Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >
Jun 15, 2012 05:38 PM

Secret Menu at Zen Yai? [San Francisco]

Has anyone tried it? Particularly curious about the boat noodles.

Will undoubtedly get around to trying it sometime this month.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Never tried it, never even heard of the place, but many thanks for the link. It does look authentic and delicious; I will try it this week and report back.

    1. Best boat noodle I've had, even better than ones I had in Thailand. Really thick broth, plenty of greens, and pork cracklings on top. My Thai friend said they use the right noodles in their version.

      This is the old Racha Thai location, and they still serve the sauteed calamari from the old menu. I love that dish, get it spicy.

      5 Replies
      1. re: DezzerSF

        It's been a while since I've been by there, but I seem to recall that there was a sign up saying that it was still Racha Thai but with a new name or something like that. Some of the first Thai food I ever ate was at Racha, before I moved to SF, and that was a long time ago!

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          I'm pretty sure Racha was the first Thai food I've had as well! As kids, my mother would take us there since she worked close by. Sauteed calamari and the fried fish cake is what we would repeatedly order.

        2. re: DezzerSF

          I stopped by recently and got the large beef boat noodles with wide noodles. It was a very enjoyable and well balanced bowl. The broth was thick and meaty, with a bit of spice and quite a bit of garlic. It may have been because I had just come from a sour beer tasting and my palate was thrown way off, but I didn't detect much of the iron character I associate with pork blood cakes. I don't know that I've had a soup thickened with pig's blood before, only the more concentrated cakes.
          The wide noodles weren't the long, wide ho fun I was expecting, they thin, delicate 2x3 inch pieces.
          The large version was $6.95, I think, and was very filling--I came in very hungry and left more than full. I also enjoyed the hot tea.

          1. re:

            It is generally beef blood, even if you order the pork version. I've been eating this stuff for years and in general I've never noticed the metallic taste you get with any congealed blood cake.

            1. re: twocents

              Are you sure? They told me that they use pork blood for the pork version, and for religious reasons, I dont eat beef. So this is very dishonest of them if they are using beef blood for the pork version.

              What is your source?

        3. I ate there yesterday. No time for a long report, but I agree with DezzerSF - it is fantastic and well worth a visit. I tried the "dry" and the broth boat noddles and both were absolutely delicious. Quite a bargain at $2.50 per order. Also had simple carrot and cucumber salads with vinegar and fish sauce for $2.25 per order. Very simple and very fresh. This is by far the best Thai food I have had in SF and I will be returning soon. I should mention that at least half of the patrons were Thai - never seen that at any other Thai place in the Bay Area.

          1 Reply
          1. re: od_sf

            Glad you enjoyed it, and absolutely a bargain! Not sure about the rest of the menu though, as I've had some misses. The two dishes above are still my only favorite dishes.

            But yes, most of the clientele was Thai like you said. When I first walked in, I felt like I was back in Thailand for a minute! Let's see if that changes now, with the press.

            PS. They also sell Thai sauces and condiments at the front counter.

          2. Dumb question - what's the difference between boat noodles and the beef noodle soups served by most Thai noodle joints like King of Thai Noodle House, Bangkok Noodles, Osha, Soi Gow, etc.? Is this technically the same dish but much better executed at Zen Yai, or are the "boat noodle" broth ingredients actually totally different?

            3 Replies
            1. re: bigwheel042

              According to the linked article, the broth of boat noodles is made with blood.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Are there other significant differences beyond that? What I've found so far is to the effect of "to be boat noodles it really has to have blood and liver," but it's still not clear to me what other seasonings might be different between the two.

              2. re: bigwheel042

                The taste and seasoning are similar in both soups, both the main difference in Zen Yai's is the thickness of the broth.

              3. Finally made it down there today for lunch. The restaurant was over half full even though we ate lunch on the late side (almost 2 p.m.) As other posters have noted, much of the clientele appeared to be Thai. There were some really interesting to-go items available, including a chili paste and the appetizer where you wrap various items (ginger, chilies, peanuts) in betel leaves, example here:

                We ordered three bowls of the boat noodles and really enjoyed them. We had one each of pork and beef with the default skinny noodles, then my husband doubled down for a beef bowl with wide rice noodles. The broth was thick, funky, and flavorful. I would have appreciated more spice, but there are condiments on the table if you wish to make adjustments. A wedge of lime would have added a lot. We were, however, underwhelmed by the regular menu items we ordered. The spicy stir fried squid was not spicy, and the squid was flabby. The chicken larb was about average. Larb is pretty tasty stuff, so we ate it all, but THE and Lers Ros both do better versions of this.

                The summary is, I'm pretty much dying to know what the other secret menu items are. The soup was well above the other items in tastiness. There are two signs written in Thai on the wall as you walk in. These are presumably the secret menu mentioned in the original article. Btw, as the original article notes, the bowls are teeny tiny, but they come out quickly so you can just keep ordering until you're full.

                Thanks to the people who checked it out earlier. I would undoubtedly have taken much longer to get down there without the feedback from this thread.

                6 Replies
                1. re: possumspice

                  Glad you liked the boat noodles. Guay Tiew Yum, another noodle dish from the SF Weekly report sounds interesting as well.

                  As for the squid, I never really thought of it as flabby, more like tender. And you definitely have to ask for it spicy.

                  I've had the larb too, and the papaya salad here and I've had better elsewhere.

                  1. re: DezzerSF

                    Guay Tiew Yum is basically the same as Guay Tiew Ruew but without the broth. I also loved it.

                    1. re: DezzerSF

                      Sorry I didn't mean to be so harsh about the squid. It *was* tender. I would have liked a little more complexity and zing. Good tip on asking for it spicy. I figured the spicy in the name was enough.

                      1. re: possumspice

                        The squid's definitely not as complex as the boat noodles. I think I love the combo of bamboo shoots with the squid, but I love bamboo shoots.

                        1. re: possumspice

                          Years ago (back when some of us were first going to Racha), it probably would have been enough to order a dish labeled "spicy"; alas, so many folks thought they liked hot food then couldn't eat it once they got it, most restaurants became very wary. I sometimes find even begging for really spicy doesn't persuade servers.

                      2. re: possumspice

                        From memory, I think the board on the left is boat noodles (pork and beef), and the board on the right lists congee/rice porridge with several options for toppings/fillings (e.g., egg, liver, mushrooms). You can get porridge with everything mixed in, which might be the most interesting as long as there's nothing you dislike.

                        You can also ask for sausages, which are not on either menu. I think the SFWeekly blog post may have reported on this.