Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Kuaytiaw Sukhothai At Amphawa Thai: The Best Thai Noodle Dish You've Never Heard Of?

Itching for a new noodle thrill, I contemplated heading for Amphawa Thai Noodle House on Geary Boulevard for khao soi, having heard good reports on their version.  While perusing an online menu, however, another noodle soup item which I'd never heard of before caught my eye, Sukhothai Noodle Soup, described as "hot & spicy noodle soup with roasted pork, ground pork, fish balls, green beans, cabbage and peanuts."  A little online research uncovered a couple of interesting things about this dish: for one, a CNN Travel post pegged Kuaytiaw Sukhothai (i.e. Sukhothai Noodles) "the best Thai dish you've never heard of." Secondly, as far as I could determine, Amphawa Thai is the only restaurant in San Francisco serving this dish, at least under that name.  Bingo! My lunch plan was made.

Amphawa Thai Noodle House, which I'd so often passed on the #38 Bus, is as tidy as it is tiny inside. It has the appearance of a family-run restaurant (by a family with pride in its product) and serves family-style Thai meals. It was about half full at 1:15 on a Wednesday, and I was seated at a cozy corner two-top and promptly served.

Amphawa is named for a district of Thailand on the Bay of Bengal, not far from Bangkok. Sukhothai noodles are named for an ancient inland city in Thailand*, but popular in the Bangkok vicinity, according to the CNN post.  I placed my order for the noodles, a roti with a peanut dip, and a Thai iced tea.  My pleasant server asked me what type of noodles I wanted. "Whatever is traditional for the dish," I replied.  (I had already read that in Thailand it was always made with sen lek, Thai rice stick noodles, and happily that was what I ended up with.)  She also asked me how spicy I wanted it.

"Very spicy," I said.

"Are you sure?" she said.


I am happy to report that if you ask for spicy at Amphawa Thai you will get spicy. When my bowl came, the broth was glorious spicy and gloriously tart at the same time, with only a soupçon of palm sugar sweetness, something like an X-treme tom yum broth  The thin rice noodles started out slightly hard, and remained chewy enough while I worked my way to the bottom of the bowl. The toppings included barbecued pork slices, pork pate slices, a copious amount of ground pork and fish balls. There was probably as much protein in the dish as in any other bowl of noodles I have blogged about here. On the veggie side, in addition to thinly sliced green beans and chopped peanuts (shades of Guilin mifen), was what appeared to be fried or pickled garlic, chewy white strips of what might have been pickled daikon (or not), cilantro, chili paste and lots of ground chili.

The server came came to refill my glass of ice water just as I was reaching the bottom of my bowl. "Oh," she exclaimed "you can eat spicy!" I am from Mars, apparently.

I'll have to add that there was nothing special about the roti, which was a bit on the oily side and oddly overpriced at $6.50 for a small portion.  As for my $8.95 bowl of Sukhothai noodles, however, it is in strong contention for a spot on my not yet existent "10 Best SF Noodle Dishes" list.

Where slurped: Amphawa Thai Noodle House, 5020 Geary Boulevard, between 14th and 15th Avenues.

*I came across an interesting post by Thai blogger Natayada on Sukhothai noodles and his quest for an authentic version in the city of Sukhothai. Unable to find them in that city at all, he developed a theory that the dish may have been created at Sukhothai Palace in a district of Bangkok known as Sukhothai. He also highlights the differences between Sukhothai noodles and Tom Yum, whic also has a spicy-sour-sweet broth.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Noodle Break At Aruba, Island Of Taiwanese Street Food In An Ocean Of Boba Joints

There's a stretch of Irving Street from 19th to 24th or 25th Avenue I like to call "Boba Central" because it has the greatest concentration of Bubble Tea, Fruit Smoothie, and Pan-Asian snack shops in the City. The new kid on the block is a hole-in-the-wall (to put it generously) curiously named Aruba (阿滷吧). It emerged, a couple of weeks ago, literally sandwiched between the two Teaway outlets between 22nd and 23rd Avenues.

Aruba is not named for an island in the Netherland Antilles. According to a Taiwanese woman of my acquaintance, "Aruba" is a wordplay on some off-color slang young people will catch onto. I don't know her well enough to have asked for specifics, but a little research tells me it's probably 阿魯巴, which you can read about here. The 滷 substitution in the snack shop's name appears to be a reference to 台式鹵味, "Taiwanese Marinated Food," a specialty of the house, according to  a sandwich board sign in front.

This "Taiwanese Marinated Food" refers to a long roster of offal-centric meats, veggies, and tofu, any number of which will be cooked in a five-spice flavored soy sauce "gravy" on request and served, garnished,  in a cup as walkin'-around food. Aruba's grand opening promotion is two items for $3.00 and, I believe, $1.50 for each additional item.

Aruba also has a specials board and, luckily for me, today had udon and knife-cut noodles available as a base for the marinated goodies for an additional $2.00. Also luckily for me, one of its two tables was available to me for a sit-down meal.   I went for the knife-cut noodles with chicken hearts and "QQ Tofu" as toppings. I didn't ask about the provenance of the noodles; they obviously weren't made to order in that small space, and possibly not even in-house, but the "knife-cut" designation assured me that someone had made them by hand, at least. My faith in that was justified, when they came, strong, a bit wabe and properly chewy.  The chicken hearts were thinly sliced, making them easy to chew.  The firm tofu was, as the "QQ" suggests, also pleasantly chewy. The soy sauce"marinade" (broth, in this context) was familiarly 5-spicey and slightly sweet, and benefited from a few squirts from the nearby sriracha bottle.

My bowl of noodles was not large and not really a destination bowl of noodles, but for $5 was a solid and tasty mid-afternoon snack which I will not hesitate to drop in and repeat (trying different toppings), assuming they continue to make the noodles available.

I haven't seen a unified menu, and am not sure what their other regular offerings or specials will be but based on Aruba's Facebook page and Yelp reviews, pork rice plates and skewers have been available. Aruba is worth keeping an eye on.

Where slurped: Aruba, 2146 Irving St., San Francisco

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Manchu-ey "Northern Noodles" At Sungari Dumpling House

"Northern Noodles" turned out to be my old friend Zha Jiang Mian

I don't know if there's such a thing as Manchurian cuisine in San Francisco, but at least we now have a candidate (he he) in Sungari Dumpling House out in the Excelsior district, the latest addition to our stable of Dongbei (Northeast China) restaurants. "Sungari" is the Manchu name for what is now called the Songhua River, a tributary to the Amur River that cuts through Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces on its way. The restaurant is, in fact, called Songhua River Dumpling Garden (松花江水餃園) in Chinese.

For the non-Chinese-literate patron  (like yours truly), dining at Sungari is bound to be an adventure. For one thing, the staff, or at least the (mom and pop?) couple manning the stoves on a Sunday afternoon are all but devoid of English comprehension.  Then there's the menu, a real work in progress, containing English translations which are either inadequate or incomprehensible.  What will I get, for example, when I order "Hongyun Crocodile Pot" under the Clay Pot menu? (For the record, my Waygo translation app reads the Chinese as "alligator" rather than "crocodile" but I'll give them a pass on that.) "House Soup Gross Blood Mong" turns out to be congealed duck blood and sauteed eel in Chili sauce (mao xue yang), one of several Sichuan dishes on the menu.  I'll wait on that one, because I'm dying to try the "Secret Burning Pomfret."

Joking aside, the woman serving me was as friendly and willing to please as she was incapable of enlightening me about anything on the menu.  She brought me tea and complimentary dishes of spiced cabbage and peanuts while I pondered the menu. I was there for noodles, and between English, Chinese and pointing was able to successfully order the "Northern Noodles." The Chinese on the menu was no less vague on what that meant, and I prepared myself to be surprised.  At least it would be something "Northern" (beifang).

When my "Northern Noodles" came, they turned out to be nothing other than my old friend zha jiang mian. At least I don't have to explain zha jiang mian again, just point to my last post. Sungari's ZJM, however, was a different version than Xi An Gourmet's. The sauce, lighter in color and thinner than my previous foray's version, was also blander (but not sweeter) and more copious. It was served atop rough, thick hand-cut noodles that were perfectly chewy. Instead of just julienned cucumber, it came with three vegetal condiments in little dishes -- cucumber, bean sprouts, and chopped fresh cilantro. I added the contents of all three, as well as the remnants of my spiced cabbage to add a little heat.  I could have added some chili paste from the table's condiment tray, but the fresh cilantro added a complexity that extra heat might have masked.

My "Northern Noodles" turned out to be a damned fine hearty lunch for $6.95, and I will be back to Sungari Dumpling House to try more noodles and dumplings, and maybe even a Spicy Mix Fountain salad.

 Where slurped: Sungari Dumpling House, 4543 Mission St., San Francisco