Thursday, April 30, 2015

Observing A Vietnam Milestone With Tuyet Mai's Bun Mang Vit (Duck and Bamboo Shoot Noodles)

It was the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon (or the unification of Vietnam, depending on where you sit) and I decided to mark the occasion with some Vietnamese noodles. The event that ended the war nobody loved had a salubrious side effect hereabouts: the enriching of the Bay Area's cuisine by an influx of Vietnamese immigrants who brought their food with them. San Francisco may not be San Jose, the city with the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam itself, but our city contains well over 50 sit-down Vietnamese restaurants within its borders, not to mention countless banh mi shops.  The victor in the Vietnam War may have gotten the spoils, but we got the pho.

For my commemoration I chose Tuyet Mai, my favorite Vietnamese mom 'n' pop restaurant and one of the gems of the Tenderloin.  The symbolism was appropriate, too; the owners are from Hue which, though technically part of what was South Vietnam, is very close to the part of Vietnam's narrow waist where the two halves of the Republic were sewn together. For my noodles, I was leaning toward one of the Hue beef soups I have yet to try, but with the weather trending toward  a very toasty 90° F, I decided to go with the lighter bun mang vit, duck with bamboo shoots noodles.

Bun mang vit is listed on Tuyet Mai's menu in the Hue specialties category, but it is easy to see it as popular in any part of Vietnam, and having analogues throughout SE Asia. It could have come from a Hakka or Chaozhou inspiration, and the duck and bamboo shoot combination is a familiar one as far north as Shanghai, albeit with fresh bamboo shoots.

The Tuyet Mai bun mang vit consists of bone-in duck pieces, reconstituted dried bamboo shoots, and round bun ("vermicelli") rice noodles in  a salty, gingery and slightly tart broth. As can be seen in the above photo, there is a generous amount of duck pieces; almost every piece has bone in it, and the meat is not exactly falling off the bone, so it requires you to work for your reward and get two hands greasy.  (It would be nice to have this dish with one of Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck legs!)

There seemed to be a minimal amount of bamboo shoot slices, probably intentionally, as the dried version tends to flavor the broth much more aggressively (and with a different profile) than fresh bamboo. The bun mang vit also came with a little side dish of  Nuoc mam gung, a rather sweet but pungent ginger fish dipping sauce. Tuyet Mai's version had three jalapeno slices floating in it, which eventually found their way into my soup. Topping the soup were crispy fried shallots, onion, garlic, and flavorful Vietnamese greens which I have yet to learn to recognize, but greatly appreciate.

In the end it's duck soup, which you might expect to be a comfort food, but that implies blandness, and Tuyet Mai's broth is far too sharp  to be considered bland. On top of that, the work required to get the meat off the bone will keep you from getting too comfortable there.

Where slurped: Tuyet Mai, 547 Hyde St., San Francisco

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Khanom Jeen Continued: Kyu3's Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao Is A Rare Treat

I fully intended to treat myself to some rustic Xinjiang wheat noodles today, and headed for the coming Tenderloin Uyghur restaurant called either Herembeg or Eden, depending on which part of the awning you look at.  A stray reference to "today" in this Chowhound thread gave me the misapprehension that it was already open, but no dice. Or dice-shaped "ding ding" noodles, either. My disappointment was short-lived, however.  Nearby Kyu3 Noodles & BBQ had a treat in store for me.

"We have a special today, not on the menu," announced server Tammy as soon as I sat own. She's already learned that I'm on a noodle hunt when I come there. "Nam ngiao," she announced  "Only Thai people know it, but you might like it."  She tried to describe it, then managed to bring up a picture and a brief description of it on her iPhone. The "ngiao" in the name referred to a flower (from Bombax ceiba, a form of kapok three) that was a key ingredient in the flavor profile, and was not available in the U.S. except when hand-carried from Thailand.  A friend had brought her a small supply, and she used some to make a batch for the day, not bothering to post it on the "specials" board, but advising her Thai clients of its availability.

I did some more research on my Galaxy Tab while my dish was being prepared.  The full name for the dish, whattya know, is khanom jeen nam ngiao. As mentioned on my last post, "khanom jeen" is a generic term for almost any curry-like soup made with fresh or fermented rice noodles, with a wide variation in stocks and ingredients throughout Thailand. The nam ngiao variant is known principally in northern Thailand; Tammy is from Chiang Mai and the chefs are from the North as well, so it figures they'd jump at the chance to bring forth a proper version.

Another characteristic of nam ngiao (and a possible reason for not posting it on the specials board at Kyu3)  is its use of animal blood in two ways: in the broth (like boat noodles) and as congealed blood cubes in the topping. It also makes use of tua nao, fermented soy beans (and another characteristically northern Thai ingredient).  Combining the blood, the fermented soy beans and the fact that the stock is made from long-simmered pork ribs, the result is perhaps the richest broth I've encountered in my noodle adventures; I found it very "beefy" though there is no beef present, and slightly spicy. There was also a pronounced tartness to it from green tomatoes, and lime wedges were served on the side to increase the tartness if desired.  Lurking in its depths was pork rib meat (some still on the bone) and a profusion of pork rinds topped the broth, along with cilantro, green tomato, and bean sprouts. It's not clear what the ngiao blossom contributed; I found one blossom and ate it carefully, but it tasted of the soup as a whole at that point.

Tammy said they had enough ngiao blossoms left for another batch of nam ngiao, and promised to post an announcement on Kyu3's Facebook page when she did -- I made her swear to it.

I'll be there.

Where slurped: Kyu3 Noodles & BBQ, 337 Jones St., San Francisco

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tycoon Thai's Kanom Jeen: A Khao Poon By Any Other Name....

I've been promising myself to break away from my Southeast Asia exporations and go for a bowl of hearty hand-made Chinese wheat noodles, but a glance at my calendar tells me it it's Songkran, the New Year festival for Thailand and some other parts of SEA. Songkran (and Thingyan in Burma) includes a water-splashing festival, patently impractical during California's present drought, so I decided to honor the New Year with a bowl of Thai Noodles, and had one in mind, Kanom Jeeen at Tycoon Thai, simply because I had never had a bowl of noodles with that name before.

Kanom Jeen is in the "Friend's Requested" section of Tycoon Thai's menu, which I think is a cute way of saying "House Specialties," meaning The Real Stuff. It's described on the menu as "Vermicelli noodle topped with a brothy curry of chicken (optional pork blood) served with bean sprout, long bean and cabbage. Try it with boiled egg, Add $2."

I had no idea what to expect.  I imagined something like a Vietnamese bun bowl,  either topped with curry or with curry on the side. What came  instead was something I felt I was already familiar with: a tangle of rice noodles in a spicy curry-like soup, adorned with shredded cabbage and carrots on top and on-the-bone chicken, a soft-boiled egg and cubes of congealed pork blood lurking in the depths. I briefly wondered if they'd brought me the wrong order, but the boiled egg and blood hallmarks of the dish I'd ordered told me otherwise. Convinced this was indeed my order, I took a tentative sip of the broth and dug in, but greedily.

A little after-the-fact research via Wikipedia and a Google image search taught me that "Kanom Jeen" is a generic Thai term for almost anything made with fresh or fermented rice noodles and a broth (often, but not always, curry-flavored) and that there are any variants of the dish. Confirming my suspicion, the Lao dish Khao Poon (the "Lao laksa") which I had previously enjoyed at Maneelap Srimongkoun, can be considered a Northeastern (Isan) Thailand variant of Kanom Jeen. Simply put, kanom jeen is apparently what Isan Thai people (which Tycoon Thai's owners are) call the same dish the Lao people call khao poon.

A khao poon by any other name is still a khao poon, and Tycoon Thai's kanom jeen was every bit as satisfying as MS's khao poon, and in some ways better.  In particular, it had higher spice heat level, about as high as could be desired by anyone who appreciates chili heat just short of the boasting level, and the more coarsely shredded cabbage gave it a better "chew"  On the other hand I found Tycoon Thai's noodles a little on the soft side.

Overall, I wouldn't kick either bowl of noodles off my table.

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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Rockin' The Boat Noodles At Kyu3 Noodles & BBQ

A restaurant named for a Japanese number with a menu designed to have an "Asian-Caucasian" (owner's own phrase) appeal would seem to be the last place to look for a bowl of Thai Boat Noodles rivaling local benchmark Zen Yai Thai's for authenticity.  Then again, it would also seem to be an unlikely place to find Sukhothai noodles on the menu, and it was exactly that which drew me to Kyu3 Noodles & BBQ for my first visit. If Kyu3 was capable of delivering a bowl of Sukhothai noodles that could stand with those of Amphawa Thai Noodle House (the only other place in San Francisco I know of that serves them),  I figured they might also produce an authentic and satisfying bowl of boat noodles.  I was not disappointed.

Kyu3's menu describes Boat Noodles as "Pork broth, stewed pork, pork meatball, Chinese broccoli, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro and parsley." I asked my server (who turned out to be Nuchy, co-owner and manager of Kyu3) directly if the broth was made with pork blood. "Yes," she responded, with a slight hesitation, as if giving up a deep, dark secret, and seemed relieved when I told her that was what I was looking for.

It's been a while since I've had Zen Yai Thai's boat noodles, and there it's always been a mix of small bowls of beef boat noodles, pork boat noodles an tom yum noodles; it's difficult to directly compare my single large bowl of boat noodles today at Kyu3 with my ZYT experience, other than to report enjoying a similar intensity of flavors and satisfying variety of textures in my soup at both venues.  Kyu3's broth was rich, smooth and peppery, with strong vegetal notes, especially from some pleasantly aggressive cilantro. It was amply stocked with properly firm bun-like thin rice noodles, and pork of three distinct texture gradients: pate-like meatballs, chewy offal, and crunchy cracklings. It's a bowl I'll soon to get back to, despite the seemingly endless variety of other Asian noodle dishes out there waiting to be explored.

To a certain extent, I think Kyu3 is hiding their light under a bushel with their clear but simplistic English-only descriptions of some items on their menu.  If you are already familiar with Thai dish names, it takes some attentiveness to figure out  that "Silver Salad" is Yum Woon Sen, "Curry Noodles" is Kao Soi, and "Thai-style Shrimp Sashimi" is the dish I've been looking for called Goi Goong in Lao, etc.  Judging from my experience at Kyu3 so far, one can probably expect authentic treatments with good results from most of their offerings.  More help is available on Kyu3's Facebook page, at least for the weekly specials, which are identified in Thai (both script and transliteration) as well as English -- along with some mouthwatering pictures.

In a nutshell, don't let the Pan-Asian veneer fool ya; you'll not get dumbed-down stuff here.

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