This Vietnamese-American dish of buttery noodles and lots of garlic is thought to be invented by the An family at Thanh Long, their restaurant in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district. It is not a dish from the classic repertoire of Vietnamese foods (where would common folks get all the butter and noodles?), yet it has found its way into Vietnamese crossover restaurants. The An family is super secretive about their recipes, particularly the noodles, which are cooked behind closed doors and comes out of a pass-through window to the wait staff. They own the Crustacean restaurants in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, and will be opening one in Palo Alto. All that secrecy has created lots of talk about what goes into those garlic noodles. In fact, the secrecy has garnered the An family and Crustacean restaurant lots of press.
Vietnamese-Americans old enough may recall a laden noodle dish made with western pasta, butter, garlic and Maggi Seasoning Sauce. I grew up on those nui Maggi (Vietnamese bastardization of French nouille) and included a recipe for it in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. But that robust rendition that called for searing the noodles a bit to amplify the meatiness of the Maggi Seasoning Sauce is considered old-fashioned these days as people gravitate toward the modern, richer, super garlicky version popularized by the An family.
When I went to Thanh Long restaurant in San Francisco a number of years ago, I sat at the bar and ordered the garlic noodles, which came out in a family-size heap. They were so buttery, oily rich and garlicky that I couldn’t finish them, even though I’m known to be quite porky when it comes to fatty foods. The bartender told me that he goes home after work reeking of garlic because so many orders of the noodles are served per night. I took the leftovers and they stank up my car and fridge. I woke up with garlic morning breath and threw out the takeout container. It’s not that they tasted bad, but rather were overwhelming. I didn’t like that kind of impact on my palate and since then, I’ve been pondering ways to lighten it without loosing decadence. I’ve long thought that the famous, secret recipe for garlic noodles is a riff on the Maggi noodle dish of my youth, but every time I tried to replicate it, it just wasn’t rich or velvety enough as the restaurant version.
Last Sunday night, I had an epiphany when preparing a Saveur magazine recipe for spaghetti with canned tuna. (It was an elegant alternative to boxed macaroni and cheese, our second choice.) It was super simple and delicious. More importantly, there was a nifty trick in the recipe that helped me to render an improved version of Vietnamese garlic noodles: use some of the thickish pasta cooking liquid to toss with the noodles.
Duh, I’d read about this technique for years but it never sunk in. The liquid, in combination with fat (olive oil or butter), becomes a light creamy sauce. For the garlic noodles, this created a soft richness that enrobed each strand of noodle. Who knows if that is the secret to the secretive garlic noodles but the results taste mighty good.
Vietnamese Garlic Noodles
To mash the garlic, use a garlic press or finely mince and then mash the garlic with the flat side of a knife. Mixing the garlic with water prevents it from cooking and browning too fast. If you like, stir in 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley before the final seasoning check of salt. To gild the lily, after pulling the noodles from the skillet, sear some peeled large or jumbo prawns and serve them atop the noodles. Garlic noodles with prawns is a very very popular dish on Vietnamese crossover restaurant menus. While developing this recipe last night, we ate it with meatloaf and summer squash.
Feel free to experiment. Some recipes online like Rasa Malaysia’s include oyster sauce and I’ve seen Yelp postings that call for a dash or two of nuoc mam fish sauce. I like Maggi Seasoning Sauce as it speaks to the blending of western and eastern ingredients that makes Vietnamese food beguiling. Try this recipe out, tinker with it, and share your insights!
Serves 4 as a side dish
10 ounces fresh or 8 ounces dried linguine pasta
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
Scant 1 tablespoon Maggi Seasoning Sauce
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons packed mashed fresh garlic mixed with 2 teaspoons water
Salt, kosher preferred, to taste
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender (go beyond normal, chewy al dente). Ladle out and reserve 1/2 cup of the slightly thick cooking liquid. Drain the pasta. Drain the pasta but do not flush it with water.
2. To the reserved cooking liquid, add the rice wine (or sherry) and Maggi Seasoning Sauce. Set aside near the stove.
3. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add the 1/4 cup butter. Once it has melted, add the garlic. Cook, stirring frequently for just 1 to 2 minutes, until softened, fragrant and just about to turn color. Add the reserved cooking liquid and stir to combine. When the mixture vigorously boils, raise the heat to high, then add the warm pasta.
Cook, stirring with tongs, until the sauce clings to the pasta and there is no liquid visible in the skillet. Remove from the heat, season with salt, and then stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to add a final rich note. Divide the noodles between 4 bowls and serve immediately.