Friday, August 29, 2014

A Well-endowed Bun Bo Hue At O'Mai Cafe, Oh My!

The recent opening of O'Mai Cafe stuck in my head on account of early Yelp reports that they were offering a Kobe beef banh mi. I was about to meet Andrea Nguyen at a book signing of her new Banh Mi Handbook, and it was a bit of intelligence I knew she would be interested in. The Yelpers had also mentioned a Bun Bo Hue at O'Mai, but I didn't give that a second thought.

I've been craving a good Bun Bo Hue since Ngoc Mai closed down and Ha Nam Ninh apparently stopped offering it as a Friday-only special. But a hip new place in Burma Superstar territory pushing a Kobe beef banh mi would be serving up a gueilao-friendly, toned-down version, right?

Exactly. Except, as I learned from a posting by Rachel Khong on this morning, the accessible version was the "regular" Bun Bo Hue.  For a buck more, they offered a "Special" version, made the old-fashioned way. I was on it immediately.

O'Mai Cafe, in the space that recently held Cafe Barley and before that Java Source, has a simple lunch menu that includes "Salad Rolls," a couple of Banh Mi sandwiches (including the aforementioned Kobe beef), "Crepes"  and "Vermicelli Bowls" but seems to want to put Bun Bo Hue at the center of attention. In addition to the entry level and full monte BBHs, a (gasp!) vegetarian version is also offered.

According to O'Mai's menu, their basic Bun Bo Hue includes thin slices of marinated and boiled beef shank, pork shoulder,  oxtail and Vietnamese ham along with the luxuriant vegetation that goes into the broth. The "special" version adds the requisite cubes of congealed pork blood and "pizzle," (a. k. a. bull penis) and at least all of the above were present in my soup.  (Online dinner menus and some accounts refer to "Rocky Mountain oysters" but not pizzle, but the naughty bits in my soup were definitely the latter.) The udon-esque rice noodles were nicely al dente.  With Ms. Khong, I found the broth a little under-spiced, and requiring augmentation beyond addition of the jalapenos from the garnish dish (they, too, seemed to lack heat.).

Along with wishing for a more aggressive broth, I'd hope for the oxtail to be cooked a bit longer, as the meat didn't separate from the bone easily enough.  Other than those two shortcomings, my Bun Bo Hue was a pretty ballsy bowl of soup to find in the midst of hipsterland, and one that I will gladly return for.

Where slurped: O'Mai Cafe, 343 Clement St., between 4th and 5th Aves., San Francisco

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Quick Look: House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup at House of Xian Dumpling

The flat wide noodles I specified for my House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup at House of Xian Dumpling were on the ragged side, though of uniform thickness and consistent in bite. I felt they were too thin overall, though, and became too soft by the end of my slurping. The broth was gingery and only medium spicy, but probably appropriately so for a chicken soup.  The nuggety chicken pieces had a strange, soft, mystery meat texture to them.  Veggies were mostly green and red bell peppers, some celery and a stalk of bok choy.

The Bean Curd Sticks Salad With Cilantro I chose as an appetizer was mostly just that, with a bit of celery and a bland dressing. It was not nearly as exciting as the spicy version with cucumber and peanuts I've had elsewhere.

Overall, I preferred the braised beef noodles and especially the beef tendon noodles I had previously at House of Xian Dumpling, and probably wouldn't order the House Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup  again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Kuaytiaw Sukhothai At Amphawa Thai: The Best Thai Noodle Dish You've Never Heard Of?

Itching for a new noodle thrill, I contemplated heading for Amphawa Thai Noodle House on Geary Boulevard for khao soi, having heard good reports on their version.  While perusing an online menu, however, another noodle soup item which I'd never heard of before caught my eye, Sukhothai Noodle Soup, described as "hot & spicy noodle soup with roasted pork, ground pork, fish balls, green beans, cabbage and peanuts."  A little online research uncovered a couple of interesting things about this dish: for one, a CNN Travel post pegged Kuaytiaw Sukhothai (i.e. Sukhothai Noodles) "the best Thai dish you've never heard of." Secondly, as far as I could determine, Amphawa Thai is the only restaurant in San Francisco serving this dish, at least under that name.  Bingo! My lunch plan was made.

Amphawa Thai Noodle House, which I'd so often passed on the #38 Bus, is as tidy as it is tiny inside. It has the appearance of a family-run restaurant (by a family with pride in its product) and serves family-style Thai meals. It was about half full at 1:15 on a Wednesday, and I was seated at a cozy corner two-top and promptly served.

Amphawa is named for a district of Thailand on the Bay of Bengal, not far from Bangkok. Sukhothai noodles are named for an ancient inland city in Thailand*, but popular in the Bangkok vicinity, according to the CNN post.  I placed my order for the noodles, a roti with a peanut dip, and a Thai iced tea.  My pleasant server asked me what type of noodles I wanted. "Whatever is traditional for the dish," I replied.  (I had already read that in Thailand it was always made with sen lek, Thai rice stick noodles, and happily that was what I ended up with.)  She also asked me how spicy I wanted it.

"Very spicy," I said.

"Are you sure?" she said.


I am happy to report that if you ask for spicy at Amphawa Thai you will get spicy. When my bowl came, the broth was glorious spicy and gloriously tart at the same time, with only a soupçon of palm sugar sweetness, something like an X-treme tom yum broth  The thin rice noodles started out slightly hard, and remained chewy enough while I worked my way to the bottom of the bowl. The toppings included barbecued pork slices, pork pate slices, a copious amount of ground pork and fish balls. There was probably as much protein in the dish as in any other bowl of noodles I have blogged about here. On the veggie side, in addition to thinly sliced green beans and chopped peanuts (shades of Guilin mifen), was what appeared to be fried or pickled garlic, chewy white strips of what might have been pickled daikon (or not), cilantro, chili paste and lots of ground chili.

The server came came to refill my glass of ice water just as I was reaching the bottom of my bowl. "Oh," she exclaimed "you can eat spicy!" I am from Mars, apparently.

I'll have to add that there was nothing special about the roti, which was a bit on the oily side and oddly overpriced at $6.50 for a small portion.  As for my $8.95 bowl of Sukhothai noodles, however, it is in strong contention for a spot on my not yet existent "10 Best SF Noodle Dishes" list.

Where slurped: Amphawa Thai Noodle House, 5020 Geary Boulevard, between 14th and 15th Avenues.

*I came across an interesting post by Thai blogger Natayada on Sukhothai noodles and his quest for an authentic version in the city of Sukhothai. Unable to find them in that city at all, he developed a theory that the dish may have been created at Sukhothai Palace in a district of Bangkok known as Sukhothai. He also highlights the differences between Sukhothai noodles and Tom Yum, whic also has a spicy-sour-sweet broth.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Noodle Break At Aruba, Island Of Taiwanese Street Food In An Ocean Of Boba Joints

There's a stretch of Irving Street from 19th to 24th or 25th Avenue I like to call "Boba Central" because it has the greatest concentration of Bubble Tea, Fruit Smoothie, and Pan-Asian snack shops in the City. The new kid on the block is a hole-in-the-wall (to put it generously) curiously named Aruba (阿滷吧). It emerged, a couple of weeks ago, literally sandwiched between the two Teaway outlets between 22nd and 23rd Avenues.

Aruba is not named for an island in the Netherland Antilles. According to a Taiwanese woman of my acquaintance, "Aruba" is a wordplay on some off-color slang young people will catch onto. I don't know her well enough to have asked for specifics, but a little research tells me it's probably 阿魯巴, which you can read about here. The 滷 substitution in the snack shop's name appears to be a reference to 台式鹵味, "Taiwanese Marinated Food," a specialty of the house, according to  a sandwich board sign in front.

This "Taiwanese Marinated Food" refers to a long roster of offal-centric meats, veggies, and tofu, any number of which will be cooked in a five-spice flavored soy sauce "gravy" on request and served, garnished,  in a cup as walkin'-around food. Aruba's grand opening promotion is two items for $3.00 and, I believe, $1.50 for each additional item.

Aruba also has a specials board and, luckily for me, today had udon and knife-cut noodles available as a base for the marinated goodies for an additional $2.00. Also luckily for me, one of its two tables was available to me for a sit-down meal.   I went for the knife-cut noodles with chicken hearts and "QQ Tofu" as toppings. I didn't ask about the provenance of the noodles; they obviously weren't made to order in that small space, and possibly not even in-house, but the "knife-cut" designation assured me that someone had made them by hand, at least. My faith in that was justified, when they came, strong, a bit wabe and properly chewy.  The chicken hearts were thinly sliced, making them easy to chew.  The firm tofu was, as the "QQ" suggests, also pleasantly chewy. The soy sauce"marinade" (broth, in this context) was familiarly 5-spicey and slightly sweet, and benefited from a few squirts from the nearby sriracha bottle.

My bowl of noodles was not large and not really a destination bowl of noodles, but for $5 was a solid and tasty mid-afternoon snack which I will not hesitate to drop in and repeat (trying different toppings), assuming they continue to make the noodles available.

I haven't seen a unified menu, and am not sure what their other regular offerings or specials will be but based on Aruba's Facebook page and Yelp reviews, pork rice plates and skewers have been available. Aruba is worth keeping an eye on.

Where slurped: Aruba, 2146 Irving St., San Francisco