Annika, 20-something, and Mark, 70-something, are out to find the Mission’s most noteworthy noodles.
So today, we take on the Spice Jar. With a name like that, it’s hard not to be set up with certain expectations for the food. It should be spicy.
But back in my day Mark, the youth slung around that word differently than how you probably used it. Yes “spicy” referred to the heated sensation a food emanates. However, among adolescents, “spicy” more often described gossip or a particularly titillating story. Much like the comestible ingredient, a “spicy” development livens up an otherwise ordinary tale. Example: Pete Davidson dates Kim Kardashian. Eh. But Kanye West adding a rap verse declaring he’d beat Pete Davidson’s ass for dating Kim Kardashian? That’s spicy. (And, uh, worrying for Pete.)
I arrived at Spice Jar expecting spicy food in both senses: physically hot, and dynamic and interesting. The dizzying menu implied I’d get as much, with dishes alluding to a litany of spicy, flavorful ingredients.
An attentive and friendly waiter served me laksa, a soup of coconut curry broth, tofu, bean sprouts, cilantro and rice noodles. As advertised, I was immediately hit with a potent curry taste and a spice that built. So, first type of spicy, check. The soup itself, to use more slang, was thick. Like, the kind necessitating three Q’s. I don’t even know if you could characterize it as broth.
How about that second-definition spicy, the one promising a wow factor, an exciting thrill? Unfortunately after just a few spoonfuls, the laksa broth betrayed itself as monotonous and boring, like the Peanuts-teacher-voice version of soup. Wah wah. Its edible ensemble didn’t help. The laksa’s shrimp appeared to be the kind one might fish out from a cheap cafeteria salad, and tasted too salty. The tofu, braised and cubed, was chef’s kiss. All in all though, any distinctive flavor an individual ingredient offered was soon drowned out by the laksa’s overpowering broth. Yawn. My colleague later suggested sriracha would immensely improve the experience.
The other dishes fared better; Spice Jar offers pho, ramen, curry and seemingly any semi-Asian dish they could brainstorm, so I tried my family’s plates. My brother ordered the takoyaki (octopus balls) and ramen, each item eliciting a happy-dance in his seat. The restaurant perfectly seasoned the ramen noodles, and the pork slid off the fork. The gyoza appetizer was crispy perfection, and Spice Jar’s twist on garlic noodles (adding a brown sauce) proved successful and innovative.
Maybe that’s what happens when you unintentionally become the Cheesecake Factory of Asian cuisine. Surely, some dishes would naturally be executed better than others. And that’s the tea.
I spent the holiday watching the new miniseries Omicron Games, which I found a scintillating fusion of fear and good cheer. I won’t give away the ending, when the protagonist requests reimbursement for a rapid test from her insurance company. They say a sequel is already in the works.
Like the Spice Girls in Foster City, I also played word games growing up, though in a much blander ‘burb. “Spice,” was a word we used to signal something exotic, foreign or related to Marco Polo.
We never used the word “fusion.”
You may not know this, Annika, but The Spice Jar occupies a space in the Mission once known for its snooty alienation from the neighborhood. No more. Serving Asian fusion comfort food at somewhat reasonable prices, The Spice Jar has no reason to worry about boycotts or brawls with the neighbors. Now it’s a pleasant, stress-free corner for outside lunching on a warmish winter day.
As I still have trouble figuring out what “Asian fusion comfort food” actually means, I decided to keep my order simple: garlic noodles with beef. This choice would also facilitate comparison to other garlic noodle dishes that proliferate these days in the Mission.
First, the noodles had everything you wish for in a noodle: Firmness, flexibility, forkability and absorption. And there were plenty of them, piled high on the plate.
Whether the noodles absorbed the garlic sauce, or were thoroughly drowned in it, I am not competent to say. There is evidence for both views.
I found nothing subtle about the sauce. It commanded the dish with a patronizing assurance: hearty, thick, gingery and, yes, spicy! By which I mean hot. But not too hot. It didn’t burn, but radiated through the noodles, adding a sensation which complemented the deep, multi-flavored dish, savory with a slash of sweet.
Maybe too much sauce for some, but not for me. Like the noodles, I really got into it.
Scallion bits, sprinkled over and around, surprisingly held their own without imposing. Not only did they provide visual specks of green, but also a distinctive taste and ephemeral crunch when encountered by tongue and teeth.
Sad to say, the beef was a huge disappointment. There was a lot of it, but it tasted like a fusion of old, tired and tough. In a word: tasteless. As hope springs eternal in the human heart, I kept going back to it with great expectations. Alas.
An aftertaste of garlic sauce stayed with me on the way home. Not an oily or greasy residue, but something more subtle, more spiritually satisfying. Overall, a memorable encounter with a pile of delightful garlic noodles left me favorably impressed.
I would go back again. Next time, I’ll get the chicken.
The Spice Jar is located at 2500 Bryant St.