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Regional Interests

How Garlic Noodles Became One of the Bay Area’s Most Iconic Foods

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I were to put together a catalogue of quintessential Bay Area foods, I would include all of the usual suspects: the Mission burrito. Cioppino. The It’s-It. Maybe even the long-scorned clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. 

But though it’s rarely mentioned in these kinds of bucket list compilations, I’d also be hard-pressed to leave off a cult favorite whose fandom spans multiple cultures and cuisines—all united by their mutual love of butter, garlic and a nice hit of good old-fashioned MSG.

I’m talking, of course, about garlic noodles.

Most closely associated with nostalgic Vietnamese seafood joints in San Francisco like Thanh Long and PPQ Dungeness Island, the butter-soaked dish has a luxurious, over-the-top deliciousness that’s hard to match. Even more than that, the dish is emblematic of a whole generation of cooks who grew up in the multiethnic Bay Area, eating tacos and lumpia and Vietnamese roast crab, adapting all of those flavors into their own cuisine. 

To wit: I have ordered garlic noodles off of a Filipino food truck. I’ve had them served as a side dish for a brisket plate at a Burmese barbecue restaurant. And, perhaps most strikingly, I’ve seen them on the menu at just about every hot new soul food pop-up that’s blown up in the past year or two. 

Here in the Bay Area, Asian Americans love garlic noodles. Black and Latino folks love garlic noodles. Indeed, once you start looking for garlic noodles, it seems, you find them everywhere. They’re one of the most popular dishes at Boug Cali, Tiffany Carter’s “West Coast Creole” food stall at the La Cocina marketplace. And they are the foundation of the menu at Noodle Belly, a new restaurant adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, where everything from crispy pork belly to Taiwanese-Peruvian popcorn chicken comes served over a tangle of the slick umami-packed noodles.

The story, then, of how a noodle dish born and popularized within San Francisco’s Vietnamese community—a product of immigrant ingenuity—spread across culinary borders to become one of the region’s most iconic foods is a uniquely Bay Area tale.

As Boug Cali’s Carter puts it, “Garlic noodles are Bay Area as burritos or Dutch Crunch sandwiches.”

The iconic garlic noodles and roast crab at Thanh Long, the Vietnamese crab spot in the Outer Sunset. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f course no single restaurant or cuisine can lay claim to the idea of serving garlic and noodles together—that magical combination that forms the base for everything from Italian spaghetti aglio e olio to Chinese zhajiang mian. But Bay Area garlic noodle enthusiasts all seem to agree that the local take on the dish traces its origins to one of San Francisco’s very first Vietnamese restaurants: Thanh Long. 

The tiny Outer Sunset spot was being run as an Italian deli when Diana An, a wealthy Vietnamese traveler passing through San Francisco, bought it on a whim in 1970. Fearful of the ongoing war back home, An wound up staying to run the restaurant, gradually adding a handful of Vietnamese-inspired dishes like the roast Dungeness crab that eventually became its claim to fame. 

But it wasn’t until the rest of the An family arrived in San Francisco as refugees in 1975—and after Diana’s daughter-in-law, Helene An, took over the kitchen—that Thanh Long became a full-on Vietnamese restaurant. In the 2016 cookbook that she co-wrote, An: To Eat, Helene writes, “All we had left in the world was the strange, small Italian deli.”

Diana An (left) poses for a photo in front of her restaurant, Thanh Long, circa 1975. (Courtesy of the An family)

Helene’s daughter Monique An, who now manages Thanh Long, recalls that her mother came up with the recipe for the garlic noodles sometime around 1978, having noticed how much her American customers loved pasta—especially, as Helene writes in the book, “pastas laden with cream and butter.” She set out to create a noodle dish that would be “healthier” (because of all of the garlic, if nothing else) and more appealing to her own Asian sensibilities.

“It wasn’t a typical Vietnamese dish,” Monique An says of the noodles. “[My mother] had a lot of French and European influences.” Indeed, An says, the style of garlic noodles that Helene began preparing at Thanh Long didn’t exist in Vietnam. It was Vietnamese American fusion food through and through—or “Euro-Asian,” as the Ans have phrased it in the restaurant’s marketing copy. 

Andrea Nguyen, the cookbook author and Vietnamese food expert, says she does remember eating something similar in Vietnam when she was a kid—a simple dish of noodles, garlic, Maggi seasoning and cultured butter from a can that she would make for herself after school. According to Nguyen, Thanh Long’s garlic noodles are like that dish “put on steroids,” especially when paired with the restaurant’s roast crab. “You’ve got the funk of the crab—the fattiness of it, the richness of it, the brininess—combined with butter, garlic, MSG [from the Maggi seasoning] and oyster sauce,” Nguyen says. “All of those things put together, it becomes this incredibly over-the-top dish that is special.” 

Thanh Long’s exact recipe remains shrouded in secrecy, even as restaurants all over the Bay Area have created very similar versions of the dish. Famously, the Ans don’t allow anyone outside of the family to cook the noodles (or other signature items like roast crab), instead prepping them in a secret kitchen tucked inside the main kitchen. And the garlic noodles are a glaring omission from the aforementioned An family cookbook.

A server picks up an order from inside Thanh Long’s secret kitchen, where family members prepare the garlic noodles and roast Dungeness crab. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ambitious home cooks can, of course, find dozens of copycat recipes circulating on the internet. Almost all of them have the same basic components that Nguyen enumerates: butter, garlic and oyster sauce—often Maggi seasoning and sometimes a bit of Parmesan cheese as well. Monique An says she has tried following some of those recipes herself and thought they turned out well, even if they aren’t “quite the same.”

“My mom lost everything two or three times in her life. She said she learned that everything you possess, like all your riches or jewels—you could lose all that,” An explains. “And so she protected that recipe. She said you can lose everything but your knowledge; that’s kind of her gift to us.” 

Indeed, An says, the family was worried that they were going to lose everything yet again this past year, as their restaurant group—which now spans six locations in the Bay Area and Southern California—struggled through the pandemic.One thing that helped keep the businesses afloat? They sold an awful lot of takeout garlic noodles.

The garlic noodles at Thanh Long are the highlight of a multi-course crab feast. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hanh Long’s garlic noodles were a hit with customers from the beginning, but as Monique An tells it, the dish didn’t really become a phenomenon until the early ’90s. By that point, the Ans had opened Crustacean, a more upscale spinoff of Thanh Long on Polk Street featuring the same crab, the same noodles. The turning point, An says, was in December of 1991, when San Jose Mercury News food critic David Beck penned a glowing (if slightly unhinged) review of the restaurant with the headline, “Garlic Noodles Worth Marrying For.” “By the third forkful of Helene An’s garlic noodles I had a plan,” the review begins. “I would divorce my companion, marry An, get the recipe, divorce her and remarry companion No. 1.”

As Thanh Long’s popularity soared, it drew a diverse customer base—Russians and Filipinos and a wide range of other Asian Americans. The restaurant also became especially beloved by the Bay Area’s African American communities—a trend An started noticing when she worked as a server there while still in high school, during the ’80s. It didn’t hurt that celebrities like Danny Glover became regulars. Eddie Murphy came through for a meal during the height of his popularity.

More than that, though, Thanh Long became something of a status restaurant for everyday Black San Franciscans. It was the place folks would save up their money for when they wanted to celebrate a birthday or graduation. Boug Cali’s Tiffany Carter remembers being in middle school in the ’90s when her mother started bringing home Thanh Long’s garlic noodles anytime she passed through the Outer Sunset—excursions that were surprisingly frequent considering that, along with much of San Francisco’s Black population, Carter’s family lived all the way on the opposite side of town in Bayview-Hunters Point. 

Nevertheless, at least within their community, Thanh Long was simply the hottest restaurant around back then. “If you ate at Thanh Long, you were baller status,” Carter says. “It’s still like that to this day.”

Chef Edward Wooley stands outside Oakland’s Au Lounge, where he holds his Chef Smelly’s pop-up. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Because the crab was expensive, it wasn’t a restaurant where regular folks could eat all the time. Edward Wooley, whose popular soul food business, Smelly’s Creole and Soul Food, is legendary in the Oakland pop-up scene, says he remembers that while growing up in East Oakland, it was mostly only “people hustling in the streets” who would have the money to get dressed up to go out for crab and garlic noodles. But the one meal he did eat at Crustacean, on Polk Street, in 1997 made a lasting impression.“I had the garlic noodles with the prawns,” Wooley says. “It was very, very memorable.”

So, when Wooley started his pop-up and catering business, it made sense that he’d eventually create his own version. One Valentine’s Day, back in 2013 or 2014, a catering customer asked if Wooley could make four plates of roast crab and garlic noodles—in part to save him a trip to Crustacean. At that point, Wooley had already been tinkering with his own garlic noodle recipe for years, developing a sweeter version made with fresh noodles and even more garlic than you might expect. He added it to the menu and people “went crazy for it” right away, Wooley says. Now, the noodles come with almost every combo plate.

Wooley tosses a batch of garlic noodles to distribute the buttery, garlicky sauce just right. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the spirit of Crustacean and Thanh Long, Wooley’s pop-ups also offer the kind of over-the-top experience that people save up their money for—to celebrate special occasions with, say, a huge, heaping seafood platter for two that comes loaded over a whopping two pounds of garlic noodles. (Regulars know that carrying one of Chef Smelly’s hefty takeout boxes home is a workout in itself.) 

“My business is soul fusion,” Wooley says. “I take my Black seasonings and style, and mix it with the Asian cuisine. It’s a blend of everything.”

Carter, on the other hand, says the version she makes at Boug Cali is more of a straightforward homage. She uses oyster sauce, Maggi and Parmesan, and infuses fresh Gilroy garlic into the butter.

Tiffany Carter has been eating Thanh Long’s garlic noodles since she was a kid. (Tiffany Carter)

“She is the queen of garlic noodles,” Carter says of Helene An. “To this day, everyone is trying to make their garlic noodles stand up to Thanh Long.”

Garlic noodles were one of the very first things Carter served when she started her business in 2010, and she says they remain her most requested item—especially among her Black customers. 

The dish’s popularity within the Bay Area’s Black communities, specifically, helps explain why you’ll find it on the menu at so many of the region’s buzziest soul food spots—Smelly’s, Boug Cali, Vegan Mob. Scroll through Instagram to find the most sought after informal soul food pop-ups in the area—folks selling out of their driveway or from the back of their pickup truck—and chances are, they’ll have garlic noodles on the menu too.

For Carter, garlic noodles are emblematic of the way she likes to cook, as someone who was raised on Southern soul food traditions but also grew up eating all of the different foods of the Bay Area. Boug Cali mixes all of those traditions: It serves jerk chicken tacos. It serves po’boys on Dutch Crunch bread.

“For us, Black people in California, we get asked, ‘Why are you not making soul food?’” Carter says. “This is soul food for us. It’s different from our grandparents’ generation. You’re going to find garlic noodles; you’re going to find Mexican food.”

By this point, then, garlic noodles have become a true crossover hit in the Bay Area—a food whose deliciousness and popularity far transcend the borders of the community where it originated, in the same way that other local staples like tacos, burritos and lumpia have been universally embraced. 

“Everyone is so pressed on authenticity,” Carter says. “Our generation is not going to have a cookout without garlic noodles. Ten out of ten, that’s what they want.” 

One of Chef Smelly’s legendary seafood plates, piled high with garlic noodles. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hat kind of multicultural spirit is the driving force behind Noodle Belly, a new garlic noodle–centric restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale District specializing in “Bay Area comfort food.” One co-owner, Eugene Lee, is Korean American; another is Japanese American. Chef Jorge Concha (formerly of Camino) is Peruvian American.

The menu reflects that cultural mix: Asian-inflected crispy pork belly and popcorn chicken with Peruvian chile-lime accents. And every plate comes on a base of garlic noodles—an especially delicious butter-slicked version, with the fresh noodles cooked just right so they’re tender but also crisp at the edges. Even eaten with just a simple side of roasted mushrooms, they’re almost unspeakably luxurious.

The restaurant’s mix-and-match menu speaks to another aspect of garlic noodles’ appeal: The earthy, deeply savory combination of butter, garlic and other umami-laden ingredients goes well with so many different types of food, whether you’re talking roast crab, Cajun blackened fish or Chinese-style slow-braised pork belly.

Saucy garlic noodles are the foundation of the menu at Noodle Belly, a new restaurant in Fruitvale. (Noodle Belly)

Lee, for his part, subscribes to the “secret sauce” school of garlic noodle making (which is to say that all of the kitchen staff have to sign nondisclosure agreements to safeguard the recipe’s exact ingredients and proportions). But without question, Lee says, the inspiration is Thanh Long, whose story he has loved ever since he first heard about it as a kid growing up in San Francisco in the ’80s—the tale of a refugee family taking cooking techniques and ingredients from Vietnam and making them palatable for an American audience. 

“It makes me so proud as a Bay Area resident and an Asian American,” Lee says.

Eventually, Lee’s restaurant will help anchor a 3,000-square-foot commissary kitchen called Korner, adjacent to a large courtyard where customers can enjoy their meals. The whole enterprise will be geared toward highlighting minority-owned businesses. 

As for Noodle Belly itself, Lee hopes the restaurant can play a part in helping garlic noodles gain an even bigger audience. After all, Lee says, what was the last Bay Area-specific food product that made it big on the national stage? Probably Rice-a-Roni. “Garlic noodles are going to be the next big thing,” he says.

In fact, the Noodle Belly team had Rice-a-Roni on their mind when they developed one of their newest products: a take-home kit version of their signature garlic noodles—everything you need to make a fresh batch at home in about ten minutes flat. 

Of course it wouldn’t be accurate to say that garlic noodles only exist in the Bay Area. You can find something akin to the Thanh Long style fairly easily in Houston and Los Angeles and Louisiana—anywhere, really, that has a large Vietnamese population. Anyone with an internet connection can look up a recipe that comes pretty close.

But it is also true that garlic noodles don’t appear to have taken off to the same extent, or crossed over outside the Vietnamese American community in the same way, anywhere else in the country. Nowhere else do you see as diverse a range of people cooking and eating garlic noodles. And there isn’t any other city or region that claims garlic noodles as its own unique, iconic dish.

So many of the Bay Area’s different communities come together to enjoy a plate of garlic noodles at Chef Smelly’s. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I think it’s a very Bay Area thing,” says Andrea Nguyen, the cookbook author. And ultimately, she says, it’s easy to understand why the dish has caught on the way it has—and why, right now in 2021, it is in many ways the perfect dish.

“It’s that spirit of over-the-top. It’s that spirit of living large, of partying and having a good time,” Nguyen says. “During this late pandemic situation, what do we want to eat? We want to eat garlic noodles.” 

No disrespect, then, to the burrito lover or the It’s-It connoisseur. If I ever find myself feeling homesick for the Bay, you’ll find me over here with a big plate of garlic noodles with roast crab, or blackened catfish, or smoked brisket. What could be more Bay Area than that?

“People were inspired to create their own version,” Nguyen says of the dish’s proliferation throughout the Bay. “I think that’s a beautiful American thing.”

Copyright 2021 KQED