Zen Yai, Smitten, Tosca Cafe (San Francisco: Day Four, Part Two)
I am in San Francisco this week for WWDC (Apple‘s Worldwide Developers Conference). I found out a few months ago I’d be able to attend, so of course, I made a list and asked for advice beforehand. Now that I’m here, I plan on posting a report as quickly as possible for each day, to stave off procrastination. My report for “San Francisco: Day Four, Part Two” (Wednesday June 4, 2014) is as follows:
For lunch on Wednesday, I decided to head back out to the Tenderloin, since it’s a quick round trip. I wanted to try Hải Ký Mì Gia, but I made the cardinal sin of not checking hours, and it turned out to be closed on Wednesdays. Undeterred, I turned to my list and was able to cross off another spot just a half block away.
I had only gotten on the Thai Boat… uh, boat recently. It’s surprising, even to me, since this noodle soup is thickened with blood and comes with offal, both firmly in my wheelhouse, so to speak. I think it’s because the dish isn’t usually found outside immigrant enclaves (unlike pho), and I had only started exploring Thai Town in L.A. in the last few years, that I didn’t come across it sooner in my life.
Thai boat noodles are not found on Zen Yai’s regular menu. Instead, they are on the Specials chalkboard, and only in Thai. Thanks to the Internets, I knew they offered this dish, and in two sizes: a small at an affordable $2.50, and a large at the still affordable $6.95 (if I recall correctly). Of course, I opted for the latter. The bowl came quick, and I dug in. The waiter did not ask how spicy I wanted my order, but it came out with a good level of heat. The broth was dark and sweet, but not too sweet. The pork liver was tender, not overcooked. The pork rinds were a little stale, but I was dunking them in the broth anyway.
The bowl had a few surprises, all good. First, I don’t know how they did it, but the slices of pork were incredibly tender. Second, underneath the noodles, which were on the thinner side but held up well, was a layer of morning glory, which I’ve of course encountered in Thai cuisine, but never in boat noodles. At first I thought it was just filler, but the vegetables worked really well, bringing balance to the dish. I really enjoyed them.
This will probably be controversial, but I liked this bowl of boat noodles better than what I’ve had at Sapp Coffee Shop and Pa Ord in Thai Town in L.A. The caveat is that, as I’ve stated, I’m relatively new to boat noodles. I’ve only had it once at Pa Ord, where I found the broth too sweet. I’ve had it a few times at Sapp, and they’ve been great, but Zen Yai’s had better meat, and the addition of morning glory really worked for me (maybe I could request they add it at Sapp)! Of course, it’s possible that I just happen to hit Zen Yai on one of their better days, but if their boat noodles are normally this good, I do have to say they’re my favorite!
After returning to the conference for a bit (I love the Muni; even with a “sickout” I was out and back in a little over an hour), I ventured back out for some dessert. I hit Xanath (see Part One) and decided to follow up with…
I didn’t really know what the deal was with Smitten, that they make each serving to-order, so I went up and ask for a sample and was promptly, but politely, shot down. The flavors that they had were Salted Caramel, TCHO 60.5% Chocolate, Classic Vanilla, and a seasonal flavor. Since I couldn’t sample, I decided to go with the most exotic flavor, the seasonal Olive Oil with Lavender Shortbread. After a few moments where I thought I was in some mad scientist lab, with things whirring and liquid nitrogen clouds billowing, I was served a perfect scoop of ice cream.
The good news is that the texture of the ice cream was incredible, smoother than silk, and the lavender sea salt shortbread cookies mixed in it were great. The bad news is that I realized I don’t like olive oil ice cream. I’ve had it at Sweet Rose Creamery, and now at Smitten, and neither place skimps on the olive oil in their recipes. Unfortunately, they just taste to me like I’m eating a cold, olive oil-based buttery spread, and the ultra-smooth texture of Smitten’s just exacerbated that. Not their fault, but next time I’ll go with a different flavor.
Having a few hours to kill before my 9 PM reservation at State Bird Provisions, I decided to augment my offal consumption this trip with a quick snack at…
You San Franciscans must really love your hearts. Of course, Tony Bennett famously left his here. Unfortunately, others have been eating your restaurants’ heart out… of stock! From the tuna hearts at Porcellino and La Ciccia, to Tosca Cafe running out of one of the two dishes I really wanted to try: Chicken Hearts, with asparagus, butter lettuce, and chili agrodolce.
Fortunately, another chicken organ was available, in the form of Chicken Liver Spiedini (skewers), with Marsala, balsamic, and salsa verde. I started off with this dish, and it was quite good, with a nice grilled flavor on the outside, but the inside was still pink and had a creamy texture.
Next, I ordered Moscardini, which is, according to some light Googling, apparently a species of octopus called the musky octopus. The waiter said it was baby octopus, but it was bigger than the baby octopus I had at La Ciccia the night before. Now, I won’t compare the two octopus dishes; that wouldn’t be fair. The moscardini here is more like a snack, served cold with a tart marinade or dressing. Since it was bigger, it wasn’t super tender, but it still hit the spot.
My last snack at Tosca was the headliner, the reason I had wanted to come here in the first place: Fried Pig Tails. I had had them in L.A. at Animal, Spice Table, Tar & Roses, and Night+Market. All of these places are known for their pig tails, but Tosca’s could definitely hold its own. The tail was very simply prepared, cut into manageable pieces and deep fried to a golden crisp. The pieces were lightly seasoned with bay leaf powder and star anise, which gave it an Asian flare, at least in my opinion. The bay leaf powder kind of reminded me of matcha powder, and the star anise evoked five-spice powder. I highly recommend this dish!
Onto Day Four, Part Three!
771 Ellis St
San Francisco, CA 94109
432 Octavia St
San Francisco, CA 94102
242 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133