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November 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, November 04, 2005

Oodles of noodles Oodles of noodles (November 04, 2005)

Not much green, but plenty delicious at TK Noodle House

By Mandy Erickson

Sometimes all you really want from a restaurant is a quick, cheap and filling meal. Reasonably healthful food is a bonus, as is table service. Tastiness wins gold stars.

You can satisfy most of these wishes at TK Noodle House, which opened on Castro Street in January, one of 14 siblings in a South Bay-centered chain. Its bowls of noodle soup run under $4, waiters serve you in comfortable booths and the food is decent.

TK Noodle stumbles only in the healthful category: While noodle soup is certainly a better choice than artery-clogging burgers and fries, many of its meals are woefully lacking in vegetables.

Most of TK Noodle's menu is devoted to dishes that are a takeoff from pho, the Vietnamese rice noodle and beef soup. TK has varied the theme by tossing in different types of noodles and adding untraditional cuts of meat, such as chicken, pork and shrimp. There are also a few stir-fry dishes (served with rice or noodles) and porridge, a soup with rice rather than noodles. You can select either a small or large serving; if you don't specify you'll receive a small, which is plenty food for most people.

Soup dishes come with a variety of meat -- mostly beef or a combination of beef and other meat -- and noodles. TK offers three kinds: "rice stick," or broad rice noodles; "vermicelli," or thin rice noodles; and "noodle," wavy egg-and-flour noodles similar to ramen. You can also get a noodle combo.

My combination vermicelli/noodle ($3.75 for small, $4.75 for large) had nearly everything in TK Noodle's kitchen: the two noodle varieties, slices of roast chicken, a few shrimp with tails on, meatballs, thin slices of pork and crisp bits of fried pork skin. On the top was a sprinkling of coriander and green onion, and at the bottom was a scattering of bean sprouts.

The clear broth has little flavor beyond salt, but TK Noodle adds slices of roast garlic, which give a pleasant surprise when you bite into the slightly sweet, chewy slices. The chicken and pork were fresh; the shrimp wasn't past its prime; and the cracklings added a nice crunch. The meatballs were an unappetizing gray, but surprised me by having a recognizable beef flavor enhanced with black pepper.

The better of the noodles was the "noodle," which was al dente. The vermicelli had become too soft for my tastes, though it wasn't as bad as the rice stick in my friend's soup, which had nearly turned to mush.

The broth in the beef stew rice stick/noodle ($3.75 small, $4.75 large) was more flavorful, as it included tomato and carrot, lending a slightly sweet flavor, and a dab of chili. The chunks of beef were hearty, though a bit too chewy, and a wedge of carrot provided a modicum of vegetable.

You'll find more produce in one place on the menu: the column listing stir-fry dishes. My friend's combination chow fun ($4.75 small, $5.74 large) included crisp broccoli and cabbage, pork and shrimp, stir-fried in a basic soy sauce mixture with the rice stick. These noodles work much better in a stir-fry, where they retain their edge.

If you don't want any vegetables at all -- say you're a green-food-averse kid or a woman in her first trimester -- you can try the combination porridge ($3.75 small, $4.75 large). I failed to locate one coriander leaf or a single bean sprout in this dish, which featured the same combination of meat and plenty of rice in clear broth. It was terrifically bland.

TK Noodle's menu features a dish I had never encountered before: flour cake, a flour-and-water dough cut into rectangles and fried with egg. Our fried daikon egg flour cake ($3.75) was nice and crisp when it first landed on our table, but over the course of the lunch it grew soft and much less appetizing. The grated radish lessened the starchiness of the flour, and the few peanuts added to the dough provided a bit of texture. It came with a soy sauce-vinegar-chili dip, which gave needed character.

Perhaps the most unusual menu offerings, however, were some of the beverages. Milk tea and pearl drinks are everywhere these days, but TK Noodle offers such curiosities as soda salted plum lemonade ($1.75) and soda egg milk ($2). The lemonade arrived in two parts: an ice-filled glass with a salty-sweet syrup on the bottom along with two salted plums, and a can of soda water. When my friend poured the soda into her glass, the drink foamed spectacularly; it was terribly salty with a bit of sugar, though no hint of lemon.

My soda egg milk -- unlike an egg cream, which includes neither eggs nor cream -- was a literal description. I too received a can of soda, plus a glass with two raw egg yolks on top of a layer of sweetened condensed milk. After mixing it together well, I found the drink comforting: rich and slightly sweet with a hint of egg.

TK Noodle offers little atmosphere (it's a $5 meal, after all); it looks and feels like a cafeteria. But there are plenty of booths, and it's fairly quiet. The walls are decorated with back-lit photographs, the same ones that line its laminated menu: a bowl of combination noodle soup, a plate of flour cake, a pair of pearl tea drinks.

The service was accurate and fairly quick, though there's little regard to timing: My friend's lunch arrived several minutes after mine.

The restaurant offers one surprise at the end of the meal: It takes no credit cards, a rarity these days. There's an ATM in the restaurant if you're truly broke. But most people shouldn't have a problem scrounging up the few dollars it costs to dine at TK Noodle.

TK Noodle House 357 Castro St. (650) 605-1200 Open seven days 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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