Every week on our food blog, Voracious, I write up a local noodle dish of note in a post called The Thin Wheat Line. Here are a few of the recent installments:
Tagliatelle With WTF
Noodle: Tagliatelle with sous-vide duck egg, hedgehog mushrooms, and Parmesan foam.
Source: Spur, 113 Blanchard St., 728-6706, spurseattle.com.
You know how when you’ve trained your parrot/dog/infant to do the most adorable thing and bragged to your friends about it? Then when they show up for dinner, you trot it/he/she out and make the secret hand gesture—and it/he/she just wanders away to lick bread crumbs off the floor? That’s how I feel about this pasta.
I’ve eaten the tagliatelle at Spur a couple times now, forgetting to snap a photo for Thin Wheat Line until it’s half-eaten and as photogenic as a bowl of overripe bananas. Despite the wording of the menu, it’s a simple enough dish. Gastro-speak translation: Cooking the duck egg sous-vide means vacuum-sealing it in plastic and slowly poaching it at low heat; the chefs can do this with enough precision that the yolk thickens to just the right degree.
I love the way you break the orb and it slowly deflates, coating the delicate, fresh pasta in a thick golden custard, which is the only sauce the pasta needs. The sautéed mushrooms, the pine nuts, the rare crunch of green onions, the occasional wisp of Parmesan flavor in the foam (don’t hate)—it’s a stunner, rich without leaving your mouth coated in butter.
So the night I bring a bunch of people to Spur to try the pasta, it’s off—tossed with so much lemon juice that the mushroom flavor disappears under all that acidity. Apparently both chefs (Dana Tough and Brian McCracken) were taking that night off, and I don’t know if the sous merely screwed up the dish or if the chefs had purposefully upped the citrus since I’d last tried the pasta. Either way, take it back down, guys. I have more people I need to impress with that dish.
Noodle: Beef chow fun
Source: Hing Loon, 628 S. Weller St., 682-2828.
Of all the cuisines I miss or don’t miss after a dozen years in the Bay Area, cheap, great Cantonese is turning out to be #1. Cantonese became my comfort food my senior year in college, when I waited tables in a tiny St. Paul joint called Grand Shanghai Express (even though Tak, the chef, was from Hong Kong). Not only did I eat a lot of chicken wings for staff lunch that year—I can suck the meat off wing bones faster than 90 percent of white people—I learned the Chinese-American canon from Tak. What we never told customers was that he too had to refer on occasion to the cookbooks he kept in the back. It’s not as if anyone in Hong Kong had taught him to make crispy chow mein with celery gravy or what Americans expect “moo goo gai pan” to be.
Thinking back on that year, it’s clear that Tak’s take on American standards like cashew chicken and sesame beef was echt Cantonese—everything was very fresh, very clean-tasting. My favorites were the more traditional dishes he advertised on the backs of place mats: steamed black bass with black-bean sauce, steamed pork-and-cabbage dumplings, beef chow fun.
I got a hankering for chow fun the other day, and since I already write about Jade Garden and 663 Bistro a lot, I decided to hit up another Cantonese stalwart, Hing Loon. I’m going back sometime to eat specials—the owners had practically wallpapered the place in place mats—but the chow fun was decent, too.
“Chow” actually means stir-fried, and “fun” is shorthand for ho fun—wide, flat rice noodles that sometimes come in soup but more often get stir-fried. The trick is to cook them fast enough so they soak up the sauce, picking up a little of that smoky wok char in the process, yet don’t break down into a mass of mush. Hing Loon’s ho fun were a little diaphanous to start with, so they did tear and shred in the pan, but, coated in oil and soy, they didn’t clump together into a starch bundle. And if the not-so-traditional fermented black beans tossed into the sauce did make the noodles a tad salty, the beef was tender and the bean sprouts gave a satisfying crunch to offset the satiny noodles.
Pho’s Quieter, Sweeter Sister Noodle
Noodle: Hu tieu nam vang
Source: Tu Oanh, 1207 S. Jackson St., B101, 568-7208
Price: $7.25 (for a small)
Back in my mid-20s, when I was eating pho two to three times a week, I used to occasionally mix it up with a bowl of hu tieu nam vang, sometimes called Cambodian-style noodle soup. (Nam Vang is the Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh.) It’s the subtler sister of pho, made with either a clear chicken or pork-and-squid stock, without that bewitching note of star anise, the fragrant rush of Thai basil, or the drama of watching raw beef transform from pink to gray as you stir the hot broth. I’d order hu tieu when I simply wanted the plainest of plain food, or some seafood in place of beef. I often see hu tieu on the menu and think, eh, I’ll try that next time. But I went to Tu Oanh with the sole intention of ordering hu tieu. Am I ever glad I stuck to my resolve, because the place serves one of the best versions I’ve yet tasted.
Like pho, the secret to hu tieu is all in the broth—it’s got to be delicate enough not to overpower the prawns and squid but rich enough to back up the Chinese-style roast pork and liver/kidney slices floating in the bowl, along with a hank of rice noodles. Tu Oanh’s broth is made with toasty, sweet fried shallots.
Tu Oanh also serves its hu tieu with two herbs that rarely appear in Vietnamese restaurants in the States. The waiter only knew the Vietnamese name of one, which he called “ngoc”—the frilly leaves looked somewhat like chrysanthemum greens. The second herb: a few stalks of Chinese celery. The difference between Chinese celery and Western celery is the difference between a cherry tomato you grow in your backyard and one of those pink January slices you get on your Wendy’s burger. I tore up the herbs, scattered them around the soup, and, on the waiter’s advice, dosed the broth with a spoonful of pickled-garlic slices from a jar on the table (they went particularly well with the pork kidney slice).
Every time I felt myself taking the soup for granted, I’d sit back for a minute, read a few paragraphs in my magazine, and take a few necessary sips from a frosted glass of ice water (the place was heated to steamy Saigon spring temperatures). Then I’d return to the broth, with its nutty overtones, its surprising depth, the fragrant crunch of pickled garlic and celery. Not boring at all.