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The Great Noodle Quest
Jonathan Kauffman | Photo: Aya Brackett, Maren Caruso, Alanna Hale | January 28, 2013
Spurred by the ongoing ramen craze, noodles of all nationalities are hotter than a steaming bowl of tonkotsu. But how do you separate the meritorious from the mediocre? You slurp—a lot. Asian food connoisseur Jonathan Kauffman hunts down The Bay Area's 21 Top Bowls.
Betelnut (Cow Hollow) Betelnut, with its whiff of Mulan-style orientalism, doesn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d find a serious bowl of noodle soup, but this canary-yellow coconut-milk broth—shimmering with the aromas of coriander and lemongrass—isn’t joking around. Strips of fried egg, fat prawns, and tofu cubes float amid the noodles, and a medley of thai basil, mint, and cilantro rings brightly over the top. Hundreds of versions of this popular street food can be found across Malaysia, chef Alexander Ong says, but this one is based on the style of Sarawak, his home state. (It can be made vegetarian upon request.) 2030 Union St. (Near Buchanan St.), 415-929-8855.
Ongpin (South San Francisco) This restaurant has one of the largest selections of Filipino noodles in the Bay Area, among them siomai noodle soup and pancit palabok with shrimp sauce and crumbled pork rinds. But the stir-fried pancit miki-bihon is the one to order. A mound of skinny, wriggly rice noodles (bihon) twines around fat golden egg noodles (miki), with vegetables, chicken, and shrimp. The umami-bump of shrimp paste is discernible but not overpowering, and a squeeze of lemon gives the flavor a jolt. 73 Camaritas Ave. (Near Arroyo Dr.), 650-615-9788.
Lapaz Batchoy (Daly City) The fantasy animating the city’s street-food explosion is that we’ll discover cooks perfecting a single specialty, just like in countries all over the world. Well, Joefred Devicais is living that dream: in his minuscule storefront, he has mastered batchoy, a noodle soup from La Paz in the west-central Philippines. Fried garlic imparts a toasty note to the clear, lightly sweet beef stock, and the soft egg noodles are smothered in chopped chicken, pork, beef, and pork liver. The crowning touch is a fluffy shower of crumbled chicharrones. So many shades of meatitude! The palate reels. 6785 Mission St. (near Westlake Ave.), 650-580-2279.
Lers Ros (Tenderloin/Hayes Valley) How did so many Americans decide that this workaday street food is the measure of a Thai restaurant? And, if it is, why do so many prepare it badly, tinting the rice noodles with ketchup and dumping on the sugar? Fortunately, that’s not the case at Lers Ros. the restaurant cooks up a great pad thai: Fish sauce and the dusky, low-toned tartness of tamarind balance the sweetness of sugar, and the noodles are suffused with smoky traces of the flaming wok. The dish tastes as if it came from a street stall, which is the highest compliment I could give it. 730 Larkin St. (Near O’Farrell St.), 415-931-6917; and 307 Hayes St. (Near Franklin St.), 415-874-9661.
Zen Yai Thai (Tenderloin) The piece of paper taped to the wall at this Thai restaurant is curt, almost oblique: “Original Thai Boat Noodles: Just $2.50.” Pester the servers about it, and you’ll learn that, in fact, Zen Yai serves three distinct preparations of these noodles, each with a choice of skinny rice, fat rice, or egg noodles. The basic boat noodles, with their opaque, ruddy broth, are arguably the best. Yes, the sauce is enriched with blood, but it provides an indistinctly meaty background over which the cooks layer flashy sweet and tart notes and a buzzy amount of chilies, not to mention pork meatballs and cilantro. Order two bowls for yourself. 771 Ellis St. (Near Polk St.), 415-885-0726.