Sunday, January 24, 2016

Completing The Shanghai Noodle Trilogy With Chao Mian At Gourmet Noodle House

I was hoping for some nice fat Shanghai cu mian (粗面) when I headed to Gourmet Noodle House to complete a trilogy of noodle dish types. I'd already had their soup noodles (tang mian), two exemplary versions, in fact, and the house Shanghai-style tossed noodles (ban mian). It was time to vet the fried version (chao mian, or "chow mein" if you will).

A mention of Shanghai chow mein may automatically call up images of the characteristic fat, udon-like noodle the Shanghainese call cu mian  (粗面, "thick noodle") sometimes used in this dish. In reality, this is as much the exception as it is the rule for chow mein in Shanghai;  home cooks find it a daunting task to bring this noodle to the right degree of done-ness in a stir-fry, and for the ubiquitous street-side chow mein vendors who freshly stir-fry noodles for their customers, it would be too time-consuming. For Gourmet Noodle House, it makes sense to stick with the medium-thick house-made alkaline noodles the chain is known for.

I ordered "N26, Shanghai Syle Fried Noodle W/ Vegetable, Chicken Beef and Shrimp." along with a side order of four Shanghai-style shao mai (siu mai). My chao mian/chow mein came as a thing of beauty on a square plate, a tangle of stir-fried, fresh-made noodles sumptuously topped with the advertised ingredients. However, I found the noodles a little too far on the soft side of al dente; it was also too light on the soy sauce for my tastes, strange as that sounds.  My Shanghainese wife whips me up some chow mein often, in old school style, with the whole affair pretty much doused with soy sauce; Gourmet Noodle House's lighter style might be a pitch to the millennials the chain is marketing to, but I found myself longing for my wife's saltier, muskier version.

The shao mai were Shanghai-style, as my server promised, with most of the savory filling provided by soy-sauce infused rice. They were a well-tonsured version, lacking the prepuce-like top to the the money-bag shape Shanghai shao mai sometimes come in.  Cut or uncut, they were nonetheless tasty.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Slurping Down Tonkotsu "Kuro" Ramen At Slurp Ramen In Chinatown

Slurp Ramen opened around Christmas 2015 on Commercial St. in Chinatown.  Despite what Tamara Palmer says about my ramen-scouting diligence, I tend to have other noodle priorities and am typically dilatory when it comes to finding out what new ramen joints have to offer. Slurp's location within my usual stomping grounds  pushed it to the top of my ramen-ya bucket list, however;  I haven't had what I could consider a "local" ramen shop since Kirimachi left North Beach and I felt I owed Slurp an audition. Noodlesse oblige.

Slurp Ramen is located in the 700 block of Commercial St., across from the ghosts of the National Noodle Company and within the official boundaries of Chinatown (the only dedicated ramen shop with this distinction). It's a quiet, nondescript block with no other retail uses, and Slurp Ramen is almost invisible from the sidewalk until you come abreast of it.  Though compact, it's no jerry-built hole in the wall, but tastefully if sparsely appointed, with dark wooden  tables (mostly four-tops and two-tops) and a faux granite counter along the kitchen area for solo diners like me.  The latter helps give it a certain intimacy, and to this gaijin Slurp Ramen looks like a ramen shop should look. Service, at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, was practiced, prompt and upbeat, though almost bordering on the formal.

Slurp Ramen features tonkotsu broth ramen (who doesn't, these days?) with several flavors including shoyu, miso and spicy miso. They also offer a straight shoyu broth ramen.  Along with the ramen, the well-rounded menu includes small rice bowls and sides such as gyoza and chicken karaage, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and desserts.

Being a masochist, I ordered the "Tonkotsu Black" (tonkotsu broth with blackened garlic oil added) even though I am not a fan of tonkotsu ramen generally. Somewhat paradoxically, my favorite all-time ramen experience to date has been with a "kuro" (black) tonkotsu ramen at Hide-Chan Ramen in New York, whose copious use of the bitter oil aggressively countered the smarmy unctuousness of the tonkotsu broth. As with my other attempts to recapture Hide-Chan's kuro tonkotsu magic locally, Slurp's version  came up short, with the sparing use of the oil providing mere accents to the richly fatty, salty broth.  This may in fact be the intent, and if you are a confirmed tonkotsu fan you will probably like this selecton very much; I'll add that the curly noodles had the appropriate "snap" to them, the half soft-boiled egg cooked just right, and the thin, broad slice of chashu as tasty as it was decorative. with As for me, I'll probably try the spicy miso version or the straight shoyu ramen on my next visit.

At lunchtime Slurp Ramen offers "combinations" in which for two or three bucks more you can add half orders of various sides to your ramen.  I went with "Combo A," which included a half order of house-made pork gyoza. These were very good, and next time I'll probably spring for a full order.

Insofar as I need a ramen "local" (perhaps I'll succumb to the ramen craze), I've found one in Slurp Ramen.

Whee slurped (d'oh): Slurp Ramen, 710 Commercial Street, SF (next to Kumon).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Geary & 2nd Calls Again: Shanghai-style Ban Mian And Yellowfish Spring Rolls At Gourmet Noodle House

The vicinity of Geary Boulevard and 2nd Avenue has been very, very good to me, if not always to its restaurant tenants.  I've gotten at least a dozen blog posts out of six different establishments that have  inhabited just three addresses within half a block of that intersection; they've supplied me with delights from Shandong, Xi'an, Sichuan, Korean and Burmese cuisines, with some bonus Xinjiang dishes still beckoning as well. And that was before Gourmet Noodle House, the intersection of noodle cuisine and Shanghai cuisine, opened at the very corner of Geary and 2nd.  Behold, my third GNH review in four weeks!

My attraction today was N2, "Noodles W/ Scallions and Dry Shrimp." The Chinese in the menu identifies the noodles as 拌麵 (ban mian, pronounced like bü mi by Shanghainese), not to be confused with the Fujianese "ban mian" which are flat, square shaved or hand torn noodles.  Shanghai's "ban mian," or "tossed noodles" are sometimes compared to lo mein, though in fact it's a leaner, cleaner dish. In its most basic construct, ban mian consists of freshly cooked noodles that have seasoned, sizzling hot oil poured over them. The hot oil is invariably infused with spring onions, as well as other condiments according to specific recipes. In the case of Gourmet Noodle House, the condiments also include dried tiny shrimps and bits of "wood ear" mushrooms.

Shanghai-style ban mian is not really designed to supply protein (it's generally enjoyed in its simplicity without toppings) so side dishes are important to the making of a full meal.  Out of curiosity I ordered S1, "Yellow Croaker Spring Rolls" as a side dish. Before Gourmet Noodle House's advent, I had never head of such a creation, but a little research indicated that it is very popular at Gourmet Noodle House's Shanghai branches; at GNH's busiest (Zhongshan Park) branch, it is the most recommended dish by reviewers on (China's Yelp, as it were).

I've rarely ordered ban mian in a restaurant, and my expectations may have been conditioned by the way my wife has prepared it, but I found Gourmet Noodle House's version a little on the dry side. It took quite a bit of extra stirring to coat all the noodles so they didn't stick together, and there was no pool of liquid left in the bottom of the bowl as I would expect. Yes, it was a little more oil the dish demanded, but what the heck, it's vegetable oil after all. Otherwise, the combination of dried shrimp and scallions was rewarding, and the noodles themselves happily chewy.

If I found my noodles a little short of the mark, my yellowfish spring rolls were a revelation; at first glance these appear a little pricey, at $7.95 for four smallish pieces, but I found them worth every penny. The thin, crackly, nearly greaseless cylinders were each stuffed full with yellowfish filet and bits of shepherd's purse; there was no filler, no rice and  beans (or bean sprouts) for these chunjurritos. I'll gladly order these again.

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shanghai Surprise: A Spicy Beef Flank Noodle Soup at Gourmet Noodle House

I jokingly chided the server at Gourmet Noodle House for failing to alert me to the spiciness of "N14 House Special Beef Flank Noodle Soup." It was the woman whom I had wowed on my first visit with my smattering of Shanghainese, and she didn't believe me when I told her there was no reference on the menu for the non-Chinese reader to the heat level of this dish. She picked one up and checked herself, and was surprised to find me right. I thought the omission especially odd because Shanghainese cuisine is not known for spiciness.

I knew going in, of course, that this dish was respectably spicy, because poster "Cynsa37" had noted on Hungry Onion that the dish had made her eyes tear and her nose run, and I was looking forward to the same experience.  I was obviously not complaining, as I had eagerly drained my bowl, but I could picture the hassle and extra expense to the house  of having a spice-averse Yelper (or even a Chowhound or Hungrion) not appreciating the "Shanghai surprise" and sending the dish back. And maybe loudly bitching about the lack of communication later.

To me, the dish was the perfect potion for a gloomy, overcast day between rainstorms. If I had to compare it with anything, it was akin to a good spicy Taiwanese beef noodle soup, though without any medicinal undertones. The flavorful beef flank (the cut of beef one typically finds in "beef stew noodles") sat in an honestly spicy beefy, chili-laden broth, with the only further visible adornment provided by stalks of Shanghai bok choi (qing cai to Shanghainese speakers). The fresh noodles were like thick, straight ramen noodles, but with more snap. In a word, it's a simple, robust and satisfying bowl of noodles for anyone who likes a little spice heat in their life.

My server also confirmed something I had suspected: the restaurant is connected to the fast-growing Shanghai-based chain of the same name (in both English and Chinese), which currently has about 100 outlets in China and plans for 300 by the year 2020, according to this article (I think).  "We're part of the same 'group'," she said. I assume it's a franchising arrangement, because the owner of record is the same person who owned the Roadside BBQ that formerly occupied the premises. I also learned from my server that the chef came from Old Shanghai Restaurant (down the road a piece), where he had 20 years of experience.

I promised my server-friend to return to sample more noodly fare, and she promised to offer caveats to future N14 novices. 

Where slurped: Gourmet Noodle House, 3751 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Thoughts on Thoughts: Style Cuisine Showroom and its "Mechanical Noodles"

I'm not generally a fan of culinary fusion (the "F" word, I like to call it). Too often it's a bullying form of cultural appropriation, like adorning yourself with a feather you've stolen from a peacock's tail. Sometimes though, it can be playful, or taken so far as to be self-mocking.  Such appears to be the case at Thoughts Style Cuisine Showroom; I mean, how else can you interpret a Thai cuisine-based restaurant that features dishes like a spicy "Tum Yum Kung Risotto"?

Thoughts, as I'll call it for short (and the last three words appear to be a subtext, as printed on the menu) is the product of design students, led by Thai Ms. Mu Chanma, who has a BFA in Design and Visual Communications and a MFA in Creative Strategy (who knew?) and is also the chef at Thoughts. According to an article in Eater SF,  the concept is a fashion showroom for food instead of clothing items. She and her friends are are also designing a sunglasses line (still in development), and they came up with the idea for "brunch and shades." The idea is to eat at Ms. Chanma's restaurant while wearing her sunglasses. That explains why they made it such a bright space, with an Ikea-white color scheme.  The overall design is what you might call modern industrial/third wave coffee house style (though the current drinks menu is  caffeine-free).  There's an obligatory high communal table with high-design stools, and transparent acrylic chairs at the low, white-topped tables.

But I was there  to check out an item mysteriously named "Mechanical Noodles," further described as "DIY" noodles on the menu. But why "Mechanical Noodles"? Had they imported a noodle-making robot from China? Were the noodles cranked out of a noodle machine? The answer was at once more prosaic and more obscure. "We thought it was a cool name," explained one of the servers. "And..." she paused, making stirring motions with her hands. "The mechanics of putting the ingredients together is up to me?" I said. "Yes," she said.

The Mechanical Noodles turned out to be a cold noodle salad.  I was brought a bowl of pre-seasoned bun-like rice noodles and a condiment caddy containing four tumblers: one with ground pork, one with a spicy dressing, and two with purple and green lettuces. The small bowl of noodles sat in a larger bowl for mixing purposes. Like the bowls used in some other dishes at Thoughts, the mixing bowl was a shallow, doggie-bowl shaped bowl with two little handles and a single abstract word printed on it. Mine read "IF."

I felt I had a challenge before me to make something attractive, and took my time adding the ground pork, stirring in some of the dressing, and breaking and arranging the lettuces. One of the servers, the one who explained the name to me, seemed to be watching me approvingly from a distance, like a teacher watching a child make something from Lego blocks. My constructed Legoland salad, it might be called, was cool, refreshing, and absolutely made by the spicy onion-y, garlicky dressing, and perfect for a light lunch.

There was no coffee or tea on the menu, so I blindly ordered something called "Camou Milk." It turned out to be a mixture of milk and a green soda of some sort.  In a clear tumbler filled with small cubes of ice, it had the appearance of camouflage, hence the name. I have to say this drink looked better than it tasted.

In addition to some other shotgun wedding dishes on the menu (like Seafood Khao Mao Penne and a Tod Mun burger) there are some more conventional Thai dishes including Sukhothai Noodles, which Ms. Chanma avows is made in a more or less traditional manner, and which I will have to return to try. But my own transitionals will have to do for sunglasses.

Where slurped: Thoughts Style Cuisine Showroom, 139-8th St., San Francisco