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.