Saturday, December 26, 2015

Gourmet Noodle House Delivers On A Shanghai Classic: Yellowfish Noodle Soup

San Francisco has been blessed with decent Shanghainese resturants over the years and noodle-centric establishments featuring house-made Chinese noodles of varied provenance, but until now the two have never really overlapped.  Gourmet Noodle House, which opened two weeks ago at Geary and 2nd, is either an outpost of the Shanghai mian guan (noodle shop) chain of the same name or a brazen knock-off. The fledgling local eatery and the Shanghai chain have identical signage, identifying themselves as "Jia You Hao Mian (roughly "Good home-style noodles") in large Chinese characters and "Hu Wei Chuan Mian Guan" (Traditional Shanghai Flavor Noodle Shop) in smaller characters, in addition to the English name.

With their focus on Shanghai-style noodle dishes and "small eats" to accompany them, both local and Shanghai shops are also devotees of the fish known here as the "yellow croaker" and in China as "yellowfish" (huang yu), offering it in soup, in spring rolls, and as a fried side dish.  Yellowfish noodle soup has become an iconic Shanghai dish, and is the best known offering at A Niang Mian Guan, considered by many to be the best independent mian guan in Shanghai, though I'm not sure how one chooses the best from among 6,500 of so noodle houses.

The $9.95 yellowfish noodles ("N4 Special Yellow Croaker W/ Noodles Soup") was, understandably, my first choice of noodles to vet at Gourmet Noodle House. "There's a little bones in it," advised my server when she took my order. I nodded knowingly. It was a warning "out of an abundance of caution," to use a currently popular phrase; it's sometimes nearly impossible to remove all the fine bones from yellowfish when de-boning. (In fact, I found no bones in my soup.) Along with my soup I ordered a side dish fried tofu.

My soup arrived in an attractive wide-brimmed shallow bowl of the type favored by some ramen-yas today, and a long-handled wooden spoon to accompany chopsticks. I tasted the broth, which was fishy in the best way, without the cloying sweetness sometimes found in SE Asian fish broths, before digging in to the noodless. Thin slices of bamboo shoots and some Chinese greenery accompanied a generous portion of fish flesh chunks. The uniform (probably machine extruded) noodles were pleasantly chewy and held their firmness to the end of the bowl Overall, it was a bowl of yellowfish noodles that acquitted itself well, even in comparison to A Niang's paramount version. I didn't think of it at the time, but a dollop of soy sauce might have brought it closer to A Niang's richer-seeming broth.

The fried tofu side dish was pleasing as well, adding protein and textures to the meal. A heap of crispy, non-greasy cubes of tofu were intertwined with slices of raw onions and jalapenos. It was a bargain, at $3.95.

Where slurped: Gourmet Noodle House, 3751 Geary Blvd., San Francisco

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Torraku Ramen: A Ramen Food Truck Happens At SoMa StrEat Food Park

When Matt Cohen, co-founder of Off the Grid and food truck mogul, quit the hotel management business, all he wanted to do was to sell ramen from a truck.  But he found the permitting process in San Francisco so opaque and arbitrary and the prospect of success so unpredictable that he turned his efforts to decoding the process, steering others through it, and lobbying (successfully) for a more transparent, faster and fairer permitting system. In the process he began building an empire of food truck venues for himself, and eased the way for for individual entrepreneurs to launch food trucks. Like Torraku Ramen.

Torraku Ramen, which debuted yesterday at Carlos Muela's SoMa StrEat Food Park, may be the only Food Truck 2.0 vehicle to devote itself exclusively to ramen now plying the streets of San Francisco. There have been other food trucks trying ramen as a diner option, tented food stands featuring ramen, and even a food trailer purveying house-made udon, but not until now, to my knowledge, a self-propelled, fully mobile ramen-ya.

Torraku Ramen uses a ticketing system popular in Japan and some stateside venues where the user marks and hands in a ticket indicating their choice of broths and toppings and any add-ins they desire. (You can, of course, verbally order and make the cashier do the work) The truck offers tonkotsu, shoyu, miso and curry broths with choice of chashu (pork shoulder) or kikuni (pork belly) toppings for $12, or seafood ramen for $13. There's also a veggie option with a choice of three toppings for $12. The price may seem a little steep, though a double digit price is becoming more the rule than the exception at new ramen joints. There are also various add-ins available for $1-$3, and a surcharge for black garlic and "Extra Spicy" options. Gyoza and other typical ramen shop sides are also available.

I visited the truck on its opening day at about 2:30, well after the the lunchtime peak, and waited about 10 minutes for my shoyu chashu selection to materialize. (Longer waits are to be expected at lunchtime, as they cook the noodles to order). I'm not a ramen maven (I've always made clear it's not my favorite noodle soup form), but I liked my bowl of ramen just fine. It was piping hot, the medium curly noodles pleasantly chewy, broth deep in flavor and not overly salty, and the half-egg had a nice soft yolk. The (no cost) spicy option had the broth respectably spicy, so there's no need to order the "Extra Spicy" add-on unless you are a chili head. There was not a lot of protein in the toppings, (something typical of ramen in general). Overall it was a tasty, solid bowl of ramen,, comparable to what you'd expect in a decent sit-down ramen-ya.

Where slurped: Torraku Ramen at SoMa StrEat Food Park, 428-11th St., San Francisco

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Suka For Soto Ayam, And Happy I Am With New SE Asia Noodle Options

We've had a run of good fortune lately in augmenting San Francisco's wealth of Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese food with new Southeast Asian options.  First, there was Vinya Sysamuth's Lanxang Kingdom, the uncompromising Lao pop-up (red ant egg salad, anyone?) which will hopefully morph into a brick & mortar somewhere; more recently, Nite Yun's Nyum Bai started popping up in accessible locations with tasty Cambodian fare, and Tracy G. has been opening her home for Nyonya-side Malaysian sit-downs via Feastly. Now appears a new feature in our very spare Indonesian cuisine landscape, Suka Restaurant on Balboa St. near 6th Avenue.

Suka has been open less than two weeks and its menu is still a work in progress (as is the execution of some of its offerings) but there's a core of Indonesian and Indonesian-inspired  dishes on its slight menu including six mains, three salads and two soups. These are bracketed with eclectic appetizers such as yucca fries, wings and satays, and a selection of Western mains for your friends with xenophobic palates, including chicken parmigiana and grilled salmon. Don't lower you expectations for these; the dinner chef comes from Sotto Mare in North Beach. There's also an entirely separate Western-style breakfast/brunch menu, served on weekends only.

The two Indonesian soups on Suka's menu are Soto Ayam and Bakso (listed as Meat Ball Soup on the menu). Soto Ayam, my choice for the meal (accompanied by chicken satay for additional protein) is Indonesia's star in the constellation of SE Asan chicken soups. It features a turmeric-laced spicy yellow broth (sans curry or coconut), noodles, half a boiled egg,  and chicken.  Other than (or in addition to) noodles, it may also include flat rice cakes or dumplings.

According to Suka's owner, the melodiously named Yenny Yulianny, the traditional noodles used in this dish are "silver" noodles (i.e. bean thread noodles) but she has been using rice noodles or wheat noodles to test reactions. Any of the three types will be used on request, however. She also admitted to dialing back on the spiciness (a shame, because there are no pots of chili paste on the tables). Next time I'll request it spicier, and with the tradtional noodle type. What I was left with was a rich, well-seasoned and comforting broth (it's chicken soup, after all), with noodles that were appropriately dense and hearty chunks of chicken lurking beneath. Portion size was small, but it's priced as an appetizer ($7.95) not as a main, and combining it with the three skewers of chcken satay made for a very filling meal.

Where slurped: Suka Restaurant, 445 Balboa St. near 6th Avnue, San Francisco

Friday, November 13, 2015

Popping In To Tracy G's For Some Nyonya Laksa And An Education

My last two posts were reports on pop-ups (by Nyum Bai), so for a change of pace, here is a report on a pop-in by EatWithTracy in the Outer Sunset District. What I'm calling a pop-in here is what Hong Kongers like to call "private kitchens;" it is not a restaurant that occasionally pops up in unexpected places, it is a fixed location (usually a residence) where a talented chef hosts meals on a regular or irregular basis. You, the eater, can "pop in."

"EatWithTracy" is hosted by Malaysian expat Tracy G who painstakingly taught herself to cook the food she grew up with after moving away from Kuala Lumpur (presumably because the alternative was much worse). There's nothing surreptitious or clandestine about her "pop-in." You don't need a sponsor or say "Joe sent me" to get in; just make a reservation via the Feastly website.

I found my way to Tracy's Sunset District apartment for the "Laksa: Spicy Malaysian Noodle Soup" prix fixe 3-course meal consisting of Rojak, Laksa Lemak, and (a very un-Malaysian) Dorayaki for dessert. Tracy is obviously as knowledgeable as she is passionate about Malaysian food, and was as articulate in expounding on the meal she was serving as she was skilled in preparing it. Laksa Lemak (also known as Nyonya Laksa,  according to Wikipedia) is one of six Malaysian laksas she is accomplished in preparing, Tracy explained. "Lemak" signifies a rich coconut gravy.  Although the broth in laksa lemak is quite spicy, there is no curry in it, she said, so it is not called a "curry laksa." (Since "curry" is typically defined as a mixture of spices which may or may not include curry leaves, this may be a distinction without a difference.)

Rojak by Tracy G.
I really enjoyed the rich, spicy broth of Tracy's laksa (which I augmented a bit with the fresh chili sauce provided).  I was not too fond of the ultra- fine ("dragon beard") rice noodles used in her version, though that is a reflection on my personal preferences, not on her judgment or skill. As with the fine wheat noodles beloved in Hong Kong, I was left with the feeling I was chewing on someone's hair. Overall, though, it was a very hearty and satisfying bowl of noodles. (It's a meal, Bania!)  I look forward to trying her other versions of laksa, hopefully with more robust noodles. I also enjoyed he rojak very much, and it might not even take the promise of noodles to bring me back next time.

Pop in for some Malaysian food and some Malaysian food education.

Where slurped: Somewhere in the Outer Sunset (see

Monday, October 26, 2015

Whack-A-Mole: Nyum Bai Pops Up Again, And I Hit It For The Cambodian Chicken Noodle Soup

A mere eight days after I had a chance to enjoy Nyum Bai's Cambodian fare at its Mission Pie debut, it popped up again, like a pesky mole in a whack-a-mole game, three blocks down the road at Wise Son's Deli.  My noodle hammer was at the ready, this time to hit  on the chicken noodle soup called Banh Ghan on the menu.

I have to admit I'm winging it here with my post portem on this chicken soup experience; I didn't get a chance to pick Nyum Bai owner Nite Yun's brain about the origins of this dish, and Googling "Banh Ghan" yields practically nothing with the same or similar spelling related to Cambodian food.  My sole "hit," interestingly enough, was for a dish at a fascinating diner-like restaurant in Stockton CA (where MS. Yun grew up) called  Lucky Star Grill. This place, which now tops my list should I ever hit Fat City again, serves a dish called "Thick noodle banh ghan" along with other Cambodian and Vietnamese- and Thai-tinged dishes (plus Mongolian beef, for good measure). My best guess is that "banh ghan" is related to the Vietnamese term banh canh, which denotes  a wide, thick rice noodle (which may or may not include tapioca flour) and can refer to a wide variety of soups using such noodles.

I've learned that there is a whole panoply of Southeast Asian chicken noodle soups using wide rice noodles, some with curry and/or coconut, some without. Nyum Bai's banh ghan has neither. It was described on the pop-up's menu as "homemade chicken broth, wide rice noodles, poached chicken, crispy garlic, cilantro, salted soy beans," with a footnote advising the use of shellfish in the broth.

With its lack of curry and the heft of its rice noodles, I found the banh ghan stylistically most similar to Lao khao piak sien, though comparisons could also be with North Vietnamese pho ga, which uses flat, though less substantial rice noodles. Compared to the Lao version, Nyum Bai's soup came with a less fatty richness and more vegetal complexity to the broth's flavor profile. (One could say a it's "healthier" taste, but what can be unhealthy about any chicken noodle soup?)

As I've noted elsewhere about khao pian sien, Nyum Bai's banh ghan relies primarily on the soul of chicken soup for its appeal.  It's pure comfort, and almost as familiar and un-exotic as something your Caucasian grandmother (if you have one) night make. Feels right in a Jewish deli, too.

With my soup I had a texture-rich Camodian tamarind salad, which was as tasty as it was photogenic.

Sometime, somewhere,  Nite Yun''s Nyum Bai will pop up again.

I'd hit that.

Where slurped: Nyum Bai at Wise Son's Deli, 3150 24th St., San Francisco

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nite Of The Kuy Tio Phnom Penh: Nyum Bai Pops Up At Mission Pie

Ever since enjoying Ha Nam Ninh's vaunted #25 Hu Tieu Nam Vang in both "dry" and soup versions, I've been wanting to try the Cambodian dish that inspired it, Kuy Tio Phnom Penh. Last night I finally had the opportunity, thanks to a pop-restaurant in the heart of the Mission district, Nyum Bai, hosted by Mission Pie. "Nyum Bai at Mission Pie" has a nice ring to it, especially considering I love noodles as much as some people apparently love pie.

Nyum Bai literally means "eat rice" in Cambodian, but figuratively means "let's eat!" much like kin khao in Vietnamese or chi fan in Chinese.  It's the creation of Ms. Nite Yun, whose given name is pronounced as spelled (a gift to punsters like me; here's  hoping she opens a restaurant called "Nite Market). Kuy Tio Phnom Penh is a dish with a history as complex as the broth it features: inspired by Chinese  migrants in Cambodia, it became a breakfast staple there, and was further popularized and embellished in Viet Nam as Hu Tieu Nam Vang. Ms. Yun, as described in this Saveur profile, is on a mission to bring the foods she learned to cook from her mother to us fortunate Californians. She's also on a mission to bring us her father's passion for 1960s Khmer Rock and Roll; unfortunately Mission Pie's sound system (or management) wasn't quite up for it last night.

Nite's traditional interpretation of Kuy Tio, which has many variants, as described in a Wikipedia entry, consists of pho-style rice noodles in an exquisitely savory pork and shellfish broth, topped by slices of fresh pork and ground pork. The noodles were cooked just right, remaining firm to the end, and with no "clumping." The broth is nicely described in the Saveur article: "The pork broth is brightened by kroeung, a pounded paste of lemongrass, Makrut lime leaf and zest, galangal, shallots, garlic and fresh turmeric....[and] garnished with crispy garlic, sprouted mung beans and a splash of her mother’s hot sauces."

The house-made hot sauce actually came in a jar on the side.  As is my habit, I savored the broth as it came from from the chef until I had eaten all the solids, then sexed up the remaining broth with a generous dollop. My soup also came with a side dish of slices of the fried dough stick known in Chinese as youtiao. (TIL in Australia, Cambodian Chinese refer to it as "chopstick cake.)  These I also reserved until there was only broth left; adding the youtiao along with the chili oils made a "second course" of the soup, so to speak.

It was a very satisfying beginning to my traditional Cambodian street food learning experience, and I will be following Nite's pop-up as devoutly as a 60s Cambodian teenager might follow Khmer rock and roll. Next time please play it LOUDER.

Where Slurped: Nyum Bai pop-up at Mission Pie, 2901 Mission St., SF

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

M.Y. China's Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup Is One (Noodle) For The Aged, If Not One For The Ages

I've been spinning my wheels on getting my new blog going, and today is National Noodle Day, so I feel I owe the cosmos a noodle report before another day goes by. The subject was easy enough to come by; I was just reminded, by a discussion in the essential new foodie forum,, that a soup featuring yi gen mian, a noodle form I had yet to experience on this side of the Pacific, was on the menu at Martin Yan's M.Y. China. I'd forgotten that I knew this already, probably because the dish in question had "Vegetarian" in its name: Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup. It's described on M.Y. China's menu as having "wild seasonal mushrooms, braised tofu" and the tipoff is in its Chinese name, sù yī gēn tāng miàn.

Yi gen mian translates roughly "single strand noodle" and refers to a very long noodle made by continuously pulling from a thicker  noodle "rope" until it yields a single noodle long enough to fill a bowl (of whatever size) of soup.  There's a description and a short video of the process at a Singapore noodle shop in the excellent but sadly no longer active blog La Mian World.

In Chinese culture, noodles symbolize long life because they are, well, long, and consequently have a close association with birthdays. By the same logic, a very long noodle promises extra longevity mojo, a fact not wasted on me in the run-up to my 74th birthday later this month. It's always wise to hedge one's bets.

I ordered my Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup along with a side of pork and cabbage pot stickers (probably because I didn't want to me mistaken for a vegetarian) and a pot of pu'er tea. My noodles, or noodle, when they/it came were of a pale green color, for reasons not specified on the menu (the dreaded spinach, no doubt). It did appear to be one noodle; I found one end, but not the other. It was  udon-like in girth, but lacking in firmness,  like the dish described in the Singapore blog.  The broth was mild and of course vegetal, inhabited as it was by a menagerie of wild fungi, thin tiles of aged tofu, and a bit of carrot for color.

My pot stickers were tasty, if not exceptional, but the dipping sauce they came with provided an unexpected bonus. It was nicely spicy, and dumping the excess into my soup broth transformed something bland into something I was happy to drain from my bowl. (At M.Y. China you will not find condiments at the ready, and I did not think to bring my own chili sauce.)

The Vegetarian Longevity Noodle Soup was the least satisfying of the noodle dishes I have had at M.Y. China to date, in the consistency of the noodles as well as in the broth and toppings. It's their  least expensive dish, however, and perhaps something a vegetarian would write home about.

Where slurped: M.Y. China, Westfield San Francisco Centre, 865 Market Street

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Something To Chew On -- Jjol Myeon At Zzan Korean Cuisine

Note: I'm working on a new blog of broader interest (but still food-centric), "The Hungry Psychogeographer," so you can expect the posts here to be less frequent and/or less long-winded. Rest assured, though, I'll still be chasing down my beloved noodles and reporting here on anything of interest.

Back in my beatnik days, I had a friend named Joey Zygai who grew up boasting that his family was the last listing in the White Pages of the San Francisco phone book (when phone books were still important). Obviously,  Zzan Korean Cuisine wasn't around then; in fact, it opened just a week ago in the space that used to hold a Thai restaurant (whose name, incidentally, began with an "A").

Jjol myeon (Hangul 쫄면) literally means "chewy noodles" and refers to both a type of noodle and to a dish made with the said noodles. It's listed on Zzan's menu as "Spicy Chewy Noodles." It's a cold dish, supposedly invented as recently as the 1970s. According to Wikipedia, the noodles are made from wheat flour and wheat starch (a common ingredient in noodles served chilled). A tangle of noodles heavily coated with gochujang (Korean Chili sauce), vinegar, sugar and minced garlic sits in a stainless steel bowl topped with a thicket of shredded cabbage, another of julienned cucumbers and half a boiled egg as the sole significant protein source. It was a tasty, refreshing dish, but would have been even more so had I had it on opening day, when the temperature hovered in the 80s.

My cold Korean noodles were accompanied by only three banchan side dishes (including an exceptional kimchi) but refills were freely offered. Service was cheerful, prompt and efficient (though I must point out the room was nearly empty at 1:30 PM on a cool, drizzly Wednesday). The venue has a casual "soju bar" atmosphere and is a welcome addition to the Upper Tenderloin/Lower Nob Hill area and a place I'll return to.

Where slurped: Zzan Korean Cuisine, 643 Post St., San Francisco

Monday, August 24, 2015

Taste Of Jiangnan -- A Bridge To Suzhou Style Noodles

Suzhou-style "red soup noodles" with braised pork belly "across the bridge"
Some time ago, while researching the history and the mystery of "Suzhou Cangshu Lamb Noodle Soup" I started to wonder what constituted a "Suzhou-style" soup generally. It took only a little more research to discover that it was a noodle soup I was already very familiar with: nearly every mian guan (noodle shop) in Shanghai I'd been to that didn't have Lanzhou or lamian in its name served this style of noodle soup.

Suzhou-style noodles, or simply Su noodles are sometimes referred to as the "ramen of China" for the emphasis on the broth and the use of thin, long noodles, but I take exception to that. For one thing, in Su noodle houses the noodles are usually fresh-made in house (cranked out by machine, if not hand pulled), not outsourced to an industrial noodle specialist as is often the case with ramen-yas.  And though the broths are similar, made from pork bones and possibly chicken, Su noodle broths tend to be subtler, with less reliance on salt and fat in their flavor profiles.

An excellent tutorial on the lore of Suzhou noodles is contained in this article, Noodling Up Suzhou Soup, including tips on how to order like a pro if you happen to be in Suzhou.

I found my Suzhou-style noodle soup in San Francisco at Taste of Jiangnan, which recently opened on Clement Street in what used to be known as "New Chinatown" (we have several newer ones now). It's a full service restaurant, not a noodle shop, but the staff are from the Wuxi-Changzhou area and the cuisine is heavily focused on Wuxi area food. Wuxi is a mere 25 miles west of Suzhou, and I knew that if they had noodle soup on the menu, it would be Suzhou style. I was right.

I found only one noodle soup on Taste of Jiangnan's menu (they also have an excellent Wuxi-style wonton soup). Simply called "red soup noodles" (awkwardly "noodles with soy sauce" in English). As mentioned in the tutorial mentioned above, Su noodles generally come as "red" or "white" soup noodles; otherwise choices are limited to toppings and relative proportions (toppings to noodles to broth, etc.) I chose braised pork belly as a topping for my "red" soup and left the rest to the chef.

My noodle soup and the braised pork belly toppings came from the kitchen separately, with the latter on a dish "across the bridge" (on the side ) from the former, underscoring the dish's Jiangsu pedigree:
"The authentic serving way is called guoqiao, which means crossing the bridge. The toppings are placed on a separate dish. When serving, pick the topping from the dish to the noodle bowl. The process is similar to crossing the bridge between two containers, which is where the name comes from."   -- Noodling up Suzhou Soup
The noodles were long and thin, similar to straight ramen noodles, and the broth was not unlike a shoyu ramen broth, but markedly less salty and with a touch of Jiangsu sweetness and complexity, a familiar flavor from my Shanghai days. The red-cooked pork, once I had carried it over the bridge to my soup, was tender and fragrant.

If anything, the noodles were too plentiful for the soup. There's a word for that:
"Jintang, literally means tight soup, refers to less soup and more noodles. ."
  Remind me to order it Kuantang ("literally loose soup, but refers to more soup and less noodles") next time.

Where slurped: Taste of Jiangnan, 332 Clement St., San Francisco

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Balboa Street's April Calf Yields A Creamy Seafood Laksa

April Calf Cafe Restuarant, which opened about a week ago on Balboa St. in the Outer Richmond, describes its offerings on its awning as "Fusion Food, Dessert, Drinks."  It's basically a latter-day Cha Chaan Teng with a touch of modernist cuisine, as much kawaii as can be realized in a shoebox-sized Balboa St. storefront -- and a good-looking seafood laksa onthe menu.

The modernist touches can be seen in the form of a "Cloud Latte" with its frozen foam, a vertical molded kimchi fried rice served on a hot plate with beaten egg poured over it, and in visual puns such as the "flowerpot" dessert. (See pics by owner posted on Yelp.) The kawaii qualities manifest themselves in the simple colorful swatches on the place mats, the cow and milk carton salt and pepper shakers, and the effervescent young Hong Kong women who make up the FOH staff.

But I, noodle guy, was there for the laksa, there is a section of the menu labeled "Southeast Asian Flavors."

Having never been to Malaysia or Singapore, and with little access to Malaysian restaurants in the Bay Area, I don't really have a benchmark for curry laksa, other than Azalina Eusope's spectacular and sometimes eccentric creations. Laksas are among the most photogenic of noodle soups, and I suppose my real benchmark is "does it taste as good as it looks?"  April Calf's seafood laksa came close; six very large tail-on shrimps shared the both with fried tofu, fish balls and fresh bean sprouts.  The shrimps were obviously fresh, and not overcooked, and the fried tofu cubes added a bit of crunchinesss despite being on the hot soup. The noodles were perfectly al dente. My one complaint was about the lack of spiciness; the whole affair was a little bland for my tastes. According to my server (after the fact, alas) it can be made spicy on request (something I should have learned by now).  But I do have an excuse to return to this charming boîte. Next time I'll tll them to crank up the heat, and I'll wash my noodles down with xiaolong bao at Shanghai House across the street.

As for the name? "It''s a calf born in April," said my server. "Why not March or May?" I said. "Calves born in April are special," she said. I guess there are things she learned in Hong Kong that I didn't learn from my dairy farm ancestors.

Where slurped: April Calf Cafe Restaurant, 3528 Balboa St. San Francisco.

My sister Marge, 1950. Calf's birth month unknown.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Naren: A Hearty Soup, Hands Down, At Uyghur Taamliri Central Asia Uyghur Food

According to some accounts Naren, the name for the Xinjiang Uyghur dish that was my soup du jour today, means "meat eaten with the hands" (the Chinese characters 纳仁 used to render the name are apparently mere phonetics). Roughly chopped mutton, tomato, carrots, and onions were traditionally mixed with handmade flat, wide noodles and eaten with the hands (sounds messy but fun, doesn't it?). The broth the mutton and vegetables were cooked in was served in a dish on the side.

That was then. This is now. Forks and spoons have replaced sticky fingers and the dish I had today at Uyghur Taamliri was all-in-one.  Toothsome hand-pulled noodles sat in a shallow pond of mutton broth, and were topped with a mixture of chopped mutton (or lamb), tomatoes, onions and bell peppers.  In traditional style, only salt is used in cooking the mutton, in order to keep the natural flavors, and black or white pepper added just before composing the dish to add a little personality. I can't confirm that Uyghur Taamliri stuck to this protocol, but the broth was very meaty and peppery from white pepper; with the meat, rustic noodles and familiar veggies, the overall effect was not unlike a Scotch Broth soup.

I couldn't let all the raw onions get by me without pairing them with fresh garlic, so I ordered an appetizer of "Mashed Garlic Cucumber."  It was as tasty as it was simple, just pressed fresh garlic and cucumber spears with a vinegary dressing, perfect for the 80+ degree day it was today.

As for my naren, one of the fragments of folkish wisdom I garnered from various sources was this proclamation: "It is the faverite dish of old people." This septuagenarian wouldn't argue with that sentiment.

Where slurped: Uyghur Taamliri at Chug Pub, 1849 Lincoln Way, San Francisco

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Coincidence Or Cosmic Synchronicity? My Summer Mutton Noodles At Shandong Deluxe On The Eve Of "Da Shu"

Infografic courtesy

The Chinese Agricultural (Solar) Calendar is divided into 24 half-month periods, with the hottest, Da Shu ("Major Heat") beginning this year on July 23.  There are different eating practices in different parts of China for this period, as shown in the above infografic: "People in Shandong drink mutton soup on Major Heat, which is called 'Summer Mutton Soup.' " Fitting, therefore, that I was sitting in a resaturant called Shandong Deluxe slurping mutton soup on July 22, the eve of "Major Heat" (actually already the 23rd in China). I'd like to think this demonstrates an intricate knowledge of Chinese customs, but in truth my visit was completely random, and I was unaware of the mutton-eating custom until I was doing some post-mortem research.

I had started out headed for the Uighur restaurant on Lincoln Way, but Muni and I were both running late, and I would have arrived at about 1:55 for the 11:00-2:00 lunch service. Not wanting to cut into the staff's chill time, I stayed on the #28 all the way to Taraval St. after deciding to make House of Pancakes Plan B. House of Pancakes, alas, is closed on Wednesdays as I had once discovered before (fool me twice, shame on me). Plan C was a no-brainer: Shandong Deluxe and its hand-pulled noodles, a block away.

No divine guidance was involved in my choice of mutton noodles: unless purpose-sent to try a different soup, I'll always go for a mutton or lamb option if avaiable, and the fact that they specified "mutton" and not "lamb" (the two have the same name in Chinese but not always distinguished on menus) was also a turn-on. I could envision wide, flat, wide, hand-pulled noodles in a milky, somewhat medicinal broth, with fatty chunks of mutton --- but wait, that was the Henan place in Flushing's Golden Mall; would I get something like it?

The flat, wide, hand-pulled noodles were the best part of my large bowl (nay, tureen) of mutton soup.  The milky broth was less medicinal-tasting than I expected and on the bland side, but easily remediable via the condiments supplied to the table.  My soup also seemed a bit skimpy on the mutton, coming with what you might call China-sized portions (China of the 1990s, that is) of meat. Not to complain, though; it may not have been quite the Henan wonder from Flushing, but price-wise and portion-wise, my "Summer Mutton Noodles" delivered great value.

Where slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval St., San Francisco

Friday, July 17, 2015

Just Whistle A Happy (Moo) Toon: Pork Spare Ribs Noodle Soup at Tycoon Thai In The Tenderloin

I don't think there's really any need to feel afraid strolling through the Tenderloin, but the surroundings can be a little grim at times.  Instead of whistling a happy tune, look for a cheerful antidote of your choice from the panoply of inexpensive and delicious ethnic fare to be found in the 'hood. One such dish is the one Thais would call kuay teow moo toon, known as "Pork Spare Ribs Noodle Soup" at Tycoon Thai, the welcoming O'Farrell St. Thai/Lao bistro with the excellent draft beer and dratted Mason jars. It's what I had today when I paid Tycoon Thai an overdue visit.

"Moo toon" is't something hummed by a cow, or even a cartoon of a cow. "Moo" (or something that sounds like it) means pork in Thai, and "toon" means steamed or stewed, and the two together usually refer to pork spare ribs.  Kuay teow (however it's spelled) means rice noodles.

The broth used in kuay teow moo toon is a clear broth, subtly flavored, traditionally using cinnamon in the stock; if Tyoon Thai's broth has cinnamon in it, it''s thankfully so subtle I couldn't detect it; you Cinnabon dweebs can go away. Mild and vaguely medicinal, it benefited from a hit of chili paste. Although pork ribs are present, there's also pork pate meatballs and coarse ground pork as well; it could be called "pork three ways." The pork spare ribs were on the bone, but easily de-boned in the mouth.

If I had a complaint, it would be about too many noodles.  That's a complaint I rarely make (and would never make about hand-pulled wheat noodles) but there was such a mass of rice noodles it was difficult to stir in my choice of flavor enhancers from the condiment caddy.  But soldier on I did, and put the finishing touches on a hearty and satisfying bowl of happy moo toon noodle soup.

Accompanying my soup was a container of  sticky rice, which I can't resist ordering these days. Tycoon Thai doesn't provide jaeow bong (Lao chili paste) for dipping, so I mad do with a puddle of Chinese-style chili paste for this purpose.

Where slurped: Tycoon Thai, 620 O'Farrell St., San Francisco

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sussing Out The "Süiqaş" Noodle Soup At Uyghur Taamliri Central Asia Uyhgur Food

After discovering the new Uyghur-only restaurant in our town and checking out the laghman, I was only too eager to return Uyghur Taamliri and try the only noodle soup on the menu (and incidentally scarf down a couple of samsas).

The soup in question, with the nearly impenetrable name of Süiqaş, is described on the menu as "lamb, onion, potatoes, pepper with lamb soup pulling dough." It's listed in Chinese as tang fan (汤饭), literally "soup rice," which didn't seem to make sense, because the noodles would surely be made of wheat.

Some assiduous Googling and sleuthing of alternative transliterations finally led me to the realization that Süiqaş is most likely a contraction of  suyuq ash (suyuq'ash) which, according to one source, means " 'liquid food', such as noodles in a soup." According to another source, "The Uighur suiqaš (< suyuq-aš) of the present day is characteristically a small square-shaped noodle.) The Chinese translation also began to make sense; fan in Chinese can mean food generally, or "meal" as well as rice. Tang fan ("Soup rice") could well be a literal translation ffrom the Uyghur. 

The noodles in my Süiqaş were irregular-shaped approximately half-inch squares which apparently were torn from a "sheet" (like Chinese man pian) or wide strip, rather than pulled like la mian. (They are not to be confused with the smaller, chopped square noodles in Xinjiang ding ding chao mian.) The soup was so thick with noodles it could indeed be considered a "liquid meal" (got that, Kenny Bania?). Lean, tender, roughly minced lamb sat in a hearty broth that was thicker (from potato?) but less fatty than the Şorpa from my previous visit.  The "peppers" mentioned in the menu description included chili peppers as well as bell peppers, and the server asked me how spicy I liked it. I said "very," but that is a relative term and, as you might guess, it wan't very "very." It was, however, pleasantly spicy and overall a soup that Kenny Bania would have loved, as did I.

I accompanied my süiqaş with two samsas and a salad listed on the menu as Pi-La-Hong. The samsas (empanada-like little meat pies) appeared to be pan-baked (pub kitchens in San Francisco are unlikely to contain cylindrical stone ovens). I found the wrappers to be a little oily and un-yielding; with a savory lamb filling they were tasty enough, but not likely to make you forget the ones you can find on a street corner in almost any Chinese city. The "Pi-La-Hong" was translated to Chinese as "Xinjiang Tiger Vegetables" (akin to the Shaanxi dish with a similar name). Carl, the operator/server confirmed that the name was the same in Uyghur. There was nothing exotic about it, just fresh, crunchy slivers of onion and red and green bell peppers (alas no cilantro) in a sesame vinaigrette, but for $4 who's to complain?

Where slurped: Uyghur Taamliri, 1849 Lincoln Way, San Francisco

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Chugging Down The Hand-pulled Laghman at Uyghur Taamliri Central Asia Uyghur Food

Getting wind that a new dedicated Uyghur restaurant -- San Francisco's only such establishment --- was up and running in the Sunset, I hightailed it to 20th and Lincoln Way for lunch today to check it out.

The restaurant is  Uyghur Taamliri -- Central Asian Uyghur Food but don't strain your eyes looking for a sign, as there is none as of yet, even though it's been open for  few days.*  It's inside a tidy but inconspicuous  pub called Chug Pub, and even once in the door the only signs you are in a restaurant is a stack of menus and a warm greeting from Carl.

Chug Pub, 20th & LIncoln
Carl is the American name of the young Uyghur from Xinjiang who created Uyghur Taamliri ("Uyghur cuisine").  He rented the restaurant's kitchen from the pub owner, a personal friend, and installed his father, who had cooked in Xinjiang, as chef.  Uyghur Taamliri's menu as of now is quite limited, but it's full of hard-core Xinjiang/Kazakhstan food, with no padding with pan-Chinese favorites.  It's casual, hearty, meaty, stick-to-the-ribs (and presumably halal) fare suitable to its surroundings; indeed, given the decor and high-stool seating, you can easily think of it Uyghur pub food.

I went there hell-bent on vetting the laghman, but Carl was so keen on recommending the Şorpa (a Kazakh lamb soup) I ended up ordering both.  (Fortunately, the plate dishes come in two sizes, so I was able to avoid over-stuffing myself by ordering the smaller-size laghman plate.)

Şorpa, Kazakh mutton soup
Şorpa, said to be a specialty of Kazakhstan, is rich lamb broth containing large chunks of lamb (neck?) both on and off the bone, as well as onion, potatoes, carrot and parsley, per the menu.  I also detected cilantro in mine.  The  broth is quite fatty, though it's a comforting fattiness from lamb fat, which happens to be my second favorite fat after duck fat. It's definitely a tonic for the flu or a head cold, or just the blahs; Xinjiang pencillin, you might say.

Laghman hand-pulled noodles
Laghman is a hand-pulled noodle dish (the name is Uyghur for la mian), which is served as a "dry" (i.e. sauced, not in soup) noodle dish. At Uyghur Taamliri you get a choice of beef, chicken, or lamb with noodles (hand-pulled by Carl's father), onion and garlic.  There are also vegetable "options" including "green pepper, red pepper, tomato, celery, Chinese cabbage potato, mushroom, black mushroom, oyster mushroom, black fungus, cowpea, eggs." Presumably one opts out, not in, as they all seemed to appear in my toppings.  As I've noted in other laghman discussions, the flavors in this dishare a a lot more suggestive of near Asian or Mediterranean cuisine than Chinese cuisine, and Uyghur Taamliri's was no different it this regard.  It had a soupçon of spice heat, which made it more enjoyable than the last one I had (at Shandong Deluxe). Overall, it reminded me of my first laghman, at Cafe Kashkar in Brooklyn several years ago, though I cannot recall its degree of spiciness.

Where slurped: Uyghur Taamliri, inside Chug Pub, 1849 Lincoln Way, San Francisco

*A poster informed me that there IS a sign on the 20th Ave. side of the building which I missed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Pretty In Pink: Hello Kitty Meets Cioppino In Kyu3 Noodle's Yen Ta Fo

There's something jarring about the Thai noodle soup dish Yen Ta Fo, and I think it has to with the way the unnatural pink color of the broth seems to magnify its dominant sweetness. Having gotten to know it, it's not one of my favorite soups, but curiosity and my blog demand that I experience this eccentric soup from the hands of the best Thai noodle soup mongers I know of; noodlesse oblige, one might say. And who knows, I might experience a revelation.

Having previously sampled the yen ta fo from Lers Ros Thai and House of Thai, I made it an excuse for returning to Kyu 3 Noodles & BBQ today, where it's listed on the menu as Yen Ta Pho (which it certainly is not).

As noted in earlier posts, yen ta fo is known for its plenitude of seafood ingredients, as well as the pink-to-red color which results from use of tofu that has as been preserved with red rice yeast (sometimes assisted by Thai ketchup).  In Kyu 3's version, the broth was a paler pink in color and sweeter (even with my eyes closed) than either LRT's or HOT's. It was almost a DayGlo pink, a shade that would make a Ladurée macaron blush (but I hesitate to call it a macaron-y soup).

This hot pink bath was home to jumbo shrimp, fish balls, calamari rings, sliced fish cakes, cuttlefish and what appeared to be shredded jellyfish (but may not have been). It was like Hello Kitty meets cioppino, the famous San Francisco mixed-seafood chowder.  Topping it off (and providing some color contrast) were dark green water spinach and cilantro, and yellowish fried wonton skins.

Compared to the versions at Lers Ros Thai and House of Thai, Kyu3's version was most similar to the latter's in the generosity of seafood inredients (and in broth color) but sweeter than either of the other two. I'd probably rank it third in preference, with Lers Ros' version first on account of its relative spiciness and lack of sweetness. I'me eager to try at least one more version of this dish, at Amphawa Thai Noodles, which so far has been the most spice-friendly of Thai noodle joints I have encountered.

Where slurped: Kyu3 Noodle & BBQ, 337 Jones St., San Frncisco.