Thursday, July 7, 2016

Mongolian Food In Oakland That's Not Mongolian Beef: Lamb Stew Noodles at Togi's

[Note to my fellow noodlers: with this post I have suspended Full Noodle Frontity to focus on some research projects, not all of them food related.  I will also be returning attention to my legacy blog, Geezericious, which will include coverage of foods other than noodles, cuisines other than Asian, and even topics other than food.  See you there!]   

A few weeks ago I wrote about a stealth Mongolian cafe in San Francisco named Let's Jam (which has since come out of the closet as Mongol Cafe), and today I visited a similarly situated venue in Oakland, Asian Grill, which is soon to be renamed "Togi's Mongolian Cuisine. It's located in Downtown Oaklad at 14th and Webster, and as of this writing still identified as "Asian Grill" in its signage, though its menu (in English and Cyrillic characters) offers only Mongolian Food. (Yes, Goulash is a Mongolian staple, adopted from a dated Soviet Union culinary canon.)

True to this blog, I ordered one of the two noodle dishes on the menu, Lamb Stew Noodle Soup, made with house-made traditional Mongolian steamed noodles (蒙古焖面). (The other noodle offering, "Tzu-van," is a dish I tried on my San Francisco Mongolian food excursion, though I'm eager to try Togi's version as well.) The steamed noodles (also known as stewed noodles) are cooked by placing the raw wheat flour noodles on top of the other ingredients, which may be partially pre-cooked, in a covered pot over low heat. Along with my noodles, I ordered a traditional Mongolian milk tea as a beverage.

My stew arrived in a heavy stoneware vessel.  All the noodles were on top, so at first glance it looked like just a bowl of noodles. I'm guessing the noodles were all on top because they wee cooked in the came vessel they were served in, with the soup added at the last minute.  Lurking beneath the noodles was the stew of finely slivered lamb, carrots, various greens including (ugh) broccoli, and what appeared to be ginger.  It was served piping hot, too hot to sip at first, and the heavy stoneware vessel kept it very hot, forcing me to savor the soup and its treasures slowly. Remarkably, the robust noodles kept their chew to the very end. The broth was familiar, slightly fatty from the lamb, and comforting, a bit like a Scotch broth or pepper-pot soup though less peppery. It was the perfect lunch for a chilly July day, as it happened to be.

I have to say I was  not a fan of the Mongolian milk tea. It's an approximately 50/50 mixture of tea and extra-rich milk (possibly condensed milk)  heavily salted and with a slightly medicinal flavor. It's definitely an acquired taste, one which I am in no hurry to acquire. The good news is that Togi's has applied for a beer and wine license.

Where slurped: (Soon to be named) Togi's Mongolian Cuisine, 354 14th St., Oakland

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hanlin Tea Room (II): Vetting The Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

After my first visit to Hanlin Tea Room I couldn't let more than a week go by without returning to try the Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup. TWBNS is a noodle soup genre with a cult following that I'm always looking to collect more data points on; I've never been to Taiwan (or Monterey Park, for that matter) and I would like some day to have confidence in my ability to recognize a "good" Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup when I see (and taste) one.  Since Hanlin Tea Room is a Taiwan-based chain of some note, it was reasonable to assume it might provide a clue or two.

On a quiet Sunday mid-afternoon, far from the madding crowd at the Pride Parade, I settled into a chair at a two-top in the side dining room and ordered my Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup. Eschewing an appetizer on this occasion, I instead splurged on a pot of one of the more pricey "Taiwan Scholar's Teas." My choice was a nutty Biluochun. Biluochun happens to be my second favorite tea after Dragonwell, and is generally harder to find.

When my soup arrived, I was surprised (but not disappointed) to discover that it came with the same Iron Goddess Tea-infused noodles that I went the previous week to investigate; a discussion with my then server had left me with the impression that the TWBNS came with conventional (wheat only) noodles. The noodles rested in a dark, tomato-less and beefy broth that inched toward the spicy, rather than the medicinal end of the Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup broth spectrum, but not so much as to cause discomfort for any but the most spice-averse slurpers.  The cushion of noodles supported a full meal's worth of meltingly tender chunks of beef brisket with just enough fat on them, as well as some slices of carrots and daikon radish.

If my bowl of soup had one fault, it was that the noodles were slightly over-cooked and  tended toward mushiness as I got close to the bottom of the bowl; hopefully this was a one-off thing -- I know from my previous visit that they do know how to cook these noodles. The unctuous yet slightly sassy broth, beef chunks and robust noodles put this soup squarely in the comfort food category, which, I suppose, has something to do with what classic Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup is all about. I'll gladly return for this soup; it and a small appetizer or two will do nicely as a meal, even dinner. Now just wait until they are licensed to sell beer!

Where slurped: Hanlin Tea Room, 809 Kearny St., San Francisco

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Waiter, There's An Iron Goddess In My Noodles! (At Hanlin Tea Room)

Hanlin Tea Room, a Taiwanese chain which  originated in Tainan, opened its San Francisco branch today in the commodious space at the corner of Jackson and Kearny Streets once intended for Ten Ren's Tii Restaurant and Tii Cafe. Hanlin claims to be "The first store to sell milk tea with tapioca pearls in Taiwan" but it is much more than a boba joint. It's a casually elegant eatery with a range of fine teas (available by the pot or iced), Taiwanese style "small eats" and more elaborate lunch and dinner fare.

When I arrived there around 3:00 PM on their first day of business, there was a cluster of people gathered by the door for their opening promotion of "buy one get one free" boba drinks, but also a respectable showing of sit-down diners in a main dining area).  I was led to an adjoining room (which once had a short life as the Tii Cafe but has been re-integrated with the main area. I pored over the menu, but I already had a mission for being there: prominent on Hanlin's website and featured in their elaborate in-house menu, but tucked away in a small corner of their paper takeaway menu was a novelty item, "Tea Noodles" (Cha Mian).

According to Hanlin Tea Room's promotional materials, development of their tea noodles required studying the procedure in Japan, and testing of various teas for suitability; they finally settled on an aromatic Tie Guanyin ("Iron Goddess") tea for this purpose. There are three tea noodle variants on Hanlin's menu: Pork Chop Noodles, Fried Chicken Noodles and Chicken Leg Noodles. In actuality, the meat "toppings" are side dishes, and the sole visible protein in bowl as served is a herd-boiled "tea" egg which tastes of pu'er tea.

I ordered the "pork chop" noodles and a side order of "hot & spicy tofu" which seemed the next best thing to stinky tofu, which they don't offer (discretion is the greater part of valor), and an iced jade green tea. The timing of my meal seemed both approprate and reasonable.  First came the ice tea, then the appetizer, and finally the noodles.  The tea noodles were distinctly greenish, though not quite so green as spinach noodles, thick, and quite wabe. They were obviously hand-made, whether on the premises or not, judging from their irregularity. I enjoyed the noodles' robust chewiness, but to tell the truth, I couldn't really detect the Iron Goddess flavor, not that I have a great tea palate. What came through was sort of a matcha tea bitternesss, which is not to say that there was anything unpleasant about it.  The broth my noodles were served in was deep, meaty-rich, and very onion-y. It was pork-based, according to my server (the other two options come with a chicken-based broth).

My "pork chop" was in fact a breaded and fried pork cutlet, tonkatsu-style, sliced for convenince.  It was  tender, juicy and tasty, but had little connection to the noodle soup, other than a pork-flavor "theme:" I wondered later if it weren't meant to be tossed into the soup.

An overall impression I formed of this place was that the main dishes are on the pricey side, mostly upwards of $15 but the appetizers and the tea pot prices quite reaonable.  My "Pork Chop Noodles" was $15 but my tofu appetizer (which I enjoyed very much) only $4.  Hanlin Tea Room also offers a Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup for $16 which I will have to vet out of curiosity, but in general I'll probably adopt a strategy of going to Hanlin at off-peak times and chilling out with a pot of tea and a couple of appetizers while I diddle my devices. (Which reminds me, I forgot to check if they have live wi-fi.)

Where slurped: Hanlin Tea Room, 809 Kearny St., San Francisco

Source: Hanlin Tea Room Website