Friday, July 11, 2014

Slurp Du Jour: Tasty Zha Jiang Mian at Xi An Gourmet

It seemed time to pay another visit to my friends at Xi An Gourmet and try yet another of their noodle offerings. Perusing my paper menu in advance, I set off a ping-pong game in my head between dan dan mian and zha jiang mian. Neither is a Xi'an dish, though dan dan mian originated in Shaanxi province's neighbor Sichuan. On the other hand, zha jiang mian is a Shandong specialty, and Xi An Gourmet has a long reach to Shandong, starting off as San Dong House and adding a Xi'an layer and identity by securing a chef from Xi'an. Based on my previous experience with Xi An Gourmet's shui jiao (dumplings), it appears that they could hit it out from either side of the plate. Advantage zha jiang mian.

Zha jiang mian literally means "fried paste noodles" and consists of thick wheat noodles topped with fermented bean paste containing ground pork and a generous amount of julienned cucumber and/or carrots, to be tossed or stirred with the noodles at the table. At Xi'an Gourmet, the noodles are hand pulled (which, of course, is why I was there). There is also a version of zha jian mian popular in Shandong's neighbor Korea, which tends to have a sweeter, more saucy sauce. I am not particularly fond of the Korean version.

After waffling between the two noodle dishes, I ordered the zha jiang mian accompanied by a side order of cucumber with garlic sauce. (I had settled on this appetizer before making my noodle choice, blithely unaware of how much cucumber I would have to consume at one sitting.)  I found the sauce a little on the thick side, making the task of stirring to cover all the noodles difficult, and causing the noodles to tend to stick together.  The julienned cucumbers were fresh and crunchy, affording a welcome counterpoint to the chewy noodles.

The noodles themselves, as usual, were the real star. It may be my bias toward thick noodles, but I feel that Xi An Gourmet's are among the best in the City, both in the making and in the cooking.  For $6.99, they could have served me naked noodles with a salad mister and a salt and pepper shaker, and I would have been happy with my creation.

Where slurped: Xi An Gourmet, 3741 Geary Boulevard at 2nd Avenue, San Francisco

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Spicy Beef Noodles (Yes, Again) at China North Dumpling

China North Dumpling somehow dove beneath my radar after I took note of its opening about a year ago, coming as it did amid a spate of new Northern China, Shandong, Xi'an, and Xi'an-Shandong restaurants presenting their noodle credentials to me. Some recent online buzz about China North Dumpling reminded me I had not so much as set my foot in the door  yet, so I headed to Noriega St. via the counter-intuitive and counter-clockwise 30 Stockton - 28 Nineteenth Avenue route to make amends and vet the hand-made noodles as my first mission after a couple of weeks of distractions.

China North Dumpling is a homey place with a long menu of Northern Chinese appetizers, dumplings, noodles and hot dishes and a few bows to Shanghai (which is technically a southern city, but definitely on the noodle side of the noodle/rice divide). For my noodle quest, I went with a safe option, "Spicy Beef Noodle Soup" on  the menu (mala niurou mian in Chinese), accompanied by "Mixed Bean Curd, Skin, Cucumber and Peanut" cold appetizer, which sounded like the perfect foil for the soup it it turned out as spicy as I wished. (Yes, I know it's my third "spicy beef noodles" post in a row, but who's counting?)

When I had more time to parse the menu, I noticed that the other two beef noodle soups atop the noodle menu "Special Beef Noodle Soup" and simply "Beef Noodle Soup" translated to "red-cooked beef noodles" (possible a nod to Taiwanese beef noodles) and "clear broth" beef noodles, suggestive of a Lanzhou lamian style. Those two entries alone will justify a couple more visits to China North Dumpling, not to mention another 20 noodle options presented by the menu. I also noticed (from some online photos) that the restaurant's "Shanghai Style Chow Mein" looks like the real thing (meaning it looks pretty much like my wife's), but that'll be something, along with the "Shanghai Style Rice Cakes," to turn the whole family loose on in a future visit.

I was not disappointed by either my noodles or the cold appetizer. A wealth of thick, gloriously chewy noodles sat in a spicy, almost to the point of fiery, chili-laced broth along with braised beef brisket and a couple of stalks of bok choy. Simple and direct, as Northern Chinese food tends to be, and gratifyingly filling. As for the appetizer, The cool cucumber chunks, chewy softened tofu skin and peanuts in a slightly spicy, pleasantly tart dressing were the perfect accompaniment to the noodles.

What with Shandong Deluxe, House of Pancake, House of Xian Dumpling, Xi'an Gourmet, Terra Cotta Warrior, Made in China and China North Dumpling emerging in the last 18 months or so, our cup of regional Chinese noodles runneth over.  But who's complaining? I just wish they could cluster in a single neighborhood, or at least on a single bus route.

Where slurped: China North Dumpling, 1311-1315 Noriega St., San Francisco

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Spicy Beef Noodle Week Continued: Bun Bo Hue From Tin Vietnamese Restaurant

It was Friday and that Pavlovian bell rang, but I recalled again that the reputedly peerless "only on Friday" bun bo Hue at Ha Nam Ninh may be becoming a dim memory, so I went to my bucket list and picked off Tin Vietnamese restaurant on Howard Street. Tin's location (and suspected gentrification role) as well as its menu descriptors suggested that this was a "gateway" restaurant, but it had ended up on my bucket list based on the recommendations of two people whose knowledge of Vietnamese food I highly trust. I only had to jump on the #30 Bus and I would be right there, and they had bun bo Hue on the menu. 

Tin's menu is laudably modest, suggesting that they stick to dishes they know they do well. From the eight-item "Noodles With Broth" section of the menu, I ordered my BBH and a mini-pot of Red Blossom Tea's excellent Tung Ting oolong tea to accompany it. While I was waiting for my soup, the little garnish dish arrived containing, in this instance, jalapeno slices, bean sprouts and shredded cabbage. Why do they always bring the garnishes well ahead of the soup, I wondered. Do people munch on them? I was; in fact, gnawing at some cabbage shreds as these thoughts went through my mind.

When the soup arrived I inventoried the contents. It seemed a classic broth, red with chili and containing chopped cilantro and spring onions, onion slices and Vietnamese flora that I am not on a first name basis with. It tasted meaty with lemon-grassy undertones, and a little shy of spicy (though addition of the jalapeno slices brought it to the nasal drip-inducing stage).  As I expected, there were no blood cubes adorning the bowl (hard to come by, even in the Tenderloin).  As advertised, there was both rare, thinly sliced beef, and equally thinly sliced beef shank. Instead of a pig's knuckle, however, there were slices of pork pate (pork "bologna" on the menu).  No blood nor bones were to be found in my bun bo Hue.

Overall, there were generous portions of the proteins, and everything (both meat and veggies) appeared to be fresh. the only thing that marred a strong, if slightly eccentric, bun bu Hue were the noodles. They were the right size, and in the right proportion to the broth, but on this occasion overcooked and too soft for my taste -- a fault easily avoided with due diligence.

Where slurped: Tin Vietnamese, 937 Howard St. nr. 6th St., San Francisco