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A Tangled Web He Weaves
With the Vietnamese Noodle
By Mark Bittman

Charles Phan, the owner of the Slanted Door in San Francisco, may have the most successful Asian restaurant on the West Coast and a paradigm for upscale Asian restaurants in general, but his goal was originally far more modest.

"My first idea," he recalled, going back about 10 years to when he began to consider running a restaurant, "was to open a shop that would make Vietnamese rice flour crepes, in the Tenderloin," one of the few central San Francisco neighborhoods that remain ungentrified, home to dozens of small Vietnamese food shops.

"By then, there were already plenty of noodle houses, so I thought I'd try something different maybe nothing more than a stall. But I couldn't find the right location, and finally I took the space on Valencia where we built the Slanted Door." It turned out to be about as far from a crepe stall as you could get and still be called a Vietnamese restaurant. Even today, Mr. Phan talks about opening a noodle shop, and now that he has moved the Slanted Door into its gleaming new space in the city's historic and just-rehabilitated Ferry Building, something simpler is indeed possible at the Valencia Street location.

Although one often hears top chefs pining for the days when things were simpler (could it be that the most profitable food is not the most fun to cook or eat?), Mr. Phan has managed to scatter a little of the spirit and some of the dishes of the Southeast Asian food stall throughout the new incarnation of the Slanted Door.

It is clear that Mr. Phan's heart lies in the food of his childhood. When I first met him, he offered me a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese staple of deep, rich-flavored broth laden with noodles, herbs, and in this instance, Niman Ranch beef, something you do not get in Tenderloin district pho shops.

The Slanted Door's menu may feature glorified, even Americanized versions of many Vietnamese dishes, and it may pride itself on using the holy trio of California produce organic, local and seasonal but there are humble noodles gracing dishes all over the menu, including imperial spring rolls and chicken salad.

In addition, of course, there are specific noodle dishes. Some of them are based on the familiar wheat or egg-and-wheat noodles, but more interesting are those with rice or glass noodles (sometimes called cellophane noodles), which are made from mung bean flour.

Each of those is handled differently from wheat noodles. While wheat noodles (which are pretty much the same, whether from Italy or China) must be boiled until tender, rice and glass noodles can simply be soaked or soaked and briefly dipped in boiling water before stir-frying. The technique is different, and so are the results: cooked rice noodles are pleasingly spongy, and cooked glass noodles have an unusual resilience that is almost rubbery.

Mr. Phan works wonders with both, using them to support dry "sauces" of mostly solid ingredients, in contrast to the relatively wet pasta dishes one associates with Italy. I especially love his glass noodle and Dungeness crab stir-fry, an unusual twist on the old "ants climbing tree," which showcases pork in a similar preparation. And his stir-fried rice noodles with chicken and vegetables is a quintessential stir-fry that can be varied in near-infinite ways.

Though both are simple and straightforward, because they are stir-fried they must be prepared in relatively small quantities. Most of the problems home cooks encounter with stir-fried noodles can be traced to overloading the skillet or wok: if you begin with a pound of noodles, then boil them, you are trying to stir-fry two pounds (by weight) of noodles with probably a pound of flavorings, which is practically impossible.

As Mr. Phan demonstrated to me, the key to success is to begin with just a few ounces of noodles, which will yield two or, at the most, four servings, rather than the six or eight you would get with a pound of pasta. This gives you a quantity you can toss, shake and stir in the skillet or wok, and you need a lot of motion to mix noodles and flavorings together adequately. Thinking small also makes these dishes ideal for quick weeknight meals for couples or small families.

Recipe: Glass Noodles With Crab
Recipe: Rice Noodles With Chicken


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