Annika, 20-something, and Mark, 70-something, are out to find the Mission’s most noteworthy noodles.
Alas, with the departure of the formidable Julian Mark to the formidable Washington Post, Mission Local has been left with a hole. A burger-sized hole, to be exact.
As usual, without warning, our executive editor Lydia Chavez sent me a group text that included an unknown number, asking me abruptly whether I wanted to continue this food feud. “Is that number Mark’s?” I asked her in her office. Yep.
She wasn’t the only one anxious for a revival. “We have to look for something for him to do now,” Joe Eskenazi said, pacing the room.
I could take up the burger wars, but no. Not only have you and Julian traversed many greasy patty joints, but burgers are really your and Julian’s thing. Who am I to come between you?
Instead, I challenged you to a different game. Quite confidently, and a little ominously, you challenged, “I look forward to your opening gambit.”
I chose Mau, the slightly upscale Vietnamese eatery at 665 Valencia St. and ordered an array of noodles to feed my hungry family: garlic noodles; the beef phở, or phở bò, for me; and the dry grilled lemongrass vermicelli noodles, or Bún Thịt Nướng, for my dad. I picked it up from a friendly face at the restaurant, and caught a glimpse of a happy family enjoying their dinner.
I started with the garlic noodles, even though they’re a side dish. Vietnamese garlic noodles are one of my personal favorites, because you experience the spice’s kick, pungency and sharpness that make it distinct from other garlic pastas. Mau’s was a decent serving for $6, filling up the fair-sized bowl I use at home. The noodles were peppered and garnished with some wilted parsley. As I took a bite, I was pleasantly hit with garlic flavor; the noodles were chewy, but not tough. The more I ate it, though, the more I lost the garlic taste. Instead, I began tasting more butter or oil in the noodles, dulling the kick I’d craved. It didn’t taste bad, but it was a little disappointing for a garlic lover, who wanted loads of garlic flavor. I’m talking so much garlic, it’ll ward off vampires. So much garlic, it’ll make Gilroy insecure.
I moved on to the phở bò. My good friend W, a phở fanatic, told me years ago that good phở is like “Christmas in a bowl.” I’m pretty sure he meant the wholesome harmony that’s achieved from the broth’s base of cinnamon and star anise. So I poured Mau’s soup into a bowl — still hot, after a long BART ride home — and was pleased to be flooded with the aromas of its spices. Slowly, the pink, not-yet-cooked, thinly sliced brisket began to cook. The white vermicelli noodles were generous, and, deposited in the soup, they resembled a mass of angel hair.
Twirling the noodles on my fork and taking a broth-filled bite, I was pleased again that the noodle bit firmly. The broth was tasty enough on its own — a true hallmark of excellent phở — and the raw onions, bean sprouts, and Thai basil added the necessary crunchy texture and color to a rich bowl. Even though I’m a baby about spice, I slipped in a bit of sriracha and watched the broth turn musty red. This complemented the noodles more, which absorbed the intense flavors swimming around them, much like a mop. At $12, it wasn’t the cheapest phở I’ve ever had, but it’s a pretty good bargain.
The rice noodles acted the same with my dad’s meal, the Bún Thịt Nướng, though they were a tad softer and much thinner. Unfortunately, the noodles were limper here, and didn’t seem to mix as well with the sauce. However, the grilled lemongrass pork was extremely flavorful and charred. My dad disagreed; he thought the noodles were cooked perfectly and the sauce wasn’t so overwhelming, enabling the noodles to continue to stand out. A huge carnivore, he was pleased there was “plenty of meat” for the price of $12.50.
Mark — I look forward to your response.
Yes, Annika, we will miss Julian, as I expect he will be missing the Mission as soon as he tires of second-rate political theater. Hopefully he will find the burgers in D.C. less treacherous than the lobbyists/government officials who populate that swamp.
I have to confess, writing about noodles is not what I had hoped for my “golden years.” As an unreconstructed carnivore, the noodles I grew up with either formed a context for meat sauce (and meatballs), or were the supporting cast in my grandmother’s (famous) chicken noodle soup.
Living in the Mission for close to 45 years (with time off for good behavior), I have been introduced to a stunning and seemingly infinite cross-cultural cornucopia in the preparation and serving of noodles.
And, as I hear screaming and gnashing of teeth among readers: Noodles are not just “noodles.” For starters, there’s udon and vermicelli, thin noodles, fat noodles, flat noodles, round noodles, pasta (we’ll get into that later), noodles made with rice flour and buckwheat flour, egg noodles, dried noodles and kansui noodles. Just to name a few.
It’s the ubiquity and diversity of noodles in the Mission today which sets the stage for “NoodleMania!”
I accepted your opening gambit and went to Mau for garlic noodles and phở bò.
Right off the bat, I wondered why anyone would order noodles for an appetizer if the main course also consisted of noodles?
Then I took a forkful of the garlic noodles.
The noodles practically jumped onto my fork and clung to it, not in a mass, but each with an irrepressible desire to be lifted clean up to my mouth and taken in. As noodles, they seemed to have the perfect consistency for a fork.
And, as I soon discovered, the perfect consistency for teeth. Not crunchy, not soggy, they gave my teeth something meaningful to do. Biting down, I could feel a noodle put up in initial resistance, then yield slowly with pleasure.
As the noodles clung to the fork, the garlic sauce clung to the noodles. There wasn’t a greasy lake at the bottom of the dish, as sauce and noodle had merged into one. Perhaps you are a garlic fiend, Annika, but too much of a good thing turns it bad. Mau’s cooks demonstrate admirable restraint. The noodles didn’t drown in garlic, but two complemented and caressed each other.
And surprisingly light! A perfect appetizer.
From the first spoonful of broth from the phở bò, I knew this phở was far superior to the phở I had grown accustomed to for lunch with co-workers in Chinatown.
Again, light. Again, restrained. Spicy (in the sense, not hot, but many spices), yes; flavorful, yes. But it wasn’t loud and abusive, and it hadn’t been sitting around in a big steel pot for hours, or days. It seemed to have been put together freshly for me, and appeared sincerely happy to serve my gastronomic needs.
I didn’t get, exactly, what the meat was up to. Carnivores take note: You will not be disappointed in either the portion or the taste. There was a mix of rare and well done beef and perhaps the rare was meant to cook in the broth. Maybe some of it did. Rare or well done, the beef was done well.
This was not a cut of beef swept off the slaughterhouse floor or pulled from a Costco freezer, but tenderly sliced and tasting as if recently donated by a happy cow in Bolinas.
Obviously, phở would not be phở without the noodles, a bone-white mass of thin vermicelli strands. If you get takeout, like I did, the noodles come in their own container (how special!), and must be dunked in the broth for a few minutes before they separate and come to life.
“Life” does not mean these noodles acted with the joy and elan of the garlic noodles, or even the tender pleasures of the beef. They became individuals, provided some visual stimulation, but remained in the background to such a degree it was as if they wanted to be remembered by being forgotten. And yes, even in their mass and multiplicity, they were easy to forget.
Other than the annoying skirmishes with either fork or spoon.
But, as reticent and insubstantial these noodles were individually, collectively their density provided the substance and signature for the dish.
Mau prepares its noodles with intelligence and its dishes with confidence, proving, once again, you don’t have to overwhelm to satisfy.