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