These Garlic Noodles Cross Cultures, But Are Deeply San Franciscan
Garlic noodles are not San Francisco’s treat. It would be Rice-A-Roni, but the garlic noodles are a San Francisco treat and worth making for yourself.
I love Vietnamese food and have spent time traveling the country, but had never heard of garlic noodles until I moved to the Bay Area. And that’s because they are not Vietnamese: they are Americans of Vietnamese origin, created in San Francisco by Helene An at the Thanh Long restaurant.
Born into the aristocracy outside Hanoi, Ms An and her Trans family fled North Vietnam in 1955 and resettled in the South Vietnamese city of Dalat. In 1975, she was again forced to flee, this time with her husband and three daughters. They eventually settled penniless in San Francisco, where they took up residence with Mrs. An’s mother-in-law, Diana, who ran a small grocery store she had purchased in the Outer Sunset neighborhood in 1968. .
Thanh Long’s exact story is a bit muddy. In interviews, Mrs An’s daughter Elizabeth says her grandmother Diane’s delicatessen was Italian when her mother and family arrived in 1975, but an old poster, announcing its opening date as July 1, 1971 , called it the “West Coast’s first authentic Vietnamese restaurant.” On that opening menu, there’s baked crab — probably the same baked Dungeness crab that’s served today — but the noodles are not there yet.
In any case, Ms. An, who had experience with Chinese and French cuisines, felt the restaurant would have more success by eschewing authenticity in favor of dishes designed specifically to appeal to the local clientele. After a trip to an Italian restaurant in Nob Hill, where she was served a disappointingly bland bowl of garlic spaghetti, Ms. An created Thanh Long’s famous garlic noodles, a potent concoction flavored with handfuls of garlic and a number of secret ingredients that my taste buds (and most recipes imitate) suggest fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, lots of butter and a handful of parmesan cheese. It’s an umami party, and all the big names are invited.
Since then, the An family has built a restaurant empire in San Francisco and Los Angeles out of those noodles, and it’s easy to see why.
I first got them in 2014, almost 40 years after they were created. I had recently moved to the Mission District of San Francisco and had been invited to dinner by a friend. Me, not understanding the intricacies of San Francisco weather, set off on a hot summer afternoon, riding my friend’s little black Vespa from the Mission to the Outer Sunset, through the streets and winding hills of San Francisco, with nothing but a T-shirt. By the time we finished our fourth bowl of noodles, the thick San Francisco fog had set in and the temperature had dropped into the low 50s. By the time I got home, soaked and shivering, the only thing I could think about was remembering my jacket the next time I went back.
The Outer Sunset is a long way from where I live now, and the many trips I’ve made since to return to the restaurant have all been accompanied by long waits to snag a table. Luckily, over the years, I’ve come up with my own recipe, inspired by Mrs. An’s original, tailored to my own preferences. I start by crushing fresh garlic cloves in a mortar and pestle, then gently sweating them in butter in my wok. Once the garlic loses its bite and begins to develop a chewy sweetness, I add the triple threat umami of soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce. Meanwhile, I cook my spaghetti in a large skillet on another burner.
I did say spaghetti, and I did say skillet.
Although Thanh Long noodles are tender fresh wheat noodles, I actually prefer to use dried Italian spaghetti for this dish, cooking it just under al dente and finishing it in the pan with the garlic sauce , plus a nod to his Italian origins. While many books would have you believe that it takes a vigorously boiling pot of water to cook pasta, I prefer to cook it in a much smaller volume. It makes no difference to the pasta’s ability to hold a nice al dente bite. (In blind taste tests, tasters, even expert tasters, can’t tell the difference between spaghetti cooked in a large pot and in a skillet with a few inches of water.) And it does offer some benefits. . The first is that it’s faster: you don’t have to wait for a large pot of water to come to a boil. It also uses less water, which I’m especially aware of when cooking in California. Finally, it improves the way the sauce clings to the pasta.
When I worked at an Italian restaurant, we had a 15-gallon gas-powered pasta maker that could boil six batches of fresh pasta at a time. To finish off a plate of pasta, we add the cooked pasta to a pan with some sauce, then pour some pasta water into the pan before heating it vigorously. The starchy pasta water would help the sauce emulsify. The pasta water sauce is creamy, emulsified and light. Pasta sauce without water comes out greasy and broken and has a hard time sticking to pasta. Over night, as the water in the machine became more and more starchy, the dishes we sent to customers gradually improved – the more starchy the pasta water, the better it stuck the sauce.
At home I don’t use the same pasta water over and over again for dozens of servings of pasta, but using a smaller volume of water to cook dried pasta has about the same effect, creating a water pasta with a more concentrated starch content.
When my spaghetti is barely al dente (usually 2 minutes less than the recommended cook time on the package), I transfer it to the wok with a pair of tongs, along with the starchy liquid clinging to it, grater in my cheese and stir vigorously on the highest heat my hob can muster until the noodles are cooked through and the liquid has reduced into a creamy garlic sauce you’ll want to eat at the spoonful.
This article is an excerpt from “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” by J. Kenji López-Alt (WW Norton & Company, 2022).
Recipe: Vietnamese American Garlic Noodles San Francisco Style
And to drink …
For a taste of pairing wines with Vietnamese dishes, look no further than the Angled Door. The San Francisco restaurant, which has yet to reopen after the pandemic, offers a carefully chosen menu dominated by white wines with incisive acidity, relatively low alcohol levels and little oak flavor. It has a wonderful selection of Riesling, mainly from Germany and Austria, both dry and sweet. But it has plenty of other aromatic, plant-based whites, like grüner veltliner and sauvignon blanc, that will slice through the zesty, powerful flavors of this dish. Sparkling wines are also a great option, whether it’s champagne, cava or natural sparkling. If you prefer a red, look for fresh wines, like Beaujolais or easy-going Cabernet Francs from the Loire. ERIC ASIMOV