Annika, 20-something, and Mark, 70-something, are out to find the Mission’s most noteworthy noodles.
I know the pedantic “back in my day” attitude is more common among your, er, demographic, but I’ll admit I was a bit “get off my lawn” at first when Bao opened on Valencia Street.
You see, the dim sum of my childhood was more of a “Chinese elders and one white waiter pushing carts of tantalizing delicacies around your table” kinda deal. They’d peddle har gow and siu mai, and my grandma would cajole them to cut a piece of chashu with scissors. But like the soda-fountain pharmacy days of your past, Mark, that’s gotten less common. By the time I was a sarcastic teen, this practice had changed even among my family’s favorite restaurants. Now, one checks off items on a menu and they arrive on an uncovered plate. At Bao, the plate will be prettily and pricily assembled.
Seeing some wu gok decorated into swans did seem a bit sus. But hey, who cares if it’s “authentic,” fusion, Western cuisine, as long as it tastes good, right? At Bao, that’s definitely the case.
We met up there for lunch; I remember us “ooh”ing and “aah”ing at the serious-looking chefs behind the plexiglass as they handled the meat. That’s better than the usual Chinese restaurant view: A tank of unfortunate, live seafood. You decided, once we already got there, to order takeout to your house; I may never listen to an elder again. We got our food (in a Spongebob timecard voice) 50 minutes later. We ordered two noodle dishes: the Shanghai chicken fried noodle and the Sichuan string beans fried noodle, and split it family-style.
Both of us were amazed by the noodles’ size and shape, which was comparable to a straw. They seemed to be the same noodles in each, not too salty but flavorful, and distinguished only by the other ingredients and sauces. The Shanghai chicken was my favorite; the bite-sized chicken pieces were flavorful, and the onions, bell peppers and cabbage added dynamism with new textures.
The Sichuan string beans tasted awesome, too. They packed some heat for this spice-sensitive girl, but it nothing a glass of water couldn’t fix. My grandpa would be proud of those green beans: Long, bright, crunchy. They sang in the spicy sauce, like some thrilling high.
These dishes were not in the rotation of my family’s usual orders, Mark, but now they may have to be. Dim sum has changed a lot. So has the Mission. As we’ve discussed, so have you. But novelties, just as traditions, can bring comfort.
Bao and its fancier dim sum is just another example of change, and I have no qualms; you won’t find me inhabiting my front steps, yelling at the world in angst. Instead, I’ll pass by the happy eaters on Valencia and know they’re dining well. Sometime soon, I’ll be among them. Dining in.
Like many young, aspiring but inexperienced reporters, you miss the point.
And the point on the Noodle Desk is noodles.
People don’t click on NoodleMania for anecdotes, reminiscences and good writing.
They come for the noodles.
And, right off, I have to say, don’t go to Bao for noodles. Go for the bao, the dumplings: Boiled, steamed or pan fried. Go for the deep-fried spring rolls or the visually delightful swan puffs.
But don’t go for the noodles.
There are only three noodle dishes at Bao, and you have to dig to the bottom of the menu to find them (like looking for the facts in the New York Times). That should have been a clue.
During the time we waited, inside and out, standing and sitting, I never saw one noodle dish pass by. That should have been another clue.
The noodles were thick, relatively short and stocky. They had a crooked shape, reminiscent of Lombard Street without the slope. Stir-fried, they were decidedly doughy in taste and texture. They didn’t resist the sauce, but they didn’t welcome it and soak it all in either. They had a diffident, almost petulant, air about them.
And the chicken seemed the same: presentable, but bored. As if it had been sitting around the kitchen too long, waiting for something wild to happen. It is a common problem in restaurants when you’re not the main dish.
The string beans were much better. They had a distinctively green pop and crunch, possibly because they were undercooked, but definitely not overcooked. They maintained their identity while working with the other ingredients in a dignified, if not playful, manner.
But this is San Francisco, and if you’re looking for string beans, don’t go to Bao.
Livening things up a bit were the onion, bell peppers and cabbage stir-fried in, with a garlic oil sauce that was heavy on the oil, light on the sauce, and missing in quality and quantity. The string bean dish had some spice, which helped, but too little, too late.
Overall, both dishes reminded me of the Warriors these past couple weeks, playing without Draymond Green: inconsistent, unfocused, lacking purpose, heart and soul.
And $19 for a relatively modest plate of ho-hum noodles? We may be in the middle of a global pandemic, World War 3 and eye-watering inflation, but I find that over the top.
As a journalist, you should learn to take copious notes rather than rely on a faulty memory.