a Xi'an dish, though dan dan mian originated in Shaanxi province's neighbor Sichuan. On the other hand, zha jiang mian is a Shandong specialty, and Xi An Gourmet has a long reach to Shandong, starting off as San Dong House and adding a Xi'an layer and identity by securing a chef from Xi'an. Based on my previous experience with Xi An Gourmet's shui jiao (dumplings), it appears that they could hit it out from either side of the plate. Advantage zha jiang mian.

Zha jiang mian literally means "fried paste noodles" and consists of thick wheat noodles topped with fermented bean paste containing ground pork and a generous amount of julienned cucumber and/or carrots, to be tossed or stirred with the noodles at the table. At Xi'an Gourmet, the noodles are hand pulled (which, of course, is why I was there). There is also a version of zha jian mian popular in Shandong's neighbor Korea, which tends to have a sweeter, more saucy sauce. I am not particularly fond of the Korean version.

After waffling between the two noodle dishes, I ordered the zha jiang mian accompanied by a side order of cucumber with garlic sauce. (I had settled on this appetizer before making my noodle choice, blithely unaware of how much cucumber I would have to consume at one sitting.)  I found the sauce a little on the thick side, making the task of stirring to cover all the noodles difficult, and causing the noodles to tend to stick together.  The julienned cucumbers were fresh and crunchy, affording a welcome counterpoint to the chewy noodles.

The noodles themselves, as usual, were the real star. It may be my bias toward thick noodles, but I feel that Xi An Gourmet's are among the best in the City, both in the making and in the cooking.  For $6.99, they could have served me naked noodles with a salad mister and a salt and pepper shaker, and I would have been happy with my creation.

Where slurped: Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard at 2nd Avenue, San Francisco

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Spicy Beef Noodles (Yes, Again) at China North Dumpling

China North Dumpling somehow dove beneath my radar after I took note of its opening about a year ago, coming as it did amid a spate of new Northern China, Shandong, Xi'an, and Xi'an-Shandong restaurants presenting their noodle credentials to me. Some recent online buzz about China North Dumpling reminded me I had not so much as set my foot in the door  yet, so I headed to Noriega St. via the counter-intuitive and counter-clockwise 30 Stockton - 28 Nineteenth Avenue route to make amends and vet the hand-made noodles as my first mission after a couple of weeks of distractions.

China North Dumpling is a homey place with a long menu of Northern Chinese appetizers, dumplings, noodles and hot dishes and a few bows to Shanghai (which is technically a southern city, but definitely on the noodle side of the noodle/rice divide). For my noodle quest, I went with a safe option, "Spicy Beef Noodle Soup" on  the menu (mala niurou mian in Chinese), accompanied by "Mixed Bean Curd, Skin, Cucumber and Peanut" cold appetizer, which sounded like the perfect foil for the soup it it turned out as spicy as I wished. (Yes, I know it's my third "spicy beef noodles" post in a row, but who's counting?)

When I had more time to parse the menu, I noticed that the other two beef noodle soups atop the noodle menu "Special Beef Noodle Soup" and simply "Beef Noodle Soup" translated to "red-cooked beef noodles" (possible a nod to Taiwanese beef noodles) and "clear broth" beef noodles, suggestive of a Lanzhou lamian style. Those two entries alone will justify a couple more visits to China North Dumpling, not to mention another 20 noodle options presented by the menu. I also noticed (from some online photos) that the restaurant's "Shanghai Style Chow Mein" looks like the real thing (meaning it looks pretty much like my wife's), but that'll be something, along with the "Shanghai Style Rice Cakes," to turn the whole family loose on in a future visit.

I was not disappointed by either my noodles or the cold appetizer. A wealth of thick, gloriously chewy noodles sat in a spicy, almost to the point of fiery, chili-laced broth along with braised beef brisket and a couple of stalks of bok choy. Simple and direct, as Northern Chinese food tends to be, and gratifyingly filling. As for the appetizer, The cool cucumber chunks, chewy softened tofu skin and peanuts in a slightly spicy, pleasantly tart dressing were the perfect accompaniment to the noodles.

What with Shandong Deluxe, House of Pancake, House of Xian Dumpling, Xi'an Gourmet, Terra Cotta Warrior, Made in China and China North Dumpling emerging in the last 18 months or so, our cup of regional Chinese noodles runneth over.  But who's complaining? I just wish they could cluster in a single neighborhood, or at least on a single bus route.

Where slurped: China North Dumpling, 1311-1315 Noriega St., San Francisco