Nong Shim Udon Japanese Style Noodle Soup

I used to review instant-noodle soups a lot (the site where I did might still be live out there), and now that I have a centralized review/log blog, I figured I might as well start doing it here as well. With winter coming on, it’s a good time to start stocking noodles in the office, so I picked up a 12-pack of these (I always buy in bulk) at the Oriental Market in Lynnview.

Subjective snapshot

Quality: 4.0/5 stars
Spiciness: 0/5 chilis

Review

It’s worth noticing that Nong Shim actually has two noodle-cup products billed as “Udon Noodle Soup”. This is the simpler and cheaper of the two; in particular, it doesn’t actually contain udon noodles, but simply a thicker version of the usual instant-ramen instant noodles. It’s still quite accomplished and partially justifies its relatively high price point, with a strong, savory dashi broth enlivened by seaweed strips and small fish cakes (there are also some disappointingly hard age squares, for which “enlivened” might not be the right word) The noodles are nicely springy and stand up to reconstitution well, and are generous enough in bulk and absorbancy that they never seem to be swimming in too much broth. The seaweed tended to congregate at the bottom, but if you stir a bit between bites that’s easily enough averted.I confess, I balked a bit at the price, and still do even after eating it, because north of $1.25 is pretty princely territory for a noodle-cup, but in fairness this is an awfully good exemplar of its class. It’s not really udon, to their discredit; although it has almost all the requisite elements of a kitsune udon, a soup isn’t actually udon unless it has, y’know, udon noodles. Other than the noodle-choice-of-convenience, though, this is awfully satisfactory. Read more of this post

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 4 of an onging series): Return to Annie Cafe

I’ve moved from collective writeups to individual ones, so I can push stuff out while it’s still fresh in my mind. Today I thought, “It has been too long since I had a bánh mì, and Saigon One is showing no sign of opening. I’m off to Iroquois.” Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to synchronize well with a #4 bus, and I wasn’t feeling terribly athletic, so I elected not to go to Cafe Thuy Van, the great mystery on National Turnpike. Instead, I returned to Annie Cafe. For a change of pace I got a thịt (or something like it. They asked whether I wanted “pork” or “traditional”; I chose “traditional”. Pork was probably a thịt nướng). Also for a change of pace, I got take-out, so my impressions here are based on having ridden with it in my pannier for 10 minutes and then eating it.

[Photo of a sandwich from Annie Cafe]As mentioned previously, Annie Cafe (308 West Woodlawn Avenue) is the northernmost of the Iroquois cluster of Vietnamese eateries; it’s not incredibly elegant, but it’s among the least expensive of the sit-down places and generally does right by their culture, with a good solid Vietnamese menu and a considerably shorter list of Chinese lunch specials.

This sandwich, as can be seen in the photo, had a narrow cut down the top and was stuffed rather than being spread open and filled. The organization of the filling seems not to have suffered from the design, although it is atypical. The bread unfortunately seemed a bit less robust than I expect; the crust was softer than expected, and the roll actually started to tear where I had placed my thumbs while grasping it. Some of this may come from traveling instead of eating it immediately.

Today’s sandwich was very heavy on cilantro, which perhaps could’ve been chopped finer, since the early bites pulled whole stems out from the sandwich. The quantity of the cilantro might have been a bit heavy for those who don’t like it as much as I do. The daikon and carrots, by contrast, were used in just the right quantity, and seem to have been sprinkled with pepper for an added kick. Cucumber spears added a soothingly cool and refreshing crunch, and were wide enough to contribute materially to the texture; the cold cuts included an excellent and meaty sliced pork, and a more workmanlike chả lụa. The sweet fish sauce was quite conspicuous throughout the sandwich and may have rendered the whole a mite sweeter than I’d usually go with. The mayo was sufficient but was unevenly distributed, which may be a hazard of the cut used.

This is a surprising departure from my previous Annie experience, which had a more robust baguette, but also bulked up the body of the sandwich with lettuce. Some of this might be a bì vs. thịt issue, or a takeout vs. sit-down, but it’s entirely possible that they reinvent themselves and their concept of the bánh mì every day; more news as I investigate further!

METAPOST: Publicity old and new

A couple of things which fell by the wayside in discussing the local Viet sandwich scene: first, some old news, which I didn’t write about at the time partially because I was out of town. Remember back when I went out to get a hot dog at Morel’s when they came to my neighborhood? I didn’t mention at the time that I also ran into my acquaintance Erin Keane and a photographer who was apparently John Rott, according to the credit I later saw. Erin was writing about food trucks and interviewed me, whereupon I ranted for roughly 10 minutes about bánh mì and food trucks. She was writing an article for the Courier-Journal, which was on the front cover on June 21 — to my astonishment, with a photo of me. She wisely opted not to quote my lunatic goings-on in the C-J, but in the more freewheeling Velocity article that ran the same week, they posted both the photo and a short snippet of my babble:

[Article from the Velocity alt-insert]

Gannett fired everyone shortly thereafter and turned the Velocity into an insignificant section of the paper, so this was sort of the last gasp of a section of the C-J that does this (now we have to rely solely on the LEO, with which Erin sometimes freelances).

In other publicity news, I recently gave this blog a shameless promotion over at the Louisville Hot Bytes forums, so hello to anyone who’s stuck around and added this to their feed! Word of warning: it’s not all bánh mì all the time. Sometimes it’s Hungarian cinema or obscure comic books or suchlike.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 3 of an onging series): Ramsi’s, DaLat’s, Heart and Soy

Seven reviews have already appeared in the previous installments of this series (part 1 and part 2). I’m back in Louisville now (see my adventures in Boston here), and reviewing local establishments again. I’d been holding this one back pending a few additional expeditions, but it might be a while before I get an opportunity to finish those up, so I’ll just push these out and save the remaining projects for another post.

I started out my return to local fare by going out to dinner with Shannon at a Highlands institution, the pan-ethnic Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, which has added something they call bánh mì to their menu (either as a summer seasonal element or as a mainstay sandwich; not sure which). Some time later I realized I needed to continue my exploration of Iroquois, and decided to check the bakery DaLat’s off my list. That same day I received the news of a new Highlands east-Asian vegetarian street-food shop, Heart and Soy, and added them to the list when I next has a good excuse to be in the Highlands.

[Photo of a sandwich from Ramsi's]Ramsi’s Café on the World (1293 Bardstown Road) is a well-beloved institution across from the Mid-City Mall. I think it’s appreciated chiefly for its late hours and for its American-friendly interpretation of international fare; it’s a way to go out for something unusual without straying outside your comfort zone. Two things could be certain, going in: the sandwich I got here would be less authentic, and more expensive, than at any real Vietnamese sandwich shop. I’d sort of pegged it as likely less real than Cafe Mimosa, more real than Zanzabar.. At $10.50, this was my most expensive bánh mì yet, and it took about 25 or so minutes to come out, which is the longest wait I’ve ever had for one.

To my surprise (which probably shouldn’t have been the case if I’d read the menu more closely) this was even further from the real thing than Zanzabar’s foray. Strike one was the meat, which was a braised brisket; braised and stew meats are vanishingly uncommon, since whether the meat is beef, chicken, or pork, it’s usually either roasted or grilled. Another obvious departure was in the vegetable fixings: no carrot, daikon, cilantro, or onion; what cucumber did appear was in the shape of thin rounds instead of spears, which didn’t impart the crunch which is a requisite part of the Vietnamese sandwich experience. In a departure which was additive instead of subtractive, the sandwich was adorned with basil, which unfortunately either had been sitting around too long or had wilted on contact with the fresh-stewed beef.

Now we get to the details of the mayo and bread. The bread had the right crunch and sponginess on the interior, but there was altogether too much of it; the shape was more bâtard than baguette and there was enough bread in each bite to make it a bit of a chore to work through. The mayonnaise didn’t taste of fish sauce (although fish sauce is a subtle flavor that could easily get lost in the mix), but it was really quite spicy, more so than I think of as the usual spice level of a bánh mì, even when festooned with hot peppers.

There were aspects of this sandwich which were pleasing. The braised beef was an interesting departure, and its higher moisture level meant that there was no danger that this sandwich would be too dry; likewise, the bread was the right crispness if the wrong shape. However, elements which were disappointingly inauthentic (such as the missing veggies) or ill-conceived (such as the sandwich’s overall balance) outweighed the promising elements, and I can’t really recommend Ramsi’s take. If you end up at Ramsi’s and feel like a sandwich, you could probably do worse than the bánh mì, but if you’re out actively seeking tasty and interesting variants on the Vietnamese sandwich, then you might want to seek elsewhere.

[Photo of the sandwich display at DaLat's]
[Photo of a sandwich from DaLat's]

DaLat’s Gateaux and Café (6915 Southside Drive) moved into a location formerly occupied by Coco’s, which was also a Vietnamese bakery. I hadn’t even been inside it until now, and I maybe picked the wrong time to come around, since it was under construction and the main dining room was unusually chaotic and dusty. However, it’s a nice space, with glass cases absolutely full of Vietnamese and French pastries and delicacies. One case, though, was full of not-quite-prefabricated bánh mì, as seen to the left. Your $3.00 will get you a baguette and separately packaged fixings; since I indicated a desire to sit down and eat my lunch there, the counterworker toasted and assembled it herself. Exactly which varieties of sandwich they have aren’t clear: I wasn’t asked which kind I wanted, and ended up with a classic cold-cut thịt variant, and in two different places they listed two different sets of selections. Certainly they have a thịt and a xiu mại, and they might have other fillings besides those two, but their specialty is really in cold meats. Here you can also round out your meal with a coffee, a bubble tea, and a stunning variety of pastries: I added on a bacon onion bun for $1.75, and received a complimentary iced tea (which was nice but unnecessary). Service was prompt, friendly, and marked by limited English; my server enlisted the assistance of two customers to warn me that the sandwich had hot peppers.

The DaLat sandwich was notably on fairly robust bread; it was sliced open and toasted while I watched; were I to simply make my own sandwich from the packaged form this would in fact be under my control. It had a satisfactory crispness on the outside and firm but yielding interior. Visual inspection was mostly encouraging: reasonably generous slices of two varieties of meat were tucked under a satisfactory bed of cilantro and sparing but sufficient hot peppers. Visually I couldn’t identify other veggies, but they were there. Taking a bite into the sandwich gave a better idea of the balance: the cilantro and previously unseen cucumber and carrot provided the necessary freshness, although the daikon wasn’t really detectable, if present at all. The meat exceeded its original promise, seeming to be standard cold-cuts; the redder slices turned out to be pleasantly fibrous pieces of roast pork which were richly flavorful, and the paler items were a nice if not superlative ham. However, the most unusually assertive element of the whole was the mayonnaise. The mayo wasn’t oversweet, steering clear of the dangerously cloying territory the mayo-heavy sandwiches have sometimes fallen into, so the thick creaminess wasn’t too amiss, flavor-balance-wise, although it was a bit distracting from the sandwich’s more subtle elements. In deference to the attribute unambiguously improved by the generous mayo, the sandwich was far from falling into the trap of being too dry, and the mayo was thick enough and the preparation fresh enough that the moisture didn’t ruin the bread’s texture either.

[Photo of a sandwich from Heart & Soy]Heart & Soy (1216 Bardstown Road) is a quite new vegetarian eatery with a pan-East-Asian menu with a Southeastern emphasis. It focuses on unpretentious single-dish fare, while its conjoined twin, a restaurant called Roots, focuses on artisanal small plates. As the name implies, they’re big on soy, and in a glass-screened area in the back, several industrial machines can be seen actually producing their own in-house tofu. With their southeast Asian simple food emphasis, it’s not a surprise that they have a bánh mì (but only one variety, a tofu variant). $5 plus tax gets you a sandwich, and there are a number of other options as well in the $2-$8 range. It was prepared quickly, and came out in about 6 or 7 minutes.

Heart & Soy’s bánh mì is a pretty honest one, despite my usual trepidation about non-exclusively-Vietnamese places as sources. It’s a bit light on cilantro, but not deal-breakingly so. Their baguette is nicely crusted, with a good snap but not overcrispiness. They diverge notably from the formula with prominent lettuce (last seen at Annie Cafe), and fresh raw onions (where pickled onions or diced scallions are more the norm), but neither of these divergences has a deleterious effect on the overall character of the sandwich. I don’t normally have the tofu variants, so I was concerned from a textural standpoint about how a soft and non-meaty protein would work, but as their tofu focus suggests, Heart & Soy knows their stuff when it comes to making a savory and texturally satisfactory soy product. It didn’t resemble meat at all, of course, but it was firm and had a slightly fibrous texture which fundamentally worked, and it was nicely marinated in something fish-sauce-like (possibly actual fish sauce; the sandwich is not marked as vegan). The daikon and carrots were generously provided, although cuke was a bit sparse and wasn’t providing much crispness, so on balance the sandwich felt very much like it got the right tones: cilantro for summer freshness, carrot, daikon, onions and lettuce as crunchy elements (and with the lettuce and raw onion, the lapse on the cucumber front is forgivable), a flavorful protein standing in for the meat, and just the right quantities of fish sauce and mayo to keep the moisture balance right. Tofu isn’t my preferred sandwich protein, but Heart & Soy is definitely doing a respectable and respectful rendition here.

I’m running out of institutions to visit at this point (although I’m open to suggestions!). Currently on deck for research: Cafe Thuy Van (which may or may not serve a bánh mì), NamNam Cafe (for when I drag my ass out to St. Matthews), and Saigon One (which isn’t yet open, and which may not have a bánh mì). I’m open to other suggestions, particularly if there are Asian groceries with a deli counter other than Dong Phuong.