Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Slurp Du Jour: Red-Cooked Beef Hand-Made Noodles At China North Dumpling

After seven straight posts featuring exotic Vietnamese,  Japanese or Burmese noodles, I felt like I had returned home from a long journey when I sat down to a simple bowl of muscular hand-made wheat noodles with red-cooked beef at China North Dumpling. China has never actually been my home, at least not for more than a month or two at a time, but it's the place I developed a love of noodles, expecially hand-pulled wheat noodles. Chinese restaurants are also places where I can exhibit a little menu-reading competency.

"Number 1 Beef Noodle," I said to the server. "It's not spicy," she said. I shrugged. "Hong shao," I said, to confirm my choice. "Hong shao," she repeated, nodding.  It was the first time I had been warned by a server in an Asian restaurant that something I ordered wasn't spicy.  The reason, I postulated after looking over Yelp reviews and photos of China North Dumpling, is that No. 2, "Spicy beef noodle soup" (which I previously reviewed) is extremely popular and the servers may have come to expect it to be the choice when someone points at that section of the menu.

No. 1 on the "Hand Made Noodle" section of China North Dumpling's menu is listed simply as "Special Beef Noodle Soup" in English, or hong shao niu rou mian (red-cooked beef noodles) in Chinese. Being married to a Shanghainese woman who cooks, I can confidently explain that "red cooked" meas there is a lot of soy sauce involved (and yes, a smidgen of sugar). Red-cooked beef noodle soup is a basic Shanghainese/Taiwanese soup form that cries out for noodles of great substance. It can be made spicy or not, faintly or sharply aromatic and medicinal, and can have any number of veggies thrown in to dude it up. But it must have noodles that can walk the walk.

China North Dumpling's red-cooked beef noodle soup is of the most basic, noodle-enhancing variety. A generous portion of red-cooked beef brisket in a soy sauce broth that is slightly sweet and slightly aromatic, and two stalks of Shanghai bok choy propped up by a tangle of thick, chewy noodles whipped out by the two ladies in the back of the store.

Lift the noodles out of the broth, admire their heft and suck them down.  It's an act of worship, I tell ya.

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Return To Tuyết Mai II: Bún Mắm, Hot Damn!

On my visit documented below to newly gussied-up Tuyết Mai (nee Ngoc Mai) to reaffirm the excellence of its bun bu Hue, I noticed bún mắm on the menu.  A little research confirmed that it had been there all along. This came as a surprise for me, as I had labored under the mistaken impression that the shoebox-sized Mong Thu, three blocks down the street, was the only place in town that served this delicacy. This discovery was excuse enough (as if I needed one) to return to Tuyết Mai a mere five days after my previous visit.

I ordered a "small" bun mam.  Although Tuyết Mai's menu only lists a single price for its bowl of soups (the "small" size), a large size is also available. The  smaller bowl is plenty for lunch, even for Generation XL types like me.

Bun mam is akin to a gumbo or a chowder; the broth is flavored with fermented fish paste (its tare, so to speak, to use a ramen analogy).  Its toppings are primarily seafood, with the addition of pork of one form or another.  The overall flavor profile is sour, spicy and fishy, in a positive way.

Tuyết Mai's bun mam came with a broth that seemed a bit less fishy than Mong Thu's but with more tartness and spiciness; in short, balanced in a way that seemed more multi-dimensional -- the three slices of jalapeno and the squirt of lime I added from the obligatory condiment dish were all but superfluous.  I was especially surprised (and pleased) by the degree of peppery heat; it was nearly as spicy as the house bun bo Hue. Toppings included prawns, octopus, fish (possibly catfish), thin slices of pork pate and sliced eggplant. The robust rice noodles were not mushy, as had been Mong Thu's. In sum, it was a bpwl of noodles that was both comforting and exhilirating, and one I'll gladly repeat.

The word is that Mama Tuyết's "retirement" will include her hanging around the kitchen for another three years, as she was today and on my last visit.  Bún mắm. thank you ma'am!

Where slurped: Tuyết Mai, formerly Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ngoc Mai Re-Emerges As Tuyết Mai, Its Bun Bo Hue Reputation Unscathed

Those of us who mourned the apparent loss of Ngoc Mai and its superb bun bo Hue have cause to rejoice; it recently re-emerged from behind its papered-over windows as Tuyết Mai.  There's been a bit of a makeover, but it's the same owners, same staff (including kitchen staff), and basically the same menu. So why the name change?

It's quite simple, really. "'Tuyết' is my mother's name," said the young woman who seated me, when I asked her the question.  It turns out that the elders in this multi-generation family restaurant are retiring, and the younger generation who are taking over the business have renamed it to honor the matriarch.

The family that runs the restaurant hails from Hue, in Central Vietnam, and and their version of Hue's namesake noodle soup bun bo Hue is considered by many (including me) to be the best in town, or at least the best everyday version. (I've yet to catch up with Ha Nam Ninh's near-mythical Friday-only version, which may or may not still exist.) Ngoc Mai was also known for its ban xeo (Vietnamese crepes)  but it was the Tuyết Mai era bun bo hue that I was there to vet.

"With everything." I said, "including the blood." I wasn't about to get the round-eye runaround that I had the first time, when I neglected to specify. Sure enough, the traditional cubes of congealed pig's blood were present when my bowl arrived a few minutes later. It may have been a side effect of my insisting on "the real thing" but my broth was also spicer than I remembered on my first try at the dish at Ngoc Mai and required no augmentation, heat-wise. The soup with its riot of flavors held medium rice noodles, and was chock-full of lean beef slices, pork pate, and a ceremonial pig knuckle.

The Tenderloin's best bun bo Hue is baaaaaack, and thank you, Tuyết!

Where slurped: Tuyết Mai, formerly Ngoc Mai, 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco

Friday, October 3, 2014

Spicy Niku Bukkake Udon: A Nice Faceful At Udon Mugizo

On Monday I was thwarted in my plan to check out Udon Mugizo by failing to have done my homework and finding out they are closed on Mondays. Today the fates were kinder to me when a striung of errands ended with me at Kaiser Pharmacy, where an easy stroll to Japantown  would get me to Mugizo without too much time to kill before they opened for dinner service.

For all my reservations about ramen, I've always left the door wide open for udon, noodles that really deserve to be call noodles, generally served with less heavy-handed broths and more sensible toppings than ramen.  One of my all-time favorite bowl of noodles anywhere was a bowl of duck udon served at a small udon shop in Shanghai, of all places.  And Udon Mogizu is a veritable temple to udon, which they make fresh in house every day. Mogizu's "temporary" menu (they are still in soft opening) features no less than 35 udon choices, including 16 "warm" udon selections, nine cold udon offerings, and 10 Mugizo "signature" udons. The last category includes "Sea Urchin Cream Sauce Udon," the most expensive bowl in the house at $13.95. Udon Mugizo even managed to work fried udon into one of its desserts.

The uni udon will have to wait, though.  It was  93° F in the Western Addition as I made my way to Udon Mugizo and I had cold noodles in mind all the way. Blocking out all other columns of the menu, I studied my options and chose something provocatively named Spicy Niku Bukkake Udon. The "niku" (meat) in this instance was warm thinly shredded beef, served on a generous bed of cold udon. The "bukkake" (it literally means "splash," you of the dirty mind) is an intense dashi based broth, served cold in a little pitcher that looks like a creamer.  The drill is to pour all or some of the "bukkake" over the dry ingredients and mix them all together. In other words, it's a "dry" or "tossed" noodle dish with analogs in virtually every Asian cuisine.

This was definitely a cold treat on a hot day.  The udon noodles has a bold snap to them, the beef was fresh and savory, and the dashi "bukkake" was intense without being overpowering.  As for the "spicy" part, I'll just say it was Japanese spicy, not Thai spicy, which means it wasn't really spicy at all. But Japanese food was never designed for chiliheads.

I'll be back, Udon Mugizo!

Where sluped: Udon Mugizo, 1581 Webster St. (Kinokuniya Building, 2nd floor), San Francisco.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Classy Pho From Little Green Cyclo For Half The Price Of A Lap Dance At The Hall On Market St.

I've been a fan of the Little Green Cyclo food truck(s) since the early days of Off the Grid, and therefore was pleased to see they snagged one of the spots at The Hall, the new temporary food market in the space that once embraced lap dance palace L.A. Girls and billiard palace Hollywood Billiards.

I hit the grand opening of The Hall on Tuesday without a food plan, thinking, perhaps, I would go for some wacky Moroccan-Peruvian fusion from Cassia, but Quynh Nguyen of Little Green Cyclo collared me and persuaded me to try a bowl of her pho. Little Green had never peddled pho from their trucks before, due to the logistics, and she was eager to see how it went over. They were offering two versions, a sirloin pho bo and a pho tai nam with brisket (both also came with beef balls), $10 each.  I went for the pho tai nam.

from You might think $10 a little steep for a smallish bowl (I'm thinking of you, Yelper!) but nothing could be further from the truth, given the venue's location (proximity to tech moola), the provenance of the ingredients, and the care that went into its making.  The broth is from a pot with equal volume of beef bones and water, simmered all night, in order to achieve its depth of flavor without MSG, which Quynh eschews. It certainly achieved its purpose, coming to me as a deep beefy broth that stood well up to bold traditional spicing.  The beef brisket was good, but the beef balls were an absolute marvel, all beef and no evident fillers, unlike any you've ever seen in a bowl of pho or  fished out of  a huo guo pot. Add to that extra wide fresh rice noodles, and you've got a bowl of soup that's a keeper.

And for only half the price of a lap dance.

Where slurped: The Hall, 1028 Market St., San Francisco