Boat Noodles and the Secret Menu at Zen Yai

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Camila McHugh
Guay Tiew Yum

The menu at Zen Yai Thai Restaurant has a long menu of noodles and curries with careful English translations, but no one is ordering off it. 

Recently, we walked in for a late lunch, leaving the streets of Little Saigon and entering a room filled with Thai chatter and people slurping from little bowls. A piece of paper taped to a back wall reads "Boat Noodles, $2.50 each." Most people have two or three bowls in front of them and we are eager to follow suit. I decide to start with one bowl and in my best tonal Thai, I order Guay Tiew Ruew (Guay Tiew means noodle and Ruew means boat.) My Thai friend helps me specify that I don't want any liver on mine. 

This is my first time trying boat noodles, and it is something I had to wrap my mind around. This Thai specialty tends to make people squeamish because the broth is made with blood. If you can get over this, trust me, you'll thank yourself you did. 


Thai food is meant to be served in small portions, so the Thai, who are amongst the world's most enthusiastic eaters, can not only savor each flavor, but also so they can continue eating throughout the day. 
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Camila McHugh
Guay Tiew Ruew
Though a big bowl of boat noodles is available, everyone orders multiple bowls so you can have the satisfaction of finishing a bowl and craving another one. I am still dubious when my bowl arrives. A reddish black broth covers the chewy rice noodles hidden underneath and morning glory spinach, some strips of pork meat speckled with chile peppers, a mysterious white meatball and some pieces of pork rind float in the broth. I imitate my neighbors who use the soup spoon to stir the bowl a bit and then, maneuvering a bit of broth, noodle and meat into the spoon, take a bite. It was, in short, worth the hype. The taste is almost familiar, but I find I can't quite place it. It has something of the meatiness of Pho, but is thicker and muskier. There's a hint of something akin to five spice and with each bite the flavor seems to grow. I get a crunch of pork rind and reach for a Thai iced tea when a spicy bite sneaks up on me. If this is an acquired taste, consider me convinced on bite number three. Thai people often describe the craving for boat noodles as unlike any other. As I order up another round of Guay Tiew Ruew, I think I understand. 

For the faint of heart in our group who refuse to budge on their no blood attitude, we order a few other dishes. Two bowls of boat noodles deep, another little bowl of thin and slippery noodles, Guay Tiew Yum, steals my heart again. In Thai, Yum means when you mix all kinds of sauces together for a flavor that is, hot, sweet and sour. In this case, they mix fish sauce, chili powder, crushed peanuts, sugar and lime juice. Guay Tiew Yum used to only be on the special secret menu at Zen Yai, but because of popular demand, it is now always available if you're in the know. These noodles are one of the most typical Thai street food and are also quintessentially Thai because the emphasis is on the importance of each small ingredient. There is no broth to these noodles and are meant to be stirred until the ground pork is all mixed in and the noodles are coated with the emulsion of sauces. 

As a playlist of Thai pop music and The Black Eyed Peas plays in the background, we look over at the plate a man next to us orders. While his girlfriend, one of the few other non Thai people in the restaurant, eats a plate of pad see ew with American broccoli that my friend looks at disapprovingly (any broccoli other than Chinese broccoli in pad see ew is a carnal sin like hot dogs in spaghetti or lettuce in burritos), she leans over eager to ask the man if the sausage he is eating is Sai-grog EsanSai-grog means sausage and Esan is the North Eastern region of Thailand where this sausage dish, papaya salad and larb originate from. He tells her it is Sai-grog Esan, but that it's not on the menu. We aren't surprised.

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Camila McHugh
Johk Menu
A big sign with elaborate Thai lettering hangs on another wall with no English translation advertising the Johk or rice porridge, only available Fridays and Saturdays from 10 PM to 1 AM. You can order your Johk with pork, liver and a variety of other meats. It is usually a breakfast food, but also something of a Thai late night snack that is typically eaten after a night on the town. Johk is also always served with a Chinese donut called Pa Tong Go

We did order a few menu items. The red duck curry was good, the Thai fried rice was yummy (be sure to ask for limes to squeeze on it), and the silver noodle salad was also delicious. It's safe to say, however, that mustering up your best Thai and straying from the menu is a must at Zen Yai. 


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Zen Yai Thai Restaurant

771 Ellis St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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