Monday, September 15, 2014

Ohn No Khao Swè Round: Hitting The Midpoint at Mandalay

A few months back I wrapped up a survey of all eight Burmese mohingas available in San Francisco, just because they were there, and it occurred to me recently that I might as well do the same with the Burmese noodle dish Ohn No Khao Swè. After all, I had already randomly covered the dish at three of the eight Burmeses restaurants in town*, and certainly wasn't averse to going for five more.

While mohinga is considered Burma's national dish, Ohn No Khao Swè, the curried coconut chicken noodle dish. might be considered the people's choice. It's certainly grown on me, having overcome my distaste for coconut (largely due to this very dish), so I resumed my quest today at Mandalay.

Like Mandalay's mohinga, the restaurant's ohn no khao swè comes short on adornment, but long on flavor depth.  It's placid golden surface is broken only by a topknot of fried shallots; no chickpea fritters or crunchy samusa shell shards. It's literally deep, too, as Mandalay seems to favor smaller circumference but deeper bowls. The chicken and boiled egg slices (which came first?) lurked beneath the surface of the broth, supported by a modest bed of wheat noodles (light on the noodles seems to be another Mandalay characteristic).

My ohn no khao swe (it's called Ong No Kaw Soi on Mandalay's menu, but I'm sticking with the first transliteration I used in this blog) was accompanied by a condiment caddy with lemon wedges and cilantro. There appeared to be a whole lemon's worth of slices, and a veritable garden of cilantro. The broth, however, came already pleasantly tart and in need of only a couple of token squeezes. I used the cilantro liberally, however, and added some pepper flakes from a shaker to kick up the heat.

While a satisfying lunch, on balance I'm not sure Mandalay's ohn no khao swè will stack up against the competition as well as their mohinga.  The flavor depth was admirable, but this type of soup cries out for a heartier complement of noodles and some textural add-ins such as chickpea fritters or other crunchies.

Four down, four to go!

*See previous reports for Burmese Kitchen, Sapphire Asian Cuisine, and Li'l Burma.

Where slurped: Mandalay, 4344 California St. at 6th Ave., San Francisco

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Clear Case For Hand Pulled Noodles With China North Dumpling's "Qing Tang" Beef Noodles

I've written abut how the ubiquitous "Lanzhou Lamian" noodle shops of Shanghai made me a confirmed noodle lover with their on demand hand pulled noodles. Contrary to popular belief, "Lanzhou Lamian" doesn't refer strictly to a noodle making technique, nor to the place where the technique originated; the term is inclusive of  a method of preparation of a "clear broth" (清湯, qing tang) soup which has been a traditional medium for showcasing hand-pulled noodles for over 100 years.  The very subtle broth, said to be devised by one Ma Baozi in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, has an obvious purpose: to stay out of the way of the handsome fresh hand-pulled noodles, so they can be appreciated on their own merits.  In a way, Lanzhou lamian is the polar opposite of Japanese ramen, where the broth is all-important and the noodles are almost an afterthought.

Lanzhou Lamian in Shangha
After an initial visit to China North Dumpling on Noriega St. a couple of months ago to vet  the hand-pulled noodles I noticed that an item simply titled "Beef Noodle Soup" on the menu was listed as "Clear Soup Beef Noodles" in Chinese and wondered if this was a nod to "Lanzhou Lamian" style soup.  A return visit today confirmed that it was, or at least appeared to be.  The subtle, faintly aromatic broth was reminiscent of numerous bowls I have had in China under the blue and white "Lanzhou Lamian" signs, and adding a smidgen of chili oil made it even more so.  The beef was even more uncannily familiar: thin, dry slices (possibly of beef shank) that would be disappointing in almost any other context but totally appropriate here. The only thing lacking was cilantro, and the hearty stalks of bok choy (almost de rigueur in San Francisco) seemed out of place.  For their part, the noodles did not disappoint, Large, thick and chewy, they knew themselves to be the center of attraction and strutted their stuff with noodle pride.

If you are in the mood to savor the glorious, glutenous, wheaten goodness of hand-pulled noodles for their own sake, "Beef Noodle Soup" at China North Dumpling is what you need.  If you are craving an aggressively broth and showy toppings, no soup for you.

Where slurped: China North Dumpling, 1311 Noriega St., San Francisco

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Well-endowed Bun Bo Hue At O'Mai Cafe, Oh My!

The recent opening of O'Mai Cafe stuck in my head on account of early Yelp reports that they were offering a Kobe beef banh mi. I was about to meet Andrea Nguyen at a book signing of her new Banh Mi Handbook, and it was a bit of intelligence I knew she would be interested in. The Yelpers had also mentioned a Bun Bo Hue at O'Mai, but I didn't give that a second thought.

I've been craving a good Bun Bo Hue since Ngoc Mai closed down and Ha Nam Ninh apparently stopped offering it as a Friday-only special. But a hip new place in Burma Superstar territory pushing a Kobe beef banh mi would be serving up a gueilao-friendly, toned-down version, right?

Exactly. Except, as I learned from a posting by Rachel Khong on this morning, the accessible version was the "regular" Bun Bo Hue.  For a buck more, they offered a "Special" version, made the old-fashioned way. I was on it immediately.

O'Mai Cafe, in the space that recently held Cafe Barley and before that Java Source, has a simple lunch menu that includes "Salad Rolls," a couple of Banh Mi sandwiches (including the aforementioned Kobe beef), "Crepes"  and "Vermicelli Bowls" but seems to want to put Bun Bo Hue at the center of attention. In addition to the entry level and full monte BBHs, a (gasp!) vegetarian version is also offered.

According to O'Mai's menu, their basic Bun Bo Hue includes thin slices of marinated and boiled beef shank, pork shoulder,  oxtail and Vietnamese ham along with the luxuriant vegetation that goes into the broth. The "special" version adds the requisite cubes of congealed pork blood and "pizzle," (a. k. a. bull penis) and at least all of the above were present in my soup.  (Online dinner menus and some accounts refer to "Rocky Mountain oysters" but not pizzle, but the naughty bits in my soup were definitely the latter.) The udon-esque rice noodles were nicely al dente.  With Ms. Khong, I found the broth a little under-spiced, and requiring augmentation beyond addition of the jalapenos from the garnish dish (they, too, seemed to lack heat.).

Along with wishing for a more aggressive broth, I'd hope for the oxtail to be cooked a bit longer, as the meat didn't separate from the bone easily enough.  Other than those two shortcomings, my Bun Bo Hue was a pretty ballsy bowl of soup to find in the midst of hipsterland, and one that I will gladly return for.

Where slurped: O'Mai Cafe, 343 Clement St., between 4th and 5th Aves., San Francisco