Monday, August 26, 2013

The Richmond's Xi'an Gourmet Restaurant Brings Welcome New Choices to San Francisco

I fell in love with many of the foods of Xi'an more than five years ago at David Shih's Xi'an Famous Foods in Flushing, NY's now legendary Golden Mall and have been lamenting the near total absence of this cuisine from San Francisco ever since.  I am happy to report that it is now possible to get my Xi'an food "fix" in San Francisco, thanks to Xi'an Gourmet Restaurant at Geary Boulevard and 2nd Avenue.

A couple of weeks ago, San Dong House restaurant, looking for a way to distinguish itself from the growing number of local hand-pulled noodle joints (with and without "Shandong/Sandong" in their names), morphed into Xi'an Gourmet. It was not a gratuitous makeover: the chef at San Dong House was from Xi'an and, it appears, has an assertive grasp of his hometown cuisine, at least judging from to two items I had today.

I found out about Xi'an Gourmet over breakfast, from perusing the Yelp listing of new businesses (say what you will about Yelpers -- they may not always get it right, but they almost always get it first). After that Big Reveal I resolved to be there for lunch, and so I was.  Xi'an Gourmet's menu is quite long and varied, since the Shandong cuisine items remain on it, as well as the requisite Chinese food Golden Oldies. The 30-odd Silk Road dishes are quite easy to find, though, in the two sections of the menu labeled "House Special" and "Hand Pulled Noodle" though you might want to throw in some skewers or Shandong dumplings as well. I chose two bell-wether Xi'an items, a lamb roujiamo ("Shaanxi Sandwich with Cumin Lamb") and a noodle dish called you po mian or sometimes you po che mian (here "Shaanxi Hand Made Noodle"), both items which I  am quite familiar with from New York and Shanghai.

I consider Xi'an Famous Foods' lamb roujiamo a benchmark, simply because I've eaten so many of them, and Xi'an Gourmet's stacks up well to them.  Overall, XG's version was about the same size and as full of meat as XFF's version.  XG's lamb seemed slightly less fatty, but at least as aggressively spiced with cumin, jalapenos and chili oil as XFF's.  Xi'an Gourmet's buns were a bit denser and more impermeable than Xi'an Famous Foods', which gave them a nice crunchiness but made XG's roujamo messier, as the buns didn't absorb the chile oil and juices as well. XG's lamb roujiamo are also more expensive, at $5.95, though they also serve a pork version for $3.95.

The you po mian is a tossed noodle dish, with rough, fat, hand-pulled noodles sitting in a puddle of spicy oil and topped with ground dried chilis and other condioments, then tossed.  I'll be writing more about this noodle dish in my separate noodle blog, but will say that it was very similar to a version of the dish I had in Shanghai, and didn't suffer by comparison to with any other version of you po che mian I have had.

I'll be returning within the week to vet the yang rou pao mo (a hearty lamb soup that uses torn up flatbread instead of noodles) and will have a further report once I've analyzed and cherry-picked the menu.

Xi'an Gourmet, 3741 Geary Blvd. at 2nd Ave., San Francisco

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lap Cheong and Latte -- Only at iCafe

Guangzhou King & King (L) becomes iCafe (R)

Guangzhou King & King was one of the last two places in San Francisco Chinatown offering house-made Chinese sausage for retail sale, so I was somewhat dismayed when it appeared to have morphed into a coffee shop, iCafe, even though it was serving "the best coffee in Chinatown." To tell the truth I'd not often been in the market for lap cheong (Chinese sausage), but it was comforting to walk by and see the strings of various types of Lap Cheong hanging at the back of the store. It would be sad to see it go. Fortunately, it was not so. A Twitter follower who saw the Instagram I posted pointed out that the Chinese sign on iCafe mentioned BBQ, so I decided further research was in order.

Sure enough, I discovered when I returned early enough in the day to tolerate some caffeine, several varieties of house-made lap cheong were on display, laid out horizontally in glass cases behind the counter, which was adorned with pastry cases.  It was just a "remodel," said the owner with a grin.

Lap cheong can be see laid out behind the coiunter
iCafe offers a full menu of coffee and tea trinks including espresso drinks, Vietnamese iced coffee, Hong Kong Milk Tea and even the peculiar Hong Kong mix of coffee and tea, as well as hot chocolate and ovaltine, but blessedly, NO bubble tea drinks. There are also a variety of pastries and packaged munchies to accompany your drink.

A menu that would look at home in Hong Kong

To complete the transformation of a Chinese charcuterie into a Western cafe a la Hong Kong, where is artwork on the wall for sale by an artist named Nate1, a friend of the owners.  Fittingly, the art work even included a bit of lap cheong art.

Lap cheong art.
As I sipped a tasty latte and pondered the metamorphosis, it all began to make sense to me.  The storefront had never been used as a work space, and the goods on offer were mainly strung up behind the counter, leaving a lot of unused space. The loyal sausage customers were going to wade through whatever was in their way to score their handmade lap cheong, and any additional revenue from a coffe shop would be gravy, as it were. And, I suspect, there was another good reason for the enterprise. Nobo, half of the couple that owns the establishment is as friendly and garrulous as an Irish bartender, and probably happy to have some ears to bend to get him through the day. He, incidentally, not only makes the lap cheong, and, on this day, the coffee drinks, but also bakes the pastries, I was told.

Butcher, baker and latte maker Nobo of iCafe
Incidentally, I didn't get to meet Nobo's partner Diana, who, unfortunately, was recuperating from an illness. According to the scattering of Yelp reviews iCafe has garnered in its short existence, Diana is every bit as friendly as Nobo. Stop by for some coffee and conversation, and grab some artisanal lap cheong to take home.

iCafe is at 57 Walter U. Lum Place, jsut off Washington, on the backside of Portsmouth Square