Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nana's Mii Katii Is Laos-ey With Flavors At Lanxang Kingdom's Turtle Tower Pop-up

A mere 18 months ago one would be hard-pressed to find any identifiably Laotian cuisine within the City limits of San Francisco. Beginning with planting of a familiar Thai/Lao flag (Champa Garden) in the Ingleside in September 2013, a mini-invasion has furnished us with two more Thai/Lao restaurants (Maneelap Srimongkoun and Tycoon Thai) and two pop-ups, Chao Mien at Naked Lunch and, now, Lanxang Kingdom, all day Thursday at Turtle Tower's flagship on Larkin St.  This latest venture appears to be a match made in heaven; for one thing, our feet already know where Turtle Tower is, and secondly, Lanxang Kingdom has creds which appear to make it deserving of TT's well equipped facility: responsibility for supporting the non-profit Center for Lao Studies, and an ambitious, well-designed menu (visually as well as gastronomically) which doesn't shy away from offering the likes of Mekong Riverweed, fried crickets, fried silk worm larvae, and red ant egg salad.

The red ant eggs will have to wait, however. I was there for the launch at lunch (the lunch launch?) on behalf of my noodle-slurping constituents (at least one, name of David, was there as well). Soups are in rotation at Lanxang Kingdom, and my eyes fell on "Mii Katii Noodle Soup," a Lao dish I had never encountered before.  I ordered it, the house Sai Oua (Lao sausage) which had to be vetted of course, and a house iced tea.

The Mii Katii soup is described on the menu as a Luang Prabang specialty,  which is served "with rice noodles in thick coconut-peanut sauce, served with banana blossoms, cabbage and bean sprouts." It was described as "thicker, creamier and sweeter than the Khao Poun" (another dish on their menu which I was already familiar with). I was a bit wary of the dish's possible sweetness, after my iced tea turned out to be undrinkably sweet, but my fears were groundless. What little sweetness it had was nicely balanced with a chili spiciness, nuttiness from the peanut sauce, and tartness from the lime wedge provided, with accents from the leafy stuff and bits of egg. It was Laos-ey with flavors, you might say.  The rice noodles were probably rice stick noodles, but you really couldn't tell them from fresh, since they were handled delicately enough to not clump up as they might in careless hands and yet were not overcooked.

Lanxang Kingdom enlisted two "guest chefs" for their launch, one of whom, Nana of the Cooking With Nana YouTube Channel, gets credit for the Mii Katii Noodle Soup. I hope whoever was assisting her paid close attention, because it's a dish that deserves to stay in the rotation, or even on Lanxang's permanent menu.  The sai oua (Lao Sausage) was also a hit, I'd say; pleasantly dry and greaseless, with a distinct sourness and a nice spice bite.  I'd order it every time, had I not resolved to return to try every dish on the menu.

Now, about that iced tea......

Where slurped: Lanxang Kingdom at Turtle Tower, 645 Larkin St., San Francisco

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Deep, Dark Mysterious Delights Of Azalina's Hokkien Mee

The name hokkien mee, for a popular Singapore/Malaysian noodle dish, is probably as familiar to me as my own name (though granted, at my age, that might not mean a lot). Yet, I had never ordered or to the best of my knowledge eaten, a dish by that name.  Therefore, when I decided to make Azalina's hokkien mee the the object of my second visit to her new permanent location in the Twitter Building, I did a little research.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Azalina is from Penang, Malaysia and all of her cooking is informed by Penang, so when I read Wikipedia's neat pigeonholing of hokkien mee into three categories (Penang prawn mee, Singapore pran mee, and Kuala Lumpur char mee, I expected a soupy dish with both rice and wheat noodles, no soy sauce in the broth, and featuring prawns.  They were right about the prawns.

What came to me was a dish of dark, smoky beauty. It was definitely stir-fried, and featured  a small army of wok-charred, tail-on prawns and Azalina's house made turmeric noodles. They were bathed in a soy- and sambal-based dark sauce. I believe the chalked menu board said something about a house special "XO" sauce, but that would be to demean it; the tawny spicy and savory nectar of the soy sauce and chili gods had me licking the biodegradable cardboard bowl when I finished the noodles. I couldn't begin to identify the veggie components (was never good at that anyway) nor the other crisped-up proteins and carbs in the noodles, so well did they all merge into a symphony of textures and flavors.

A commentator on Azalina's Facebook page suggested the the dish was more like a mee goreng (another Malaysian fried noodle dish), and she replied that her dish might not be familiar to him on account of the Mamak influences.  But what does Azalina know?  She's only the fifth generation of Mamak street vendors to offer hokkien mee. If it's hokkien mee to Azalina, it's hokkien mee to me.

Where slurped: Azalina's, 1355 Market St. (Twitter Building) San Francisco

Friday, March 13, 2015

Tasty Burmese Garlic Noodles From More-Than-Wannabe Food Truck Wanna-E

Wanna eat some Mandalay-style Burmese food on the run? Wanna-E, the question as well as the food truck with that name first popped up a week ago on the streets of San Francisco.  When I saw the first reports about it (thanks, Yelpers) I high-tailed it to its location at Third and Harrison Streets  for lunch, because it represents a collision of three of my favorite topics: noodles, food trucks, and the proliferation of Burmese cuisine in the Bay Area.

Wanna-E is the brainchild (or stomach-child, you might say) of four "food enthusiasts" from Mandalay, Myanmar. The fab four of Coco Lee, William Lee, Rainy Shai and Zin Zin Win bring a "passion to deliver authentic hometown Mandalay foods to all food lovers in California," according to Wanna-E's mission statement. They're currently serving lunch from 11-2 on weekdays in the parking lot on the southwest corner of Third and Harrison, and will begin making some dinner appearances at SoMa StrEat Food Park next week.

This being a noodle blog, I initiated my Wanna-E experience with a dish listed on its menu as "Not So Stinky Garlic Noodle" and described as "Classic Mandalay style noodle with house prepared pork in soy sauce, garlic oil and topped with scallions."  The Burmese name for this dish is apparently Seejet khao swè which, according to Wikipedia, "is considered an 'identity dish' of Myanmar and Burmese Chinese, as it is not available in other Chinese cuisines."

I told the man taking my order that he could make my "Not So Stinky" noodles as stinky as he liked, and he pointed out a blue-and-white pot on the counter full of fried garlic that I could use to make it as garlicky as  I liked. Along with my noodles came a complimentary sampler plate (opening week only) of various fried appetizers (shan tofu, bean fritters, wontons).

Not having had this particular dish before, it is difficult for me to pass judgement on Wanne-E's version, other than to say it was very tasty, if not too exciting (especially after my recent round of fiery Thai/Lao dishes). I used the bonus garlic relish liberally, but in retrospect I probably should have also thrown in a bunch of whatever was in the red pot next to the blue one. It probably would have helped,too, if I had eaten it hot out of the wok without pausing to pose it for pictures, but what is a blogger and Instagrammer to do?

An unusual feature of my seejet khao swe was its use of fine, "dragon's beard" wheat noodles (which, admittedly, I am not particularly fond of). In a strange way, the dish was akin to a deconstructed Hong Kong-style chow mein, with separate masses of crispy and pan-fried noodles meant to be stirred up (along with the garnishes) at the table, to achieve a duet of crunchy and soft textures, which it did quite successfully. The pork slivers in the dish were tender and succulent, and no one could complain about the portion size. I'd love to see a duck version of the same dish.

One thing I like about Wanna-E's approach is the way it proudly acknowledges (on its website and on its menu) the importance of the Chinese contributions to Mandalay cuisine.  Another dish on the truck's daily menu, a Burmese Yunnan-style rice noodle soup, will be the object of my next visit, and another little bump up in my noodle learning curve.

What was most disappointing about my Wanne-E experience? Finding out that the name doesn't mean anything in the Burmese language. It's just the way the Wanna-E Gang of Four would say "Wanna eat?" to their homeboys. Apparently, like their Cantonese and Shanghainese counterparts, Burmese Chinese are not fond of final consonants.

Where slurped: Wanna-E Food Truck, 3rd & Harrison/SoMa StrEat Food Park/Wherever

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Noodle Sneak Peek At Hing Lung 2.0: Chinatown Prices, Smaller Portions, Square Plates

Hong Kong Style "House Special" Chow Mein at Hing Lung 2.0
Hing Lung, long a San Francisco Chinatown destination for congee and hot-out-of-the-oil youtiao (crullers) closed almost three years ago, victim of an aging plant and Department of Environmental Health sanctions. After a major renovation, a change in ownership and unexplained delays, it's about to reopen, officially as Cafe Broadway, the name listed on both its Fictitious Business Name Statement and its liquor license.  In good Chinatown fashion, it also has a Chinese name totally unrelated to its English name, tang chao (糖潮) which approximates to "Sweet Tide" in English, but is also a homonym for "Tang Dynasty" in Chinese, hence a pun. Also in honored Chinatown tradition, it left in place the iconic vertical "Hing Lung" sign which looms over Broadway, insuring that Hing Lung OG types like me will always call it "Hing Lung" as long as the sign is visible.  In the interest of simplification, I'll just call it "Hing Lung 2.0" here.

I'd been keeping my eyes peeled for signs of gastronomical life in the spiffed up Hing Lung lately, and when I wandered by at lunchtime today the door was open and there were people inside, so I decided to crash whatever party was going on in there..

"Grand opening is tomorrow," said the woman at the cashier's podium.  "But we're trying things out. You can have lunch."  She pointed me to the row of two-tops in the center of the room, where I took a seat. I was curious about Hing Lung 2.0's menu, since a "help wanted" sign on the front door described it as a "cha chaan teng," a peculiarly Hong Kong-ese establishment serving a mashup of Cantonese and Western food. The only menu available, however, was what appeared to be a proof copy of (appropriately enough for me) the noodles section of the menu, and not even all of it was available in this dry run. I tried for the "beef offal wonton noodles" but was told that only stir-fried noodle dishes were available on this occasion, so I settled for the House Special Chow Mein.

As I suspected, the chow mein was Hong Kong Style, using the ultra-skinny "dragon's beard" noodles.  I'm not a fan of these noodles, particularly in soups (I always feel like I'm chewing on someone's hair).  In a HK-style chow mein, however, they can be a delight if the dish is done properly, which means  the noodles on the bottom are fried crispy while the ones on the top are still soft, making for a nice contrast in textures. 

Unfortunately (and I'll cut them some slack for not having it all together pre-opening day) this was not the case with my order when it arrived. The noodles on the bottom were hotter than the ones on top, but not crisped, and the ones on the top were lukewarm.  The "House Special"  at Hing Lung 2.0, as one might expect, has as toppings a medley of surf protein and turf protein. The latter included mostly thin strips of pork and chicken, while the seafood component was primarily shrimp.  Though not visible in the picture, I found a fair number of shrimps in that haystack of noodles, and they were the best part of the dish, fresh, fair-sized and cooked just right.

In a nutshell, I would characterize the noodle portion of Hing Lung 2.0's menu as Chinatown priced, but with smaller portions, though I wouldn't gripe too much about the latter; for a dish that's mostly carbohydrates, the chow mein is certainly an ample enough lunch, even for an XL-sized solo diner like me.  The prices across the noodle menu ran approximately from $7-$9, closely mirroring the prices of competitors like the ABC Bakery & Cafe. 

The noodles came on square plates, in  a seemingly odd juxtaposition to Hing Lung 1.0 memories, I'd say. But hey, it's 2015. Someone said the "chao" character in the Chinese name can also mean "trend".  Maybe it's a reference to square plates.  没有办法.*

As for the rest of Hing Lung's 2.0 menus, I have no clue at the moment, though the server assured me it would include congee, and the open kitchen at the front seems set up to hawk youtiao as before. With Hing Lung jook and Hing Lung crullers, who cares if they don't get all the noodles right?

Where slurped: Cafe Broadway a.k.a. Tang Chao a.k.a. Hing Lung, 674 Broadway, San Francisco

*Nothing can be done about it.