Friday, November 16, 2012

Kirimachi Unveils Tonkotsu Kuro Ramen

Is a media event warranted when a ramen shop adds a new item to its menu? In my humble opinion it is when that item is kuro ramen. I've posted before about kuro, or "black" ramen, made by adding a puree of charred garlic to a tonkotsu broth, and how it taught me I could really love a bowl of ramen.  It's a rare item   which, until the recent opening of Izakaya Roku, was not to be found in San Francisco at all. Imagine my joy, therefore, when my friends from Kirimachi Ramen, fresh from  a research tour of Japan, announced they were introducing it to my own 'hood, North Beach.

I got to sample a bowl of Kirimachi's Tonkotsu Kuro Ramen tonight at a media preview (in reality it was a preview of expanded non-ramen options on the new dinner menu as well).  As is the case with his other ramen offerings, Chef Leo shows a lighter hand than most, delivering a broth that reveals more than just salt and fat. In my limited experience with kuro ramen, I've learned that there is a whole range of "kuro-ness" to the broth, depending on how thoroughly charred (or browned) the garlic is. Far from the inky black color I first experienced in a kuro ramen at Hide-chan in New York, Kirimachi's kuro ramen is a golden brown, not so different in color from shoyu ramen, but worlds away in flavor, with a deep roast garlic flavor enriching the tonkotsu base broth.  My sample bowl came chock dull of chashu, bamboo and a soft-boiled egg.  I'd be tempted to add corn just to add a splash of color; overall, though, it positioned itself as my favorite among Kirimachi's hot ramen offerings, and definitely near the top of all the bowls of ramen I've had in San Francisco.

The ramen was preceded by an appetizer plate representing other likely candidates for Kirimachi's menu: Chicken Karaage with Kewpie mayonnaise, pork and vegetable Gyoza, Uni Donburi (sea urchin and salmon roe over rice).

Where slurped: Kirimachi Ramen, 450 Broadway, San Francisco

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Subterranean Food Court, A Bowl of Bun Bo Hue, And Another Round-eye Runaround

The International Food Court at Bush and Kearny isn't exactly the Heaven-sent and Heavenly-scented rabbit warren that is the Golden Mall Food Court in Flushing, New York, but it has a promising close-to-the-bone feel and a rainbow palette of ethnic cuisines on offer.  There's one vendor each for Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and (soon to come) Korean foods, mostly serving foods their respective homeboys are craving, assuming you overlook the Crab Rangoon add-on option at Lee's Kitchen.

I was both optimistic and curious as I descended the stairs at the Bush Street entrance to the IFC for my date with a bowl of Bun Bo Hue: optimistic because a message board poster had reported getting a bowl of Bun Bu Hue with cubes of pig's blood in it  there, and curious to find out if I would be served the same thing at, of all places, a food court in the middle of the Financial District.

People who know such things will tell you that cubes of congealed pig's blood are one of the hallmarks of an authentic bowl of Bun Bo Hue, along with pig's knuckles, preferably whole and on the bone.  I know from experience that Vietnamese restaurants will hedge on this in the U.S., even in the Little Saigon environs of San Francisco.  Some, like Mangosteen, omit the pig's blood altogether; some, like Ngoc Mai will selectively omit the pigs blood if the bowl is headed for a guilao like me.  Others, like Sao Bien and Ha Nam Ninh include the pigs blood as was meant to be, without misplaced concern for Western sensibilities.  I had no clue as to the ethnicity of the Chowhound poster; would I be served the same bowl he or she had?

At Pho Express you order and pay at a small window on one side of the enclosed stall, then wait for pickup around the corner at a counter with condiments and pre-assembled plates of garnishes. There was a line of a half-dozen people and a 10-15 minute wait for my bowl even well past lunch hour at 1:45, an indicator of how busy Pho Express is.

Pho Express serves a single size of soup, and I'm guessing my $7.95 bowl was between a "small" and "large" serving at a conventional pho emporium.  The broth had a decent depth of flavor, though not particularly complex and only mildly spicy.  It was also a little on the oily side.  The noodles were thick, almost udon-sized, which I like, but alas, they had been cooked to death and were mushy (and a skimpy portion to boot). As far as the toppings went, Pho Express was most generous with the sliced pâté; there was also a reasonable amount of sliced rare beef, and what appeared to be bits of pig's knuckle (off the bone).  And oh, yes, there was no pig's blood in my Bun Bo Hue.  I had been given the round-eye runaround again. 

Where slurped: Pho Express, International Food Court, Bush and Kearny Streets, San Francisco

Monday, November 5, 2012

Slurping with the other half -- Lemon Grass Pork Vermicelli at Charles Phan's Out the Door

I found myself in the not-so-hospitable confines of the Ferry Building this afternoon hungering for something of a noodle-ish mien for a late lunch.  The options were the (seemingly moribund) Imperial Tea Court with its signature spicy IMPORTED from Taiwan (emphasis theirs) noodles for about 12 bucks, or a rice vermicelli plate from Out the Door for a bit less. Since I was sure that OTD's noodles hadn't been imported from anywhere further than San Jose, and a cold noodle dish sounded good on an 80° day (which it was, believe it or not), I went with the Vietnamese option.

I was half kidding (or maybe three-quarters kidding) about "the other half" in the title of this post. It might be a fair characterization of hipster patrons of Out the Door's big sister, The Slanted Door, which features "gateway" cuisine with designer ingredients and designer prices, accompanied by pricey designer cocktails.  Out the Door, however, is at least halfway out the Slanted Door onto the street where real food might be found, and its prices, while not at Little Saigon levels, won't make one blink.  A basic vermicelli bowl with pork, chicken or shrimp toppings will set you back about as much as a bowl of ramen without extras at an aspiring new ramen-ya.

I chose the "Lemongrass Pork With Vermicelli" (which I'm guessing would be called bun thit nuong in the hood).  Chicken and shrimp versions are also available. In toto, the bento-like plastic container amounted to a fairly light lunch (something I looked forward to after a couple of gut-buster noodle lunches at Shandong Deluxe recently.  However, I was struck by the generous quantity of savory grilled pork, as much good lean pork as one would have the right to expect in a noodle bowl of any denomination. The pork had a nice char, the cold rice noodles ere refreshing, and the veggie greens rounded out the dish nicely. In the past I've found myself disparaging Out the Door, largely on account of its kinship with The Slanted Door, which I'm not a fan of, but I found today's lunch satisfying and even reasonable, by Ferry Building standards, and can see myself returning. Perhaps the mini-empire of Out the Doors is Charles Phan's attempt to Keep it Real, which he does, kind of.

Where slurped: Out the Door, 1 Ferry Building #5, San Francico

Friday, November 2, 2012

You could call it Chinese Cioppino: Chao Ma Mian at Shandong Deluxe

Chao Ma Mian, like Zha Jiang Mian is a noodle dish with an identity crisis. Is was born in China, exported to Korea via Shandong Province then reimported to China with Korean characteristics, notably an elevated spice level. To complicate matters further, chao ma mian is similar enough to a Nagasaki ramen variant known as champon (itself an import from China's Fujian Province) that the Koreans call the dish jjamppong.

Whether you call it chao ma mian, jjamppong, Champon, gumbo, or (as occurred to me) Chinese Cioppino, it's a belly buster when combined with Shandong Deluxe's already legendary portion sizing, as I discovered when I  returned to the restaurant to check out the dish today. As can be seen, a mountain of surf, turf and garden goodies blanketed an equally impressive mass of fresh, springy handmade noodles on steroids (no wimpy ramen noodles here). So much do I like Shandong Deluxe's noodles that I found myself impatiently chomping my way like Pacman  through the chicken, pork, shrimp, octopus, cuttlefish, cabbage and a host of other things I didn't stop to catalog to get to the wheaten treasure awaiting me. Not that I had to hold my nose to do so; the toppings were fresh and savory, the textures thoughtfully varied and broth pleasantly spicy.  At $6.95, the bowl could easily covered lunch for two people circumspect about their calorie intake, or fuel a slightly overweight urban hiker for the greater part of a chilly Winter day.

I'll remember that.

Where slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval Street, San Francisco.