Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Farewell Pho Ga at Turtle Tower Restaurant

Turtle Tower Restaurant, that little bit of Hanoi in Little Saigon, closed today, but don't panic -- it  isn't exactly turning turtle. It will reopen in a few weeks just a few doors up the block. But will it be the real Turtle Tower or simply the mock? I pondered this question tonight over a ceremonial bowl of pho ga, or chicken noodles, if you will, at the original premises .

Turtle Tower is considered by many as the best pho joint in town, and is one of the few that specializes in pho bac, or northern style pho. Its soups are outstanding across the board, but its pho ga is considered iconic, and that is what I contented myself with tonight.  The northern style, which is said to be the original pho, uses a clear, less-seasoned broth than its southern Vietnamese counterpart, which makes for cleaner, less muddled flavors. To me, the broth in pho bac is evocative of the best Lanzhou la mian broths in China, with cilantro, scallion tops and the meat of your choice providing the flavor profile.  Pho Ga is especially good for highlighting the delicate savor of northern-style pho, on account of the subtle contribution to the broth of the lean chicken flesh. Although you can generally choose a noodle style for pho ga, the noodle of choice is usually a flat, wide rice noodle, the default at Turtle Tower. This style of noodle is never al dente enough for my tastes, but the very softness of the noodle adds an appropriate unctuosness to the chicken soup, especially since Turtle Tower's spare broth runs counter to the fattiness that chicken soups of the world are generally known for.

Overall, I'd have to rate Turtle Tower's pho ga as one of the best noodle soups of any Asian persuasion in San Francisco (or anywhere I have eaten noodles). Unfortunately, we'll have to live without it for a few weeks, or make do at one of the less highly regarded offshoot Turtle Tower branches.

Where slurped: 631 Larkin Street, San Francisco (RIP).

Friday, February 22, 2013

Savory Lamb Hand-pulled Noodles at the Unintentional House of Pancakes

You'd be forgiven if you walked into a neighborhood restaurant that boldly identifies itself as "House of Pancakes" on its sign and expected to get a short stack with maple syrup, but you'd be wrong, if the said establishment was the three-week old "House of Pancakes" on Taraval Street. Yes, "House of Pancakes" is a literal translation of its Chinese name,  Guo Bing Zi Jia (鍋餅子家) and yes, it has 11 different kinds of pancakes. These pancakes, or "guobings," however, are the crispy, meat-filled savories you probably know from northern Chinese restaurants. In addition to the cultural head-fake of the restaurant's name (which is why I'm lovingly calling it the Unintentional House of Pancakes, or UHOP), it's also guilty on a couple of counts of hiding its light under a bushel: although it does feature the (very welcome) meat pies, it also can boast of freshly house-made dumplings and, of most importance to me, hand-pulled noodles made to order. It was the latter that was the lure for my maiden trip to UHOP.

House of Pancakes' menu lists seven hand-pulled noodle soups (plus zha jiang mian) and, as might be predicted, they had me at lamb. The cheerful owner was startled when I ordered my yangrou lamian in Chinese, so much so that he started talking to me in Mandarin, and I had to sheepishly explain I only know food Chinese.  I don't know if UHOP is a husband-wife operation, but the equally pleasant (if less English- proficient) woman who made my noodles at a station at the back also served me steaming bowl of goodness. (It was after 2:00 PM, an apparently slack period for this restaurant in its infancy.)

Since House of Pancakes is a mere block from Shandong Deluxe (see earlier posts) with its similar proletarian prices for hand-made noodles and dumplings, comparisons are unavoidable. Most importantly, in the case of both houses, the noodles are excellent, hearty and chewy.  If anything, the noodles at UHOP were slightly less chewy, though they didn't lean toward undesired softness until I neared the bottom of the bowl. The broth at House of Pancakes was notably more savory than Shandong's "qing tang" broth (I'm guessing a pork bone and chicken stock).  The lamb, in both cases, was lean and tender (though I'd hope for slightly fattier cuts) and a generous proportion.  As far as overall serving size goes, Shandong Deluxe uses slightly larger bowls, but both restaurants' portions verge on excessive, so I can't award House of Pancakes demerits on that score. In terms of service (never really a big issue with me) I found both places efficient with UHOP slightly more cheerful, though I have yet to observe it under the hectic conditions that Shandong Deluxe's popularity has brought to it.

What's to choose? House of Pancakes and Shandong Deluxe both offer fresh, hearty well-priced noodle fare. We're lucky to have these two places emerge in recent months.  I only wish they were closer to me.

And oh, yes, I'll get to those "pancakes" -- eventually.

Where Slurped: House of Pancakes, 937 Taraval Street, San Francisco

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Snowed by Xue Cai Rou Si Mian at Shandong Deluxe

I headed for 19th and Taraval at lunchtime today, fully intending to cheat on my new best hand-pulled noodle friend, Shandong Deluxe, with a dalliance at House of Pancakes (that's pancakes as in niu rou bing) which brazenly established itself a couple of weeks ago a mere block away from Shandong Deluxe. It was not to be, as House of Pancakes rudely greeted me with a "Closed on Wednesdays" sign.  So I headed for the outstretched noodle-pulling arms of Shanghai Deluxe once again, thanking my stars for having such a delectable Plan B at hand.

I settled on "Mustard Pork Noodle" on the menu, the classic xue cai rou si mian (雪菜肉丝面).  "Xue cai" is literally "snow vegetable" in Chinese, but refers to a leafy vegetable (typically mustard greens) that has been preserved through pickling or salting. This would not ordinarily be my automatic choice, since I'm not a fan of leafy greens, even pickled (they're all spinach to me), but I'm determined to work my way through Shanghai Deluxe's entire noodle menu.  Not only that, but it's a great dish for letting the noodles really show their stuff, with no chance of being overwhelmed by the bland pork shreds or the subtle vegetality of the broth. It turned out to be a wise choice.  Shandong Deluxe appeared to have sensed my intent at infidelity down the block and really put out. The noodles today were so perfectly bold and chewy that I ate them as fast as possible lest they lose that "QQ" quality before I could get to the bottom of the bowl. Yes, the broth was bland, but nothing a little chile oil couldn't fix.  I didn't resort to that, however, until I had dug out every last shard of wheaty loveliness.

Hear that, House of Pancakes? You'll get to wrap your lithe and limber noodles around my desire yet. Let's see if you can top Shandong Deluxe's snow job!

Where Slurped: Shandong Deluxe, 1042 Taraval Street, San Francisco

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ringing Up a New Noodle Experience With Xinjiang Ding Ding Chao Mian

After posting the video of noodle-pulling hijinks at M.Y. China this morning, I found myself craving some fresh handmade noodles and headed for -- not M.Y. China, but the more proletarian fare of Shandong Deluxe on Taraval Street. I had in my mind to try out a noodle dish rarely -- if ever -- seen in these parts, clumsily identified in English as "Fried Crushed Noodles" but more elegantly and musically rendered in Chinese as 新疆丁丁炒麵, Xinjiang Ding Ding Chao Mian. 

Xinjiang Ding Ding Chao Mian is like no other chao mian (or chow mein, if you will) out there. It consists of hand-pulled noodles "the thickness of chopsticks" according to this recipe I found online. The noodles are then chopped at approximate 1/4 inch intervals and stir-fried with lamb, tomato, garlic shoots, red and green peppers and celery, all chopped equally finely, in a ginger-garlic sauce. 

As with other noodle dishes at Shandong Deluxe, the Xinjiang Ding Ding Chao Mian is served in gargantuan proportions; the chopped up noodles also make eating it with chopsticks tedious, and I eventually resorted to use of a Chinese soup spoon to fill my gut (which was accomplished with about half my order). Overall, the Silk Route pedigree of this dish seemed to come into play here, as I felt I was eating a middle eastern or Mediterranean pasta dish more than a Chinese noodle dish. Tasty and satisfying as the dish was, I felt cheated by not getting the pleasure that comes from lifting and slurping long noodles.

One reason I wasn't able to finish my entire noodle dish (not to worry, I took home enough for a pasta "side" for my dinner) was that I had been sweet-talked by my server into trying an order of house-made xiao long bao.  At $4.95 for 6, it was easy to succumb to this temptation, and I felt rewarded by it  While not the most elegantly wrapped xiao long bao I have ever had, they were true to form in texture and flavor, a worthy xiao long bao "fix" (of which I am occasionally in need).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the chef-owner of Shandong Deluxe spent some years cooking in Xinjiang,  whence his penchant for the Xianjiang dishes sprinkled across Shandong Deluxe's menu. They've grabbed my attention on account or their rarity, but I suspect further riches await me when I actually get to the Shandong specialties at Shandong Deluxe.

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

Noodle Madness at M.Y. China

Martin Yan's M.Y. China is the type of pricey, upscale venue that I normally eschew, but it's a friendly, fun place, as the video below suggests (not to mention being a half-hour closer by bus for me than any other hand-pulled noodle joint). The noodles, made to order for you, are excellent, and if you sit at the counter by the noodle station you get the same vantage point this video was shot from, so it's a dinner/lunch show worth the $12-$18 ticket price. Thanks to Alex Ong, Chef at Betelnut Peiju Wu for this video, recorded at M.Y. China and posted on Facebook. It features the noodle-pulling exploits of head chef Yong Dong "Tony" Wu, including "Gangnam style" and "10,000 strands blindfolded" as breathlessly narrated by Martin Yan.