Hand-Pulled Noodles Pounded to Perfection
3741 Geary Blvd. (at 2nd), San Francisco
Open daily 11 a.m. to midnight (till 3 a.m. Friday, Saturday)
No reservations, cash only
The chilly weather always makes me go hunting for soup noodles. And I love all kinds, especially Asian noodles from Japanese ramen to Chinese won ton mein. The Northern Chinese are especially good with warming your bones by creating dishes with lots of spicy meat and comforting noodles that stick to your ribs.
My recent hunt brought me to the fairly new San Dong House on the busy Geary Boulevard strip. Away from the more crowded Clement Street nearby, San Dong looks like any non-descript ethnic restaurant with the basic awning and utilitarian wooden tables and chairs.
When I visited for lunch on a recent Saturday, the restaurant seemed nearly empty except for a family sitting at a round table near the back under the flat-screen TV. After checking the menu, I began hearing the thumping sound coming from the back and quickly took my camera to catch all the action.
The noodle chef had started his day’s assignment of making freshly pulled noodles. Like a pizzaiolo tossing pizza dough, the chef slung the noodle dough into long strings with each thump. In southern China, the noodle makers would transform the dough into hair-thin strings of mein, but for Northern Chinese cuisine, the noodles are a bit thicker, so maybe less work for them?
I sat down and out came a side dish of green onion pancakes ($3.99) that I ordered. I generally wouldn’t eat these pancakes because they can be oily when pan fried, but I always remember the intoxicating aroma I smelled as a child when we would visit a Northern Chinese restaurant and these freshly made pancakes were at the window.
This order, quite large with eight pieces, didn’t disappoint. The aroma was slightly sweet and pungent like the onions, and the pancake was thin and chewy with just the right bit of crisp on the edges. And they didn’t feel greasy or oily. I tried to eat as many as I could, but I had to save myself for my noodles.
I ordered the spicy Dan Dan Noodles ($6.99), and here’s where my lack of knowledge of Northern Chinese cuisine will show. This Sichuan specialty is quite spicy and made with bean sauce and chili, but when I previously ordered it at other restaurants it came out as a soup noodle dish. But at San Dong, it came out with no soup and was served lukewarm with a bean sauce and julienned cucumbers. The overall look of the dish reminded me more of Ja Jiang noodles.
I thought maybe the waitress heard me wrong (most of the servers speak Mandarin but also know English), but as I ate the noodles a customer walking by looked at my bowl of noodles and asked another server what I had ordered, and she said “dan dan mein.” So I guess I wasn’t wrong.
The hand-pulled noodles, my first time trying San Dong’s version, were amazing. They were just the right thickness and had a nice chewy bite. It reminded me of saimin from Hawaii but thicker. The dan dan sauce was pungent, with a smell that I usually would describe to others as something that’s “an acquired taste.” Still, the combination with the cucumbers was nice and it definitely was spicy. I took a picture of my empty bowl so you can see all the chili oil still evident at the bottom.
I returned last Friday night for dinner, and again the restaurant was nearly empty. I’m starting to think that noodles are more popular in the late evening, especially since San Dong is opened till 3 a.m. on the weekends. This time the weather was definitely chilly, so I knew I wanted soup noodles.
I ordered another traditional dish – the beef noodles soup (BTW pretty much all the 18 noodle bowls on the menu sell for $6.99). The bowl of noodles looked pretty standard when it arrived, but when I bit into the meat it was both tender and lean, with not too much fat. It had the familiar anise-laced flavor that was delicious and it was balanced with a very light broth.
The soup didn’t taste as much as beef stock as it did of mushroom, so in a way this seemed like a healthy version of beef noodles soup. The noodles, again, was just wonderful, with the same chewy texture and soft center like the first time I tasted it (that says a lot about consistency). Even during dinner, I could hear the noodle chef pounding away making more fresh noodles.
After I ate the whole bowl of beef noodles, my order of xiao lung bao came out. These Northern-style dumplings are known for their delicate skin with a bit of soup wrapped in with the filling.
I should explain that in the dumpling section of the menu, I couldn’t find a mention of xiao lung bao. And even though I don’t read Chinese, I do know the character for “lung” or dragon, so I tried to look for that and couldn’t find it. There were listings for pork and vegetable dumplings and lamb dumplings, but I didn’t know which one was the traditional xiao lung bao. So basically I just asked my waitress in Mandarin if they had them, and when she said yes, I asked for an order. (So if you’re not sure, just ask for them by name. It’s pronounced “shaow loong bow.”)
The waitress explained that the xiao lung bao takes about 15 minutes to make so that’s why it ended up coming after my beef noodles. But luckily she only ordered me a half order ($4.99), which came out to just six dumplings in a steamer – perfect for just myself and after eating a whole bowl of noodles.
The dumpling skin was thin but some parts seemed a bit thick, so it wasn’t as amazing as the hand-pulled noodles. But I still liked it because it was nicely wrapped unlike some restaurants that make their dumplings deformed. I appreciated San Dong’s nice form.
The filling had a nice bit of minced pork that was sitting in a pool of rich broth that had a rust color, giving it a real deep flavor. I enjoyed both the meat and the broth, which made these some of the better xiao lung bao I’ve had in the Bay Area.
San Dong has BBQ in its name because they have a section on meat skewers, but pretty much everyone goes there for the hand-pulled noodles. And why not when they’re so good? San Dong looks like it’s been in the neighborhood for years, but the fresh noodles say there’s a new kid in town.
Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Comforting noodles)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
More Northern cuisine:
Bund Shanghai: "Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right"
Shan Dong: "What's All the Fuss Oakland Lunchers?"
Monday, November 29, 2010
Hand-Pulled Noodles Pounded to Perfection