Bun Mee in San Francisco

Bun Mee--San Francisc0 P1000471 P1000469On a visit to Sonoma this summer, we needed a quick bite before getting on the plane in San Francisco. So we wound our way through the city via Highway 1 in hopes of finding a parking place near the restaurant I had picked out for a quick lunch. We hit the jackpot and raced in.

For anyone in Kansas City who is reading this and has been looking for a can’t-miss restaurant to open, I offer you Bun Mee.

Bun Mee is a fast-casual restaurant that bills itself as a Vietnamese sandwich shop. It’s colorful, attractive and the food will knock your socks off. Diners order at a counter and then a server brings your food to the table…if you’re lucky enough to grab one.

The menu is simple. Almost a dozen sandwich fillings are offered, each with different toppings. Or you can have a noodle or rice bowl with many of those same toppings. If you want to play it safe there’s also a Grilled Chicken Salad or “Vietnamese” Caesar. Side salads and fun additions like sweet potato fries and egg rolls round out the selection.

I had the Grilled Kurobata Pork sandwich for a very reasonable $6.50. Layered on top was garlic aioli, shaved onion, pickled carrot & daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, and cilantro. The flavors danced in my mouth with every bite. A variation on that is the Braised Kurobuta pork belly with salted radish relish, shaved onion, pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, cilantro. I had opted for the “healthier” version, but my friend offered me a bite of hers and it was definitely worth getting. Amazing what a little fat adds to the equation!

Grilled flank steak with lime pepper aioli, lotus root relish, shaved onion, pickled carrot & daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, cilantro, and crispy shallots was another winner.

And since we had to try something other than a sandwich, and my husband never met a noodle he didn’t like, he ordered the Bun Noodle Bowl. It came with Vermicelli noodle, lettuce, pickled carrots, cucumbers, mint, cilantro, roasted peanuts, and crispy shallots served with a nuoc cham dipping sauce. He added tofu. It was a bit difficult to mix but worth the effort.Noodle Bowl--Bun Mee

Service was fast, and we had no trouble making our plane. Obviously anything would be better than picking up a sandwich at the airport, but this was a fun way to finish a wonderful week of indulging in food and wine.

Okay, all of you entrepreneurs in the country’s most entrepreneurial city, did I get anyone’s attention??!!

Bun Mee on Urbanspoon

Bo Ling’s on the Plaza

This summer, Bo Ling’s moved its flagship restaurant to a space on the Plaza worthy of its designation as the top dog in the chain.  It’s stunning in its contemporary and bold design. Taking up half of the Skelly building, the restaurant would almost feel cavernous if not for the well-divided dining room that includes cocktail seating, booths, and a full bar. There are two entrances, one on 47th St. and the other on Jefferson. There are also a few parking spots reserved for people dashing in for carryout.

This location has added a noodle bar; diners choose soba, udon, ramen or rice noodles, and then add  a protein and broth. It even sells gorgeous cakes, something one does not expect at a Chinese restaurant.

Most of the menu reads the same as the one at the old venue– presented notebook style, each page is laminated and full of photos to help diners make their selections. It’s huge, so plan on several visits to discover your favorites.

We started one evening with fabulous Sichuan dumplings bathed in a luxurious garlic-soy chili sauce. We also ordered spicy vegetable lo mein, a dish not on the menu, but one of my favorite dishes to request…and they are always happy to oblige.

I love any of the vegetables Sichuan style, but the long green beans are especially satisfying.

Yu Xiang Chicken has a little fiery pepper next to it, which indicates the dish will be spicy, but I found it to be pretty mild. But tasty, with chunks of fresh peppers and very tender chicken.

I didn’t love the Dan Dan noodles, but that’s just me. I realized the minute I took a bite that I had made the wrong choice, but only because I don’t like Chinese five spice, and it was clearly the dominant flavor in the noodle sauce.

If you are with a group, consider ordering the Beijing Roasted Duck. Typically served with Mu Shu style pancakes, Bo Ling’s tucks the duck pieces in steamed buns instead.

I’ve always found Bo Ling’s to be quite expensive for a Chinese restaurant. It still is, but now with its new decor and upscale ambiance, it feels a bit more justifiable.

Bo Lings on Urbanspoon

Sama Zama

Sama Zama, a new twist on owner Erika Koike’s now closed One Bite Grill in Overland Park, recently opened on Westport’s restaurant row. It’s on the same stretch of Westport Road that houses the Boot, Westport Cafe, Jerusalem Cafe and the Beer Kitchen, among others. Sama Zama is very clean, sleek and modern, and with white furniture and orange swirls on one wall, the only reminder that you are in Westport comes from an exposed brick wall.

Sama Zama means variety in Japanese, so you can expect some non-traditional offerings, rather than the typical Hibachi grill or sushi set-up. The emphasis here is on tapas and Okonomi-yaki, a Japanese-style grilled pizza. Okonomi-yaki resembles a doughy pancake that is topped with a fried egg, an assortment of toppings, and sweet and creamy sauces that Erika bottles and sells in the store and at grocery stores around town.

The menu has a large array of starters, many of which are fried. My favorite entreé was the ebi chili; tofu, shrimp and zucchini, stir-fried in a spicy tomato sauce. It sounded Italian on the menu, but tasting it you will find it to be distinctly Japanese. The asparagus in a garlic infused sauce was luscious–spooned over rice, it would be a wonderful meal. In fact,next time I would order a side of rice to make sure we don’t miss a drop of either sauce.

Udon noodles can be ordered with vegetables, shrimp, beef or chicken. Though properly toothsome, I thought they were a bit bland. The spicy ramen does have a kick. Big slices of fatty pork floated above the noodles, giving the broth an added dimension.

I really enjoyed our experience, and look forward to sampling the teriyaki bowl, gyoza, garlic green beans and even the fried rice, which I suspect will be a cut above what one finds in just about every Chinese restaurant. I do worry about the staying power of Sama Zama, because it’s never crowded when I walk by or when I’ve eaten there. But it deserves some attention and love–the food is fresh and enjoyable, the service efficient and friendly, and the owner is truly interested in delivering a quality experience to her clientele. She’s trying a new concept in Kansas City and we should embrace her efforts.

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Sama Zama on Urbanspoon

Shophouse Kitchen in Washington, DC

Shophouse Kitchen is the newest brainchild of Steve Ells, who founded the hugely successful Chipotle chain. He’s now taken the same formula (vessel, filling, toppings) and applied it to Southeast Asian cuisine. The prototype is in Washington, DC and though no expansion plans have yet been announced, I would be shocked if that’s not where this is headed.

The concept is oh so clever..and obvious. It begs the question of why no one has done this before. This is the natural progression of Ells’ original idea..and it works beautifully.

As with Chipotle, diners go through an assembly line and tell the server what they want at each step of the process. Bowls are filled with chilled rice noodles, brown or white rice, or lettuce. A bun for a Banh Mi sandwich is the non-bowl option.

Next you can add either grilled steak, chicken satay, organic tofu, or pork and chicken meatballs, all of which have been cooked with Asian spices.

Vegetable choices include spicy charred corn, asparagus, blistered green beans, or eggplant and Thai basil. If you want to try more than one vegetable, they’ll gladly give you two half-portions, or you can pay a little extra for multiple full portions.

Sauces include red curry, green curry or tamarind vinaigrette, the latter of which is presumably for a salad or to drizzle on a sandwich. The server warned us before ladling on the red curry that it was quite spicy, and she was right. I LOVE spicy food and, though this wasn’t too spicy for me, I think it would be for the majority of consumers. I had no need for one of the bottles of sriracha sauce that was so artfully displayed on the wall.

Pickled vegetables, papaya slaw and fresh herb salad add some crunch and, finally, you can complete the bowl with one of several toppings— toasted rice, crispy garlic, or crushed peanuts.

The restaurant itself is quite narrow so seating space is rather limited, but we found a seat without delay, as it was a Saturday and undoubtedly less crowded than during the week. We wasted no time digging in, albeit without chopsticks, which is the only thing that could have improved the overall experience. As my husband pointed out, every mouthful had different flavors and textures, and since the combination of ingredients is almost limitless, it’s practically inconceivable that boredom would ever set in even after multiple visits.

Steve Ells, if you are reading this–please come to Kansas City. Our residents have sophisticated and adventurous palates, and we would embrace your new venture wholeheartedly.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Nica’s 320

Nica’s 320 recently took over the old Shiraz space on Southwest Boulevard. The original Nica’s Cafe was out south before its owners negotiated for a bigger space in the Crossroads. Loaded with the same charm and a courtyard as Shiraz, Nica’s 320 looks like it’s been around forever.

The menu is quite unique. Diners devise their own dishes using potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, pasta, salad, pizza or a typical entree (steak, fish, chicken, scallops) as the basic platform. The “flavor choices” sound like a trip around the world–Thai, Caribbean, Cajun, French, and Italian, with Veghead and Ranchero rounding out the selections. Each style is described on the menu, and mixing and matching is encouraged. As an example, Nico’s noodles can be baked Margarita style with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil, and artichoke hearts; Ranchero with chorizo, corn, roasted peppers, candied jalapenos, Cajun with Andouille, shrimp, chicken, candied jalapenos and olive tapenade; or Veghead with candied pecans, spinach, roasted peppers and wild mushrooms. It looks like the menu is huge, but the same ingredients are used repeatedly.

In addition to trying the noodles, we had a grilled Caesar salad with a Thai Caesar vinaigrette. The dressing was fine, though I’m not sure I would have recognized it as being Thai. The Pupusa Medusa appetizer is Salvadoran in style, a cross between a tamale and a tortilla. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s going to be as authentic as what can be found at El Pulgarcito. The pupusa looked similar, but wasn’t as soft or fluffy, nor was the slaw topping as spicy.

We also ordered the 3 Stooges, an appetizer with three “tacos”. I use that term loosely, because they were unlike any tacos I’ve ever seen. There were three fillings–supposedly Cajun, Carnitas , and Thai chicken, served with sesame slaw and jerk salsa, though we were we were clearly eating steak and pineapple, not Andouille and shrimp, so we must have been given a Caribbean filling instead of the Cajun (but we liked it, so it wasn’t a big deal). In any event, they were served with three very thin and greasy tortillas that were so brittle there was no way to form a taco. The best we could do was break them into chips and add a bit of each filling on top. It’s a dish that clearly needs to be reworked (and maybe it has since that particular visit in October).

The restaurant is new, having only been open a few months, and it always takes time to get the kinks out, but it’s a fine effort and reasonably priced. I admire the creativity, but the dishes were a bit too contrived. Perhaps the other combinations will be more successful, certainly putting some of these ingredients in an omelette at breakfast, or in a sandwich at lunch is an appealing notion. And I’ve seen pictures of the beignets, housemade ice cream sandwiches and chocolate stuffed wonton, so I definitely will be going back for breakfast….and dessert.

Nica's 320 on Urbanspoon

Lulu’s Noodle Shop

Lulu’s Noodle Shop has been on the scene for years, but it recently moved around the corner from its old venue into a very cool retro space. It’s quite a bit larger than the original, which cuts down on  those pesky lunch lines, yet there are so many alcoves and nooks that it doesn’t feel cavernous.

After two visits, I’m still eager to return, though my food experience each time was mixed.

For the most part the menu is the same, though there’s now a “Street Food” section that is the focal point of Happy Hour. Crab cakes, egg rolls, crab rangoon, satay are among the offerings. We ordered corn cakes and vegetarian spring rolls.

When the corn cakes were placed before us, my first thought was that I had not thought to ask if  they would be fried, which they most definitely were. Though initially disappointed since I try to stay away from fried foods (except French fries, which I consider a completely separate food group), once I took a bite, I was a happy camper. Steaming hot, with chunks of corn in the filling, they were enhanced by the spicy sriracha aioli dipping sauce.

The Vietnamese spring rolls were fairly typical, but rather than a sweet red chili sauce, they were accompanied by a yellow tinged, coconut milk-based sauce that was billed as peanut sauce.

Of the entrees we sampled, the Khun Ma Pad Thai was superior. In fact, it has surpassed the Thai Place’s Pad Thai as my  favorite noodle dish of the moment (I know I need to try Hot Basil, which many people rave about).  Khun Ma Pad Thai is a bit sweeter, but we ordered it hot, and that provided a nice contrast.

Thai curry traditionally uses coconut milk  as a base in addition to curry paste and spices , but the red curry that we ordered at Lulu’s was too heavy on the coconut milk for all of us.

On another visit, we started with lettuce wraps. Not as good as PF Chang’s, but they were hefty and healthy.

I also ordered Drunken Noodles, one of my favorite selections at the original restaurant. This  time the sauce was not as rich or flavorful as I remembered, though it still had plenty of fresh vegetables tossed in with the wide rice noodles. I’m hoping it was an aberration–I’ll definitely try it again.

The menu at Lulu’s is large and has a number of interesting dishes that you don’t  find everywhere. I suspect it’s one of those places where you go a few times, find your favorites and then stick with them.

The cocktail list is extensive and will especially appeal to those who love infused drinks. We sampled a very tasty Bloody Mary with sriracha sauce instead of the usual tabasco.

If you carry out on a regular basis, consider buying one of Lulu’s new pinto pails. Designed primarily to cut down on waste, these steel boxes will also keep food hot up to an hour. Patrons pay a one time fee of $30, and then  receive each carry out order  in a clean and sanitized pinto. Here’s hoping that other Asian restaurants  that do a large carry out business will consider following suit. It’s an eco-friendly idea that deserves to be replicated, and owner Malisa Monyakula should be applauded for her efforts.

Lulu's Noodle Shop & Satay Bar on Urbanspoon