Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Suka For Soto Ayam, And Happy I Am With New SE Asia Noodle Options

We've had a run of good fortune lately in augmenting San Francisco's wealth of Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese food with new Southeast Asian options.  First, there was Vinya Sysamuth's Lanxang Kingdom, the uncompromising Lao pop-up (red ant egg salad, anyone?) which will hopefully morph into a brick & mortar somewhere; more recently, Nite Yun's Nyum Bai started popping up in accessible locations with tasty Cambodian fare, and Tracy G. has been opening her home for Nyonya-side Malaysian sit-downs via Feastly. Now appears a new feature in our very spare Indonesian cuisine landscape, Suka Restaurant on Balboa St. near 6th Avenue.

Suka has been open less than two weeks and its menu is still a work in progress (as is the execution of some of its offerings) but there's a core of Indonesian and Indonesian-inspired  dishes on its slight menu including six mains, three salads and two soups. These are bracketed with eclectic appetizers such as yucca fries, wings and satays, and a selection of Western mains for your friends with xenophobic palates, including chicken parmigiana and grilled salmon. Don't lower you expectations for these; the dinner chef comes from Sotto Mare in North Beach. There's also an entirely separate Western-style breakfast/brunch menu, served on weekends only.

The two Indonesian soups on Suka's menu are Soto Ayam and Bakso (listed as Meat Ball Soup on the menu). Soto Ayam, my choice for the meal (accompanied by chicken satay for additional protein) is Indonesia's star in the constellation of SE Asan chicken soups. It features a turmeric-laced spicy yellow broth (sans curry or coconut), noodles, half a boiled egg,  and chicken.  Other than (or in addition to) noodles, it may also include flat rice cakes or dumplings.

According to Suka's owner, the melodiously named Yenny Yulianny, the traditional noodles used in this dish are "silver" noodles (i.e. bean thread noodles) but she has been using rice noodles or wheat noodles to test reactions. Any of the three types will be used on request, however. She also admitted to dialing back on the spiciness (a shame, because there are no pots of chili paste on the tables). Next time I'll request it spicier, and with the tradtional noodle type. What I was left with was a rich, well-seasoned and comforting broth (it's chicken soup, after all), with noodles that were appropriately dense and hearty chunks of chicken lurking beneath. Portion size was small, but it's priced as an appetizer ($7.95) not as a main, and combining it with the three skewers of chcken satay made for a very filling meal.

Where slurped: Suka Restaurant, 445 Balboa St. near 6th Avnue, San Francisco

Friday, November 13, 2015

Popping In To Tracy G's For Some Nyonya Laksa And An Education

My last two posts were reports on pop-ups (by Nyum Bai), so for a change of pace, here is a report on a pop-in by EatWithTracy in the Outer Sunset District. What I'm calling a pop-in here is what Hong Kongers like to call "private kitchens;" it is not a restaurant that occasionally pops up in unexpected places, it is a fixed location (usually a residence) where a talented chef hosts meals on a regular or irregular basis. You, the eater, can "pop in."

"EatWithTracy" is hosted by Malaysian expat Tracy G who painstakingly taught herself to cook the food she grew up with after moving away from Kuala Lumpur (presumably because the alternative was much worse). There's nothing surreptitious or clandestine about her "pop-in." You don't need a sponsor or say "Joe sent me" to get in; just make a reservation via the Feastly website.

I found my way to Tracy's Sunset District apartment for the "Laksa: Spicy Malaysian Noodle Soup" prix fixe 3-course meal consisting of Rojak, Laksa Lemak, and (a very un-Malaysian) Dorayaki for dessert. Tracy is obviously as knowledgeable as she is passionate about Malaysian food, and was as articulate in expounding on the meal she was serving as she was skilled in preparing it. Laksa Lemak (also known as Nyonya Laksa,  according to Wikipedia) is one of six Malaysian laksas she is accomplished in preparing, Tracy explained. "Lemak" signifies a rich coconut gravy.  Although the broth in laksa lemak is quite spicy, there is no curry in it, she said, so it is not called a "curry laksa." (Since "curry" is typically defined as a mixture of spices which may or may not include curry leaves, this may be a distinction without a difference.)

Rojak by Tracy G.
I really enjoyed the rich, spicy broth of Tracy's laksa (which I augmented a bit with the fresh chili sauce provided).  I was not too fond of the ultra- fine ("dragon beard") rice noodles used in her version, though that is a reflection on my personal preferences, not on her judgment or skill. As with the fine wheat noodles beloved in Hong Kong, I was left with the feeling I was chewing on someone's hair. Overall, though, it was a very hearty and satisfying bowl of noodles. (It's a meal, Bania!)  I look forward to trying her other versions of laksa, hopefully with more robust noodles. I also enjoyed he rojak very much, and it might not even take the promise of noodles to bring me back next time.

Pop in for some Malaysian food and some Malaysian food education.

Where slurped: Somewhere in the Outer Sunset (see

Monday, October 26, 2015

Whack-A-Mole: Nyum Bai Pops Up Again, And I Hit It For The Cambodian Chicken Noodle Soup

A mere eight days after I had a chance to enjoy Nyum Bai's Cambodian fare at its Mission Pie debut, it popped up again, like a pesky mole in a whack-a-mole game, three blocks down the road at Wise Son's Deli.  My noodle hammer was at the ready, this time to hit  on the chicken noodle soup called Banh Ghan on the menu.

I have to admit I'm winging it here with my post portem on this chicken soup experience; I didn't get a chance to pick Nyum Bai owner Nite Yun's brain about the origins of this dish, and Googling "Banh Ghan" yields practically nothing with the same or similar spelling related to Cambodian food.  My sole "hit," interestingly enough, was for a dish at a fascinating diner-like restaurant in Stockton CA (where MS. Yun grew up) called  Lucky Star Grill. This place, which now tops my list should I ever hit Fat City again, serves a dish called "Thick noodle banh ghan" along with other Cambodian and Vietnamese- and Thai-tinged dishes (plus Mongolian beef, for good measure). My best guess is that "banh ghan" is related to the Vietnamese term banh canh, which denotes  a wide, thick rice noodle (which may or may not include tapioca flour) and can refer to a wide variety of soups using such noodles.

I've learned that there is a whole panoply of Southeast Asian chicken noodle soups using wide rice noodles, some with curry and/or coconut, some without. Nyum Bai's banh ghan has neither. It was described on the pop-up's menu as "homemade chicken broth, wide rice noodles, poached chicken, crispy garlic, cilantro, salted soy beans," with a footnote advising the use of shellfish in the broth.

With its lack of curry and the heft of its rice noodles, I found the banh ghan stylistically most similar to Lao khao piak sien, though comparisons could also be with North Vietnamese pho ga, which uses flat, though less substantial rice noodles. Compared to the Lao version, Nyum Bai's soup came with a less fatty richness and more vegetal complexity to the broth's flavor profile. (One could say a it's "healthier" taste, but what can be unhealthy about any chicken noodle soup?)

As I've noted elsewhere about khao pian sien, Nyum Bai's banh ghan relies primarily on the soul of chicken soup for its appeal.  It's pure comfort, and almost as familiar and un-exotic as something your Caucasian grandmother (if you have one) night make. Feels right in a Jewish deli, too.

With my soup I had a texture-rich Camodian tamarind salad, which was as tasty as it was photogenic.

Sometime, somewhere,  Nite Yun''s Nyum Bai will pop up again.

I'd hit that.

Where slurped: Nyum Bai at Wise Son's Deli, 3150 24th St., San Francisco