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.