Helen An came to San Francisco from Vietnam in the 1970s and took over an Italian deli that evolved into Thanh Long, San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. She combined Chinese and European flavors to introduce things like fish sauce to wean customers off the red sauce.
She wasn’t sure if American diners were ready for the food she grew up with, but An knew they loved a bowl of pasta. A plate of the classic Italian pasta aglio e olio on a night off at a local trattoria failed to impress An, but she knew she could do better with a few more intense flavors.
She tossed spaghetti with butter and garlic, then added oyster and fish sauces along with a shower of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. She called it garlic noodles, and the cross culture pasta became her restaurant’s most popular dish. These days you’ll find garlic noodles on the menus at most Bay Area Vietnamese restaurants.
I’ve been eating Vietnamese food in Portland since the fall of Saigon, but I’d never heard of garlic noodles until I saw this article by J. Kenji López-Alt. Italian spaghetti tossed with butter, a trio of Asian sauces, handfuls of garlic, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese doesn’t sound Vietnamese, and it’s not. But it is delicious. Inspired by An’s creative take, I made my own version of garlic noodles.
Like its inspiration, the simple pasta dish uses a few ingredients loosened with a splash of the starchy pasta cooking water to coat the noodles, putting the pasta itself up front. This is my favorite kind of pasta, so I wanted to make it. But I’ve been experimenting with nutritional yeast lately, looking for outlets for its umami-boosting power beyond popcorn, so I tried using nootch instead of Parmigiano.
And instead of the chopped garlic, I pulled out a bottle of Karam’s garlic sauce. This Lebanese-style toum, the mayo-like emulsion of garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, is perfect when you want a quick hit of garlic without chopping a single clove. I think of Woon’s stir fry sauce as oyster sauce on steroids, so a shot of it along with our favorite fish sauce provided another umami boost.