Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Yakkin' Up Ya Ka Mein at the San Francisco Street Food Festival

Thanks to La Cocina's San Francisco Street Food Festival, I recently got to sample ya ka mein, a New Orleans street favorite from its most celebrated purveyor, Miss Linda Green, who was imported from NOLA for just that purpose. Though the distant origins of this dish are obscure, we know from restaurant menu archaeologists that it emanated from Chinese-American restaurants and still exists in such restaurants on the eastern seaboard (particularly in Baltimore) as "yat gaw mein."

Perhaps the best resource for understanding ya ka mein's travels and signifcance is an article by noted food writer-folklorist John T. Edge, "Seventh Ward Ramen" in David Chang's Lucky Peach, Issue 1 - Ramen.  According to Edge's description, ya ka mein
usually arrives in a white foam cup, brimming with limp spaghetti noodles, soy-and-ketchup-colored and -flavored broth, chunks of roasted pork or beef, boiled egg halves and a thatch of ragged-cut green-onion rounds....slurped from a bowl while standing on a street corner, [ya ka mein] is also known as Old Sober.
 Linda Green, proprietor of Miss Linda Green's Catering, sells ya ka mein from a booth at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival and from the tailgate of a pickup truck at other events in New Orleans.  Miss Linda is no mere ramen hacker, however. Though she has no formal training, she has the cooking chops to have kicked serious butt on the Food Network's Chopped: Pride of New Orleans episode, coming away with the big prize.

As for my ya ka mein experience?  I found the salty, peppery, bouillon-y cup of noodles comforting, if not  exactly life-changing; to be fair, it must be noted I was cold sober when I downed them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Oh, Man! Men Oh Tokushima Ramen Brings its Pedigree to the Richmond

I busted out of my diet today to check out the SF arrival of a new dedicated ramen-ya with a link to Japan.  That would be Men Oh Tokushima Ramen  (Geary near 15th Avenue) which is still in its "soft" opening period; the official Grand Opening is August 4.

Tokushima is a prefecture of Japan on Shikoku Island, and has its own characteristic ramen style, one of 20 cataloged in Nate Shockey's A Specifist's Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan (Lucky Peach, Issue 1).   Men Oh Tokushima Ramen is a leading purveyor of this style of ramen, with 12 locations in Japan and one other in  the U.S. (in Union City CA).

Tokushima ramen features a tonkatsu-like broth (a legacy of the many ham factories on Shikoku Island) infused with dark soy sauce and uses Butabara (stir-fried pork belly slices) in addition to traditional chashu. Another feature of Tokushima ramen is the provision of a raw egg (still in the shell) for the diner to add to his bowl of noodles.

Men Oh Tokushima Ramen was about 40 percent full at 1:20 in  the afternoon of hump day when I entered. It is a very attractive room with wooden tables and sparse, tasteful decor. Lamentably, there is no counter for solo ramen eaters like me, but I was seated at one of the four or five two-tops.  The menu lists three ramen options: Tokushima ramen, a standard tonkotsu ramen, and a spicy tonkotsu ramen.  There are other dishes and appetizers typical for a ramen-ya, including takoyaki "coming soon."   I chose the house specialty Tokushima ramen and a side order of gyoza, since the takoyaki (as the cheerful server confirmed) had yet to make an appearance. 

As I waited for my noodles, the server brought me the tea I requested and a chilled egg in a little dish.  It was stamped with a red "P" for "pasteurized."  I took the time to ask her about the noodles. Were they indeed "house made" as the restaurant's website indicated? She replied that they were made off-site in South San Francisco, "where our headquarters is."

Soon after my bowl of ramen arrived, another server appeared with a side order of chashu.  "We have to remake the gyoza," she said, and the extra chashu was complementary. I studied my noodles and went about the task of adding the raw egg. The hard part is choosing the most aesthetic location to plump it down.

As usual, the first thing I took note of were the noodles.  They were straight (as I like them) and very thin (which I'm not particularly fond of). They were, however, perfectly cooked, with just the right bite to them. The broth had a great depth and richness, manifestly abetted by the soy sauce, and had a tinge of sweetness to it, something my wife's own Jiangsu-influenced cooking has taught me to tolerate, if not applaud. (In fact, a touch of star anise would have made the broth a ringer for a Suzhou noodle "red" broth.)  The toppings, even without the extra chashu I was comped, were quite generous for an $8.50 bowl of ramen.

And oh, yes the gyoza.  They arrived just as I was finishing my ramen, and were not particularly memorable, being a little too oil-laden.  I'll be back when the takoyaki is up!

Overall, I found Men Oh Tokushima Ramen delivered a solid bowl of ramen at a reasonable price in an attractive environment with friendly service.  I'm no ramen guru, but I predict it will be appearing on all of those "best" lists, and maybe even inviting comparisons with San Mateo and Santa Clara ramen joints.

Where slurped: 5120 Geary Boulevard near 15th Ave,, San Francisco