Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Soba-ring NewYear's Eve Nabeyaki at Dojima-ann

Clever wordplay, eh? Actually I was sober as a judge when I downed the nabeyaki soba at Dojima-ann, and expect to be in the same state long after Anderson Cooper's last giggle of the evening takes air.  The eating of soba, the nutty-flavored buckwheat noodles, is a New Year's Eve tradition in Japan, but as far as I know has nothing to do with lining one's stomach for a night of hard drinking (something Japanese salarymen are alleged to do every night).

In doing my research (a.k.a. Googling) for the best places to eat soba, I came across Dojima-ann, one of those places that flies under the radar because it's right under our noses (at O'Farrell and Powell Streets). Dojima-ann's menu offers 15 hot noodle soups (and another 6 cold noodle dishes), each with a choice of udon or soba noodles. It being close to dinner time when I arrived there, I decided to go for the nabeyaki, a meal in itself, along with a side of gyoza.

Nabeyaki (a.k.a. nabe-yaki) is a form of hot pot, a one-dish meal served in an iron pot or clay pot on cold winter days.  It's more commonly found with udon noodles than soba, but that goes out the window on New Year's Eve. In Dojima-ann's version, chewy soba noodles are served in a rich miso broth, along with (as specified on the restaurant's menu) chicken, egg and vegetables topped with shrimp tempura.  The chicken came in tender, not over-cooked shreds, accompanied by scalloped carrot slices, mushrooms, Beijing cabbage, nori (seaweed) and various greens. The raw egg was broken onto the top of the broth which already contained the chicken, leaving no doubt as to which came first on this occasion.  The single  large shrimp tempura was as tasty as it was decorative, and the miso broth's savoriness was multiplied by the contributions of the ingredients that essentially "cooked" in while I waited for it to cool to a slurpable temperature.

The six gyoza in my side dish, though on the smallish side, were intensely flavorful, and a well-recommended protein add-on.  I wanted to try the potato croquettes, but judging from the menu, they are only available with the curry udon or as a bento box item.

Dojima-ann, from all accounts (including my own limited sample) serves decent Japanese fare at reasonable prices, and is very conveniently located once you know it is there.  I'v probably passed it a hundred times on the Geary bus without noticing it, obscured as it is by throngs of tourists in the street.  I'll definitely return to vet the udon, as well as to enjoy some non-noodular menu items.

Where slurped: Dojima-ann, 219 O'Farrell St. at Powell St., San Francisco

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Bay Area Treasure Lost: Wenzhou Fish, Noodles & More.... Is No More.

Knock Knock, who's there?  Knocked Fish Noodle Soup.

As I write this, I know of only two restaurants in the U.S. serving the cuisine of Wenzhou, China. Golden Corner Noodles in Flushing, Queens, New York, and Wenzhou Fish, Noodles & More in San Jose's Japantown. By the time you read this, most likely, one of the two will be gone; alas, it will be the one in San Francisco's neighbor to the South.

Wenzhou is a Chinese city in Zhejiang Province, which is immediately south of Shanghai.  Located in a coastal enclave, it was historically isolated from the rest of China, and thus developed a distinct sea-food based culinary culture, as well as a dialect of the Wu language that is unintelligible to even its nearest neighbors. Wenzhou's significance in the context of Chinese food, a well as the rarity of its cuisine in the Chinese diaspora are well documented by an article by Jacqueline M. Newman in Flavor and Fortune.

Wenzhou Fish, Noodles and More* was opened in late 2016 by the husband and wife team of Max Soloviev and Carol Chen after sinking $2 million into renovating a historic building in San Jose's Japantown I filed this intelligence in my memory banks for possible future action then forgot about it, understandable because downtown San Jose is a place I had visited perhaps twice in the 50+ years I have lived in San Francisco.  Visiting the restaurant became a matter of some urgency, though, when news came through a couple of months ago that the restaurant would be closing at the end of the year. I am carless (and not even a driver), so when my daughter arrived in town for a Christmas visit we rented a car and trekked to San Jose (combining the restaurant visit with a visit to the San Jose Museum of Art, which had an exhibit she wanted to see.

At Wenzhou Fish, Noodles and More, I ordered two iconic Wenzhou dishes, "Wenzhou Silky Knocked Fish Noodle Soup" (温州敲鱼面) and a "Wenzhou Style Stuffed Pita With Dried Vegetables & Ground Pork" (梅菜干麦饼) to share with my daughter who, being somewhat averse to wheatens, ordered a more conventional fried rice dish for herself. The "Knocked Fish" is so-called because a "dough" of fish flesh scraped from the skin combined with a little potato starch is knocked into a thin, flat mass with a wooden dowel, lightly pan fried, rolled up and cut into into translucent ribbons with bits of fish visible. This slow-loading (but worth waiting for) video shows a woman in Wenzhou making the "knocked" fish noodles.

In Wenzhou FN&M the fish noodles are combined with some fresh conventional wheat noodles and vegetables in a savory fish-based broth. I found this dish refreshing, almost addictively so, and a good counterpoint to the fiery Sichuan and spicy Xi'an soups I have taken to in recent years. The Wenzhou "pita" is. I discovered, a common street snack in Wenzhou. The dried (actually pickled) vegetsbles in the rendition we were served did not overwhelm the ground pork as it might have, and both I and my daughter (who is far from the committed carnivore that I am) both enjoyed this.

While we were dining, co-owner Carol Chen was conversing with a woman at the next table in the Wenzhou dialect. I can normally pick up on Shanghainese and other Wu dialects almost instantly, but even straining to listen to the conversation, could not recognize a single word in the Wenzhouhua.

Co-owner Carol Chen
I talked to owner Chen afterwards about the closure. She said business was good, but not good enough to support the overhead of such a labor-intensive operation as her restaurant. She and her husband are not throwing in the towel, though, and are looking for another suitable venue. She mentioned that someone in San Francisco had inquired about operating a franchise, and they had begun to think in terms of a central kitchen to support more than one location.

Will opportunity knock more than once for knocked fish noodles in the Bay Area?

 Where slurped:  Wenzhou Fish, Noodles and More, 625 North 6th St,, San Jose

*I suspect the comma is an unintended intruder; most Chinese restaurants have fish and noodles, but very few have fish noodles.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Yangchun Noodles, Shanghai's Practical Gift To A Harried Chef Ju Ju

Yangchun noodles with "pocket" eggs and ham slices from the fridge.

Although I've been away from chasing down exemplary Asian noodles for the blog, I haven't deprived myself of noodles -- far from it. My partner and personal chef Ju Ju's work schedule has left her with less time for cooking, and in a pinch she falls back on her (and my) favorite time-saver, yangchun noodles (阳春面), which I've been enjoying up to three times a week .

What are yangchun noodles? You can find varying descriptions, even recipes, but to Shanghainese the name invokes the simplest possible noodle preparation: fresh thin egg-less noodles served in a broth based on soy sauce and spring onion, with optional chili oil or chile flakes for heat (an option I've always exercised).  They can be served as is (for breakfast, typically) or topped with whatever you have on hand, either something left over from last night's dinner or something you can cook up in no time.

Chef Ju Ju
Since Ju Ju is usually whipping up my yangchun noodles for dinner, she loads them up with protein, which might be leftover soy sauce chicken leg(s), red-cooked pork cutlets, lion's head meatballs, etc. but almost always includes a couple of "pocket" eggs (荷包蛋). "Pocket" eggs are basically over easy eggs fried in a wok. My guess for the "pocket" is that it alludes to the fact that one edge of the egg often gets folded over in the flipping, forming a little flap.

As for the name? Although "yangchun" literally means "springtime," the 10th month on the Chinese calendar, roughly October, is referred to as "Little Springtime" (akin to our "Indian Summer"?). Based on this, "yangchun" in colloquial Shanghainese refers to the number 10, and since the original street vendor price was 10 fen (cents) the noodles came to be known as "yangchun" noodles. This explanation probably seems less convoluted to a Shanghainese than it does to you and me.

Spring noodles or fall noodles, they won't lead to my winter of discontent.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Long Island City's Mu Ramen. Nu?

Even in noodle blogging quasi-semi-retirement, there was no way I could get through a road trip to New York City, upstate NY and Vermont without a noodle joint screaming for my attention, if not necessarily my approval. The EAT ME! in this instance came from Mu Ramen in Long Island City.

Mu Ramen, of course, is the enterprise that Pete Wells put at the top of his New York ramen list when it was but a pop-up inside a bagel shop, and it kept the plaudits coming after becoming (quite literally) a brick-and-mortar establishment. Were I a rameniac, which I am not, this would have drawn me to the place in a New York minute, but a second, more practical reason conspired to draw me there: Mu Ramen is a mere 5 minute walk from my daughter's railroad flat where I was staying.

There was a fifteen-minute wait for seats at the communal table on a Wednesday night when we arrived at 7:15.  As expected, they were out of their limited-production house ramen. Rachel ordered the tonkotsu and I the spicy miso ramen.  We also ordered a "Okonomiyaki" which was actually four slices of a conventional pancake topped with foie gras-infused maple syrup and trout. The chef worked under Thomas Keller at Per Se and likes his quotation marks.

My daughter's tonkotsu ramen (above) came with fine, straight noodles in a smooth, satisfying broth, and hog jowl instead of the more familiar melt-in-the-mouth chashu, a variant I, for one, appreciated (she gave me a sample bite).  My spicy miso came with thicker, curly noodles and pork which had hacked (but not minced).  The broth wasn't particularly spicy, but the use of red miso added to the complexity.

I liked Mu Ramen. If I were to reach for a superlative, I'd say it was probably the loudest ramen bar I have ever been in, with jazz and pop music bouncing off the brick-and-mortar walls and the joyful noise of conversation trying to rise above. No faux contemplative-ness to the noodle slurping here. Perhaps the no-reservation and cash-only policies have also served to de-hipsterfy the experience at Mu, leaving it one of simply enjoying the fare, which is as good and inventive as that of any ramen-ya I have visited.

Now, if one only could pick up some bagels on the way out. Nu?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kunming Classic Small Pot Rice Noodles At Chongqing Xiao Mian

I waited patiently with my Portsmouth Square homies for the weather to heat up enough to fully appreciate a cold noodle dish I've been dying to try, "Sichuan Soba" which is on the menu at Pot & Noodle, but no dice. So I went around the corner to sister restaurant Chongqing Xiao Mian again, for another research project.

In the upper right-hand corner of CQXM's picture menu is shown another dish I've been curious about, "Single Cooked Noodle Soup." Would this be a soup featuring a single very long wheat flour noodle such as can be found in Shanxi restaurants? Hardly -- the noodles were rice noodles, and had been cut into what appeared to be 4" pieces. This made me uneasy intially, but I figured that if there was at least one noodle for each year I have lived plus a few extra, I'd be okay, and so it appeared.

The Chinese name for Chonqing Xiao Mian's "Single Cooked Noodle Soup" is 小锅米线 (xiao guo mi xian) or Small Pot Rice Noodle.  A little research revealed that this dish is a Yunnan dish, and a specialty of Kunming. CQXM's "Single Cooked" probably refers to the fact that this is a one-pot dish, wirh noodles and toppings cooked in the same broth in a single pot. The pot is tradionally a small copper pot, and if the picture at the left from a Shanghai Yunnan restaurant is a guide, the dish is sometimes served in the same pot. (No such luck at CQXM, though.)

My bowl of small pot rice noodles was spicy (ma la) enough to earn its chili pepper symbol on the menu, and the one-pot cooking process rewarded it with a richness and depth of flavor that the spiciness couldn't mask.  It wasn't a particularly meaty broth, though some shreds of beef  lurked in its depths, along with bell pepper tomatoes (possibly), cabbage, peapod (or edamame) tips, leeks and spring onion. Atop the broth and noodles swam a couple of large chunks of winter melon, a novel touch. Beyond visible ingredients, the broth was infused with plenty of chili, garlic and probably other spices, and overall was the star of the show, as I found the rice noodles a little too soft.

Where slurped: Chong Qing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny St., San Francisco.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Not-So-Classic Guilin Rice Noodles At Chong Qing Xiao Mian

I headed out to Pot & Noodle for Round 2 (Vetting of the Sichuan Soba) but found them closed for some sort of maintenance (installation of the noodle machines, perhaps). A hand-written sign outside (in Chinese, but I knew what it said) directed me to sister restaurant Chong Qing Xiao Mian around  the corner, where I was lucky to find a seat at the communal table at 6:30 in the evening.

CQXM doesn't have Sichuan Soba on the menu, so I opted for the Guilin Rice Noodle Soup.  I hadn't had Guilen mifen since my last trip to Classic Guilin Rice Noodles in Oakland; in fact I hadn't even ventured out to my favorite Guilin mifen guan on my recent trip to Shanghai.  There was also a mystery to be solved, too.  The Wu-Du chain (see me last post) tends to cut and paste the picture menus between their stores, and the depiction of Guilin Rice Noodle Soup specifies that it is served with beef, peanuts and quail eggs. However, a fellow noodle maven had just tried the version at Pot & Noodle and reported it had pork and a tea egg instead of beef and quail eggs.  What would I be getting?

My Guilin Rice Noodle Soup  arrived, with (voila!) beef an quail eggs.  The beef was, I believe, beef plate (the cut with the white membrane you'll usually find in what the Cantonese call "beef stew" noodle soup). The beef was tender, even the membrane, which can sometimes be too chewy. The (2) quail eggs were masterfully cooked, as good as any ramen joint onsen egg, with fully-cooked but silky whites and runny yolks inside. (I found myself trying to picture a tiny egg timer).  The rice noodles, unfortunately, were a little on the soft side, and the soup, while a nice meaty broth, was not as interesting as the milder but more complex, slightly medicinal traditional broth served at Classic Guilin Rice Noodles across the bridge in Oakland.

With my noodles, I ordered a  cucumber salad appetizer.  The cucumber chunks in a slightly spicy "vinaigrette" coated with sesame seeds made for a less complex version of this dish than found at other Northern Chinese restaurants in town, but was very refreshing and one I will order again.

Where slurped: Chong Qing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny St., San Francisco

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wu-Du Team's Pot & Noodle Brings Another Noodle Option To Chinatown

Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles at Pot & Noodle

Pot & Noodle, which just opened in the Jackson St. space vacated by ABC Bakery and Cafe, is the eighth Sichuan-styled restaurant venture (including the now-closed Pot Sticker) by Jiayi (Jenny) Wu and Ziwen (Truman) Du, who met when she was a server and he a chef at Z&Y Restaurant across the street.

Although the noodle-centric menu is similar to their other restaurants, including two in Chinatown (Spicy King and Chong Qing Xiao Mian), Pot & Noodle provides additional benefits both on the retail side and the chain's operational side.  For its potential customers, Pot & Noodle hooks into a couple of recent fads, offering $16.95 "Mini Hot Pot" options (hence the name) as well as a fresh juice bar.  From the operations standpoint, the new facility offered up a spacious basement. Wu and Du will use this space to install state-of-the-art noodle making machines which they ordered from China. Pot & Noodle will, thereupon, become a central noodle-making kitchen for the whole chain. It's likely too that Pot & Noodle will capture overflow patronage from its sister restaurant Chong Qing Xiao Mian around the corner on Kearny St., which is usually slammed at meal time.

The Chinese name of Pot & Noodle is Chong Qing Xiao Mian, identical to the Kearny St. facility's name, but since I had already reviewed the namesake noodle dish at the latter, I decided to try the "Wuhan Hot Dry Noodle" (reganmian).  It was the first Stateside version of this dish I have had, and the first since before I began blogging, so I have nothing within memory to compare it with.

Time Out Beijing has provided a pragmatic description of reganmian, which can have many variants in toppings:
As far as Chinese food-lore is concerned, regan mian (热干面) is relatively straightforward, avoiding the customary historical quagmire that usually accompanies iconic dishes of Chinese cuisine. Regan mian, or 'hot dry noodles', unequivocally hails from Hubei's capital Wuhan... There is some local variation, of course, but all regan mian can be divided into three parts: freshly cooked wheaten noodles, pickled carrot and occasionally minced pork, and a thick sesame paste-based sauce. The sauce can either be drizzled over and tossed with the noodles or allowed to pool in the bowl for the diner to mix.
My meatless reganmian came with a minimum of carrots (which was fine with me) and a plenitude of scallions (ditto); and, as a local variation, apparently, whole peanuts. the sesame paste was very viscous, perhaps too viscous, as the noodles, though properly cooked, tended to clump together even after a very vigorous mixing, courtesy my server.  It was a huge portion (an attribute Wu-Du restaurants are known for) for $7.95 and tasty, if not particularly spicy (nor was it expected to be, not being a Sichuan dish).

I chose Couple's Delight (fu qi fei pian) as an appetizer. Though not as elegantly thinly sliced as the version at Z & Y across the street, it seemed meatier, with a higher ratio of beef (flank?) to offal.  It was nicely balanced between ma (numbing) and la (spicy) and also saucier than other versions I've had.  This proved to be a side benefit, as I doled some of the excess sauce into my noodles which helped separate them while adding some zing.  Like the noodles, it was an absolute steal at $4.95.

Keep it up, Wu & Du!

Where slurped: Pot & Noodle, 650 Jackson St., San Francisco Chinatown,

Friday, May 26, 2017

Slurping Shanghai: The 25th Anniversary Noodle Tour

I've just returned from my eleventh trip in Shanghai in 25 years, this one overlapping the 25th anniversary of my first visit in April and May of 1992.  They weren't all noodle-focused trips, to be sure, though noodles were always lurking in the background, but this time I had little else on my mind. My strategy was not to chase down noodle destination in this city of 50,000 restaurants, but to wander and let the noodles find me.  Slurp randomly found noodles I did, from fine bean thread noodles to bedsheet-sized biang biang noodles, topped with pork, beef, lamb, clams, tofu and even donkey meat, mostly in the Zhabei neighborhood where I was staying.  Without further ado, here are some tour highlights, in chronological order:

Lamb with hand-pulled noodles (Yang Rou La Mian) at Xi Bei Niu Rou Mian - classic Hui Muslim style noodles at the first mian guan I came across wandering down Pingxingguan Lu toward Zhabei Park. Thin slices of meat (in this case lamb) garnished robust hand-pulled to order in a subtle clear broth.  I was home, I felt.

Saozi Mian at Yu Shan Fang (dry version) - Yu Shan Fang was my big find of the trip, a spare and cheerful Xi'an food outpost just two bus stops from my apartment, good enough to make me forget Xi'an Famous Foods. Vegetables, tofu and a bit of ground pork sauced with a now-familiar sour Silk Road flavor which is as much Mediterranean as Chinese topped linguini-like noodles in an exemplary Qishan saozi mian.. 

You Po Che Mian at Yu Shan Fang - I couldn't, and wouldn't wait to return to Yu Shan Fang for what is perhaps my favorite of Xi'an noodle dishes, spicy you po che mian. This dish, like the one above, is presented as a thing of art, but must be stirred vigorously to coat the noodles with the toppings (and some underlying chili oil) before consuming.

Biang Biang Mian "4 Ways" at Yu Shan Fang - Xi'an restaurants typically have house special combinations of 3, 4, or even 5 toppings  YSF's, if I recall correctly, were pork, tofu, bean sauce and tomato & egg. Like the two dishes above, the topping were meant to be stirred into the bedsheet-sized biang biang noodles (some heavy lifting there!).

Hong Shao ("Red-cooked") beef hand-pulled noodles at Hong Shao La Mian - tearing myself away from new best friend Yu Shan Fang, I found this gem of a hole-in-the-wall on Yanchang Lu, opposite the entrance to Shanghai University's Yanchang campus. More of a Taiwanese style than a Lanzhou style, it featured high-quality beef in a very beefy broth.

Clam Ban Mian from Gourmet Noodle House (Raffles City branch) - Gourmet Noodle House (家有好面 in Chinese) is a popular Shanghai chain that may or may not be related to the San Francisco noodlery of the same name. Although parts of the menu are similar, I couldn't resist this "tossed" noodle dish featuring a small mountain of shelled clams, not found in San Francisco. Even in the tacky Raffles City mall venue, GNH lived up to its reputation for good noodles with this dish.

Qishan Saozi Mian (wet version) at Yu Shan Fang - having initiated my romance with Yu Shan Fang with the sauced version of saozi mian, I of course had to try the soup version and was not disappointed.

Lamb Noodles at Muslim Boutique Beef Noodles (Luochuan Lu) - sparkling clean and, yes, a bit boutique-y in appearance, this place had the lowest prices and possibly the biggest menu of any mian guan I encountered. The lamb here was of much higher quality than the standard Hui brotherhood places.

Curry Beef and Bean Thread Soup at Hutu Shengjian - A bean thread soup with either beef or tofu is a traditional accompaniment to an order of Shengjian bao, and the version at Hutu was by far the best of three I tried. Not only did it have the desired beefy flavor, its garnish even included a couple of hard-boiled quail eggs.

Donkey Noodles at Donkey Daddy (Lu Ba Ba Lu Rou Huo Shao) - It took a bit of research to find donkey noodles in my neigborhood. Donkey Daddy didn't have the Henan hui mian version I was looking for, but I was able to pair it with my first donkey sandwich (lu rou huo shao) of Beijing fame. I found the donkey meat blander and a bit sweeter than beef, and distressingly soft in texture.  

Liang Pi at Yu Shan Fang - A 100° day sent me back to Yu Shan Fang for a cooling liang pi accompanied by a large bottle of pineapple fruit beer (lurking in the background). I can recommend the former much more heartily than I can the latter.

Ji Dan Hui Ma Shi ("Cat's Ear" Noodles with Tomato and Egg) at Yu Shan Fang - my last go at Yu Shan Fang.  The combination of cat's ear noodles (elegantly translated by my Waygo application as "Orecchiette") and the tomato-based silk road flavors of this dish gave it a particularly Mediterranean character, almost like a minestrone.

Niu Rou La Mian at Muslim Boutique Beef Noodles - Back to the "boutique" for one last classic Lanzhou style soup with clear broth an better than usual beef -- all for 9 yuan ($1.35).

Yellowfish Wontons at Gourmet Noodle House - Wontons may not technically be noodles, but I have to pass along a recommendation for this one.  It's a spectacular dish, and one that I hope the San Francisco Gourmet Noodle House copies.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Respectably Fiery Chongqing Classic From A Shanghainese Noodle House

Gourmet Noodle House's version of Chongqing Xiao Mian

My favorite SF noodle houses of recent vintage are Chonqing Xiao Mian, which flies the flag of Chongqing's signature dish of the same name high, and Gourmet Noodle House, which is so thoroughly Shanghainese  it would fly the flag of Yellow Croaker Noodle Soup if it had a flag. It never occurred  to me that the two noodle cultures would sometimes intersect, so it came as a surprise  to me when I headed to Gourmet Noodle House to recalibrate my tastebuds for an upcoming trip to Shanghai and found that Chongqing xiao mian (the dish) had been added to the menu.

I'd already had most of the Shanghai noodle classics on Gourmet Noodle House's menu, so I decided to take a flyer on the CQXM to see how it stacked up to the version at its namesake restaurant. Quite well, I can report. The noodles were fresh and springy, and the broth was respectably fiery; any fear I might have had about them dumbing it down was not justified, though I did notice a not displeasing difference in the ma-la balance between the two versions.  Gourmet Noodle House's version seemed a trifle more ma (numbing) and a trifle less la (spicy), but with no distance between the two broths in terms of their ability to please a spice-lover's palate.  One structural flaw, if such it be, was the ratio of broth to noodles; the copious leftover broth was a bit too oily and spicy to down as soup. Nonetheless, it had a side benefit; there was too much to discard, so I brought home a sufficient quantity to add some cooked-up noodles and make my own Chongqing xiao mian.

Since Gourmet Noodle House only offered the plain version of Chonqing xiao mian (no toppings other than garnish), I added a side order of malantou (a finely chopped mix of dry tofu and the tart, slightly bitter herb-like vegetable know as Indian Aster).  This cold salad dish made my meal undeniably Shanghinese, as well as adding the desired protein to my early dinner. It was as pleasing a version of the dish as I've found.

Where slurped: Gourmet Noodle House, 3751 Geary Blvd. at 2nd Ave., San Francisco

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ducking High Noodle Prices At Yin Du Wonton Noodle

I was tiring of stratospheric noodle prices like $16 for chicken ramen at the latest name-dropper ramen-ya or $14 for a bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup at China Live (where they raised the price two bucks after I convinced them to add more broth to the bowl), so I decided it was time to return to more proletarian-priced renditions of The People's Food. Where to begin?

I have the bad habit of ignoring places in my own back yard, but a couple of metaphorical taps on the shoulder sent me to Yin Du Wonton Noodle on  Pacific Avenue, which I hadn't been to since it replaced a middling walk-away dim sum shop four years ago. The first nudge was its inclusion in a  article recommending an array of Bay Area noodle joints, and the second was my reaction to an attractive picture on Yelp showing duck wonton noodles at Yin Du.  As you know, "Duck" is my middle name.

My #9 Roast Duck Wonton Noodles included about five five irregularly-shaped, bony pieces of duck flesh, not the neat, thicker slices found in some of the Yelp photos (perhaps because it was late in the day). There was enough skin to add a duck-fat sheen to the broth, but not enough meat to add any ducky intensity to it. The broth, which came a couple of shades hotter than lukewarm, was overall on the bland side, so I used a little soy sauce and black pepper to kick it up, as no other suitable condiments were available. The wontons were the best feature: plump, with some shrimp crunchiness, The noodles were ample in quantity, but as I've written before, I'm not fond of the traditional fine "dragon's beard" noodles, which make me feel like I'm chewing on someone's hair. I think there was an option for substituting fun noodles, but I generally try to stick to traditional forms the first time around.

I probably could have gotten a more sumptuous and well-endowed bowl of wonton noodles for a bit more at ABC or Washington Bakery a couple of blocks over, and pound-for-pound my bowl of wonton noodles at Yin Du brought nowhere near the gut-busting value of Chonqing Xiao Mian's $7.95 namesake noodles around the corner on Kearny St., but at $5.75 before T & T it was probably the cheapest bowl of noodles I will have all year.

Where slurped:  Yin Du Wonton Noodle. 648 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Good Start For China Live's Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

China Live is basically in my neighborhood, so I couldn't resist stopping by to visit the grand opening, and once inside, to vet their only noodle soup offering, Taipei Braised Beef Noodle Soup

A couple of caveats here, including the obvious: it was China Live's first night open to the public, without even a a soft opening other than a single benefit preview event, and thus it would be unfair to hold the restaurant to any standard of perfection.  In addition, I can't claim to be a good judge of Taiwanese beef noodle soups, having had fewer than a dozen versions so identified, though I have a fair grounding in Chinese beef noodle soups generally, going back to my first bowl at California Beef Noodle King USA in Shanghai 25 years ago.

Since I arrived at the opening bell, I had no trouble getting a seat at a two-top table in the large, warren-like dining area (though it was quite the scrum by the time I left). All of the cooking stations were in operation, though there was only table service, i.e. no service to bar stool seats at the counters surrounding each station. (This may be SOP at dinner, as one is likely to order from multiple stations at that time.) I ordered the above-mentioned beef noodle soup, a side of shengjian bao, and a glass of the house "China Live" beer formulated by Marin Brewing Company.

"Taipei Braised Beef Noodle Soup - Brisket/tendon, Red Broth" as it is described on the menu is one of many varieties of "Taiwanese" beef noodle soups (a Taiwan-published cookbook I have lists 20). It weighs in $12 a bowl; in light of the understandable priciness of the China Live venue, this seem almost an absolute bargain to those of us sadly inured to double-digit noodle soup prices by trendy ramen joints.

Overall, I would pronounce my bowl of beef noodles at China live a success, with some correctable (and maybe even overlookable) flaws. The good news is that they seem to have the hard parts down -- good broth, chewy noodles and mouthwatering beef.  The broth was deep, rich and beefy, without medicinal or, somewhat surprisingly, very noticeable star anise overtones. It was savory enough nonetheless. The medium-thickness wheat noodles were pleasingly al dente with a little snap to them, just the way I prefer, and the beef was fall-apart tender but....

The major fault I found with my bowl of soup was the noodle-to-soup ratio, or, should I say, the soup-to-noodle ration. There was a respectable serving of noodles in my bowl, but a serious (IMHO) lack of broth; it's a soup dish after all, not a semi-dry noodle offering.  Another failing, less serious, was that the tendon appeared to have been cooked too long, perhaps in search of a guilao-friendly consistency. To me it was too jelly-like, and lacking a satisfying chewiness, But different strokes...

Lastly, not really a flaw but irksome to me, was the way the brisket was cut -- uniformly sliced across the grain, like so many pieces of chashu atop some ramen noodles. I would have preferred larger, irregular hunks. But then again, there wasn't enough broth for them to lurk in.

As for the shengjian bao? They were pricey at $9 for four pieces and, to use an Irish bull, weren't as good as I expected, but I didn't expect they would be.  They were nicely browned on one side, and had a good texture, partly chewy and partly soft-shelled, but the filling lacked flavor and grease. Unlike xiao long bao, the "soup" in shengjian bao should have less collagen and more fat, but in the Bay Area we are just too damn health conscious. In Shanghai, when I eat sanji mantou, as the locals call them, I'm aware I am throwing nutritional caution to the wind; why can't I cut loose here once in a while?

Finally, My China Live Beer ($7 for a 10 oz, glass) was crisp and refreshing, a bit like an amber ale and more tart than hoppy, greatly appreciated by us non-IPA lovers.

Where slurped: China Live, 644 Broadway, San Francisco Chinatown.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Back At Full Noodle Throttle With Wan Za Mian At Chongqing Xiao Mian

My diet regimen finally ran aground, due to a failure of due diligence, so I decided "To heck with it, I'm going back to full noodle throttle." This decision arose out of a fit of blind envy: my TV teased me mercilessly with flickering images of Anthony Bourdain (whom I cannot abide) and his bro Eric Ripert downing all manner of great-looking noodles and other fare in Sichuan and Chongqing, and I cracked.  Why should those guys have all the fun?

Chonqing xiao mian in Chongqing
My first order of business was to return to Chongqing. Chongqing Xiao Mian the restaurant, that is, not the Chinese Municipality. Not because Messrs. B. and R. had been yucking it up in the latter, but because I had unfinished business with the restaurant. After my first visit at Chongqing Xiao Mian when I greatly enjoyed the namesake dish (which I knew to be a hallmark of Chongqing), I wondered about the provenance of the other noodle dishes, some of which I knew were not particular to Chongqing. Then I stumbled across a fascinating article on the Roads and Kingdoms website about one Li Jieping, "Chongqing's Number One Noodle Obsessive."  Josh Friedman, the guilao Chongqing noodle novice assigned to follow him around and sample many, many bowls of Chongqing xiao mian, concluded his favorite was the one known as wan za mian. That particular dish, I recalled, was on Chongqing Xiao Mian's menu, and immediately jumped to the top of my bucket list.

Chongqing Xiao Mian was packed on a Sunday afternoon at 3:00, with all the tables occupied except for the central communal table, where I gladly took a seat.  I pretended to study the menu, but I was already aware of the restaurant's portion sizes and passed on appetizers, ordering omly a bowl of wan za mian, listed on the menu in English as "noodles with peas and meat sauce," and a pot of hot tea.

Chnoqing xiao mian noodle dishes typically involve a range of toppings choices over noodles in the same broth, typically a spicy one (milder options are usually available).  My choice, Wan Za Mian, features yellow peas and marinated ground pork as the main toppings, The yellow peas, also found in Burmese cuisine, are similar to chick peas in texture and flavor, and not at all "mushy."

When my bowl arrived, piping hot and fragrant, I was not disapponted. It was what I would call semi-dry, heavily sauced, but not really a soup. The Mount Emei of noodles sat in an honestly spicy broth, redolent of Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil. There was a generous amount of yellow peas and ground pork on top. The yellow peas had a slightly crunchy texture, and the ground pork was at once sour and salty; additional garnish was provided by green onion tops and a couple of slivers of Shanghai bok choy. I'm not sure if the broth was less spicy than the straight Chongqing xiao mian noodle dish from my first visit, or the additional flavors of the marinated ground pork and the blandness of the yellow peas attenuated it more than the noodles alone would have. In any event, the overall effect was more pleasing and multi-dimensional than the naked CQXM of my first visit, and I would choose it again over that version.

Where slurped: Chonqing Xiao Mian, 915 Kearny St., San Francisco

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Terra Cotta Warrior Reboot: Xifu Biangbiang Spicy Pork Noodles Have Silk Road Written All Over Them

I was a bit dismayed last summer when Terra Cotta Warrior closed temporarily "for innovations" even though they promised to reopen "under new management" on a specific date. They did indeed reopen on schedule, and I became warily optimistic when no "downhill reports"surfaced, yet was somehow hesitant to revisit. Then came the news from an impeccable source that David Deng, apparently still the owner, had spent the hiatus beating the bushes in Shaanxi for new recipes for his menu, followed by some blurry Yelp photos of TCW's new menu indicating that he had added some new noodle options, including the missing link on his 2014 menu, biangbiang mian! Needless to say, I was on it, like white on rice.

A comparison of Terra Cotta Warrior 2.0's menu with the original fare indicates a significant fattening out of the "Restaurant Special" portion of the menu, with a dozen items added. There's a new "pita bread" (paomo) option, Hulutou paomo with pork intestines -- no dumbing down there. There are now seven "burger" (rojiamo) compared to the previous three and, best of all, six new hot noodle options, including three in the  biang biang category.

For my first shot at Terra Cotta Warrior's biang biang noodles, I chose "Xifu Biangbiang spicy pork noodles," 西府裤带面 in Chinese, literally "Xifu trouser belt (kùdài) noodles." This is a semi-dry (sauced) noodle dish served in a bowl. A generous mass of robust, irregular "belt" noodles sat in a thick sauce, topped with thick shards of smoky roast pork (reminiscent of Hunan roast pork), spring onion tops and cilantro.  The sauce, red from tomatoes and containing bits of scrambled egg, was more smoky than spicy and slightly sweet. It had a definite Silk Road quality to it, similar in flavor profile to the sauce used in Xinjiang laghman.  So thick was the sauce that it tended to glue the noodles together, making lifting them a chore, like lifting weights.  The noodles themselves were properly cooked and toothsome enough, and I found myself wanting to taste them in a thinner sauce or a more naked form (the noodles, that is).  That said, the dish was tasty enough that I would repeat it, in rotation, to be sure.

If you think tomato and egg seem odd in a dish from the interior of China, you have another think coming. Another dish added to the menu, "Fufeng minced pork noodles soup," according to my server, contains tomatoes, potatoes, tofu and egg." I'll get to that one, sooner rather than later.

Where slurped: Terra Cotta Warrior, 2555 Judah St. at 31st Ave., San Francisco

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Something Fishy About The Ramen At Hinodeya Ramen Bar

I dashed over to Hinodeya Ramen Bar in Japantown to reward myself for besting my pound-per-week 2017 diet goal for two consecutive weeks.  It marks my quest for noodles out of the house in 2017, not counting the two types of noodles served with out hotpot New Year's Day dinner at Dragon Beaux.

Hinodeya is the first overseas venture for a 130-year old Japanese restaurant group, and is modeled after a Tokyo restaurant noted for its innovative dashi-infused broth. Dashi is a soup base made from dried, preserved Skipjack Tuna and other seaborne ingredient. I've long been a fan of fishy soups, and have written here about Assam Laksa, a couple of Vietnamese Bun Mams and a whole flotilla of Mohingas, s well as a couple off other SE Asian fish-based soups.

Thanks (or not) to my Muni connections being exceptionally expeditious, I arrived at Hinodeya 25 minutes early for its 5:00 dinner service on this crisp Winter day. I was first in line, but the queue that formed behind me filled the restaurant once the doors were opened.

Once inside, I took my seat at the bar and ordered the house special Hinodeya Dashi Ramen, a side order of Crispy Fried Yam and a Sapporo Beer. Service was efficient and friendly if noisy, with greetings and orders in Japanese shouted cross the room in what I assume is traditional fashion, and I soon had my crispy yam pieces with the first bowl of the establishment's house ramen following soon after.

If I expected a revelation from the dashi ramen broth, I was a little disappointed. The soup, a chicken-bone broth infused with a soup base made from kelp, dried bonito flakes and small sardines, according to Hinodeya's Japan website, was perhaps a little too subtle for my untrained ramen palate. I tried to detect a forthright fishiness to it, but could only suss out a faint tuna-y taste, and if you grew up with tuna salad sandwiches as I did, you don't really associate tuna with fishiness. It left a bit of a cloying aftertaste, like the miso broth it much resembled. The toppings, while well prepared, seemed a bit stingy for a $14 bowl of noodles: a single thin slice of chashu, half a soft-boiled egg, a few sticks of menma, a single piece of nori. I couldn't help noticing that the "extras" section of the menu consisited only of more of what was already in the ramen (no corn, alas).  The noodles may have been the best thing about my bowl of ramen; curly and of medium thickness, they held their chewiness to the end.

My side order of crispy fried yam was tasty, mouth-pleasing (the crispiness refers to the interior, not the coating) and came in a nice tangy sauce. Again, though, it was pricey: $8.00 for five chunks of edible tuber. The Japanese woman next to be ordered kar-age, which looked to be a better value -- a quantity of protein approximately equal in volume to my carbs for the same $8 price tag. I guess I should be thankful my bottle of Sapporo was only $6; I had paid $9 for a bottle of beer at Mensho Tokyo.

I'll be writing more about ramen (because it is there) and the more elegant and healthful pho this year as I fit them into my diet regimen. They both are typically lighter meals than my beloved Chinese la mien.

Where slurped: Hinodeya Ramen Bar, 1137 Buchanan St. (in the mall).