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The Great Noodle Quest
Jonathan Kauffman | Photo: Aya Brackett, Maren Caruso, Alanna Hale | January 28, 2013
Spurred by the ongoing ramen craze, noodles of all nationalities are hotter than a steaming bowl of tonkotsu. But how do you separate the meritorious from the mediocre? You slurp—a lot. Asian food connoisseur Jonathan Kauffman hunts down The Bay Area's 21 Top Bowls.
When it comes to Asian noodles, I generally think I have excellent, well-informed taste. But so do the multitudes of compulsive diners in this town—which is why a plate of Chinese chow fun may be the ultimate comfort food, but anointing the Bay Area’s best chow fun is hardly a comfortable task.
Whether you’re talking about chow mein, pancit, pho, or pad see ew, noodles evoke in food cognoscenti the kind of strong feelings that are usually reserved for ESPN Fantasy Football forums and comments on TMZ. So, to take on the task of calling out 21 of the area’s best Asian noodle dishes? A fool’s errand—but also a challenge too appetizing for me to resist.
In this competition, ramen is the category with the highest stakes. Its devotees are an opinionated bunch who parse the chewiness of a noodle in pounds per square inch and challenge anyone whose opinion on shoyu broth differs from their own. In the past five years, they’ve increasingly had more to brawl over: Japan-based chains such as Ajisen and Men Oh have established Northern California beachheads, and shops like Orenchi Ramen are introducing Americans to trendy Japanese styles like tsukemen (cold ramen noodles served with a rich, vinegar-spiked dipping broth). Independently owned restaurants such as Izakaya Sozai and Izakaya Roku sell a limited number of bowls of ramen every night. Meanwhile, a trio of Chez Panisse alums—the Ramen Shop’s Sam White, Rayneil de Guzman, and Jerry Jaksich—have all spent time in Japan absorbing the wisdom of the masters. All that passion is producing ramen that our metropolis can finally be proud of.
But while ramen gets all the hype, there are smaller, quieter cults, too: pho fanatics; adults searching for the Korean bean-paste noodle of their childhood; diners who track their favorite noodle pullers from restaurant to restaurant; those of us engaged in that idiosyncratic quest for great northern Thai khao soi (sadly, still thwarted). True seekers find themselves in forlorn strip malls, halfheartedly sterilizing plastic chopsticks with Wetnaps as they chase down a rumor that this pancit palabok could be almost as good as Aunt Ida’s in Luzon.
Just as you’d be wrong to argue that there are no Asian noodles to be found north of Daly City, it’s also wrong to write off high-end noodles—the ones made against a backdrop of brushed stainless steel or stir-fried with pedigreed pork and organic cabbage. In the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Martin Yan’s M.Y. China (See our sidebar: Noodle Virtuoso and our review: M.Y. China) has a theatrical demonstration kitchen where chefs are making magic—pulling, shaving, and pinching satisfyingly chewy noodles to order. Bistro-trained chefs like Hapa Ramen’s Richie Nakano (See our sidebar: The Ramen Think Tank) and Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien are masterminding noodle dishes that incorporate sous-vide cooking, whole-animal butchery, and a healthy disregard for a dozen different culinary traditions.
Given this overwhelming abundance of noodles to choose from— both high and low—how did the 21 finalists emerge? The hunt started with spelunking trips into memories of past meals, from a rabokki expedition in Seoul to a search for knife-cut noodles in Shanxi train stations—not to mention notes from my 12 years of working as a restaurant critic. I spent hours sifting through local food blogs and Chowhound posts—tipping the hat, of course, to Melanie Wong and Yimster, two of my stalwart guides. I also milked information from food writers, friends, and my dentist’s assistants, who are always sending me off with the names of Filipino restaurants to try. Even Yelp was an amazing source of leads—once I learned to scan for phrases like “Even my mother approved” or “All you haters are ordering completely wrong.”
All this research was followed, of course, by weeks of eating. The tiny Lao restaurant in Oakland where two bites of beef larb had me sweating profusely? Not a great source for kao piak. The Tenderloin Thai restaurant where my former intern discovered off-menu noodles showered in lime juice, ground pork, and herbs? More amazing than I had hoped. I found noodles for every mood: Noodle soups and noodle stir-fries. Comfortingly hot and refreshingly cold. Delicately seasoned and coruscatingly spicy.
A final note to those of you who read over this list swearing that I’ve overlooked the Bay Area’s best jjampong or pancit malabon or yee mein: You’re right, of course. I admit it. Now stop threatening me with your chopstick, and let’s discuss this like adults.
Kaw Soi Dok
Mandalay (Inner Richmond) I have a hard time staying away from these noodles. A longtime favorite, they are just too captivating, like a Cate Blanchett performance wrought in wheat. Tamarind and cucumber strands establish the cool, tart tone of the rich split-pea sauce, which is punctuated with the nutty crunch of deep-fried onions, deeper hints of toasted garlic, and the contained shock of fresh cilantro. 4348 California St. (at 6th Ave.), 415-386-3895.
Spicy, housemade noodles.
Seoul Gomtang (Oakland) It’s hard to make a choice here. The restaurant specializes in gomtang, a bewitchingly mild beef soup with a milky ox-bone broth, and on hot days, it does a brisk business in elastic housemade buckwheat noodles served cold in a clear beef broth with asian pear and ice cubes. During the rainy season, though, I choose the warmth of bibim naengmyeon, coated in a crimson, sweet-and-spicy chili paste and topped with strips of zucchini and beef. Pro Tip: ask the server to cut your noodles with scissors to avoid awkward stretch-and-snap accidents when you’re lifting them out of the bowl. 3801 Telegraph Ave. (at 38th St.), 510-597-9989.
Just Won Ton (Parkside) Despite the promising name of this tiny working stiff’s restaurant, the wonton here is... well, just order something else—specifically, the soft scrambled egg and beef over ho fun. The thick stir-fried rice noodles are served with a glossy cap of eggs scrambled with stock, cornstarch, and fragrant swatches of beef. Dark, salty soy sauce stains the ho fun a cola color, and the blazing wok gives it great wok hay (wok breath), that ephemeral smokiness and depth of character that’s as rare as it is prized by noodle lovers. 1241 Vicente St. (Near 24th Ave.), 415-681-2999.
Stir-Fried Pancake with Vegetables
Vegetarian, housemade noodles.
Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant (Parkside) San Francisco’s lone Chinese-Muslim restaurant, located in the city’s foggy outerlands, serves a northern Chinese delicacy that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere: noodles made from a giant housemade wheat-flour crepe that’s sliced into thin, linguine-like ribbons, then stir-fried with onions, cloud ear fungus, julienned vegetables, and egg. Dosed in soy sauce and well crisped, this is a dish for those who love their noodles chewy and dense. 3132 Vicente St. (Near 42nd Ave.), 415-564-3481.
King Won Ton & Noodle (Outer Sunset) At this slurp-and-go restaurant, diners appear to have their mouths connected by a huge hank of noodles to a bowl of won ton lo mein. The chicken soup in which the noodles are served is decorated with a few yellow chives and could be classified as minimalist. But the noodles! They’re pale gold, no thicker than an embroidery thread, and crinkled, appearing as if they’ve just been released from a tight braid. The dough is pressed with a giant bamboo pole while being rolled out, which may be part of the reason the noodles have a marvelous elastic crunch that endures almost until the bowl is empty. 1936 Irving St. (Near 21st Ave.), 415-682-9813.
Pork and Cabbage Chow Mein
Wo Hing General Store (Mission) Charles Phan’s Wo Hing may be the only Chinese restaurant where you can sit at the bar and burrow into a platter of chow mein with a glass of rioja—a good rioja, no less—at your elbow. Here, the classic dish is tailored for an ingredient-obsessed audience: the al dente noodles, gnarled and linguine-thin, are stir-fried with thin hanks of pork shoulder meat, twists of julienned cabbage, and celery matchsticks, and finished with the smoky touch of wok hay. 584 Valencia St. (near 17th St.) 415-552-25140.
Beef Soup With Hand-Pulled Noodles
Ark (Alameda) The ark’s chef-owner, Gordon Xiao, may be Cantonese, but he was trained in noodle pulling by a chef from Lanzhou, a northern Chinese city renowned for the technique. At his glassed-in kitchen station, he pulls three different styles to order: thick, thin, and an astonishing pappardelle-like flat noodle. you won’t find a better version of classic Lanzhou-style beef soup in the Bay Area: Fat, satiny wheat noodles coil beneath the surface of a long-simmered broth, faintly sweet and anise-scented. 1405 Park St. (Near Central Ave.), 510-521-6862.
Happy Golden Bowl (El Cerrito) After my editor sent me a Facebook tip from devoted Chowhounder (and pal) Melanie Wong, I tracked these noodles back to this Szechuan restaurant in the East Bay. Happy Golden Bowl presents a deceptively simple serving of tangled al dente egg noodles topped with a shower of ground pork and chopped scallions. Stir it up to coat the noodles with nutty sesame paste, enough chili oil to make your face sweat, a splash of vinegar, and a hint of lip-buzzing Szechuan peppercorn. 10675 San Pablo Ave. (At Lincoln Way), 510-524-8772.
Betelnut (Cow Hollow) Betelnut, with its whiff of Mulan-style orientalism, doesn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d find a serious bowl of noodle soup, but this canary-yellow coconut-milk broth—shimmering with the aromas of coriander and lemongrass—isn’t joking around. Strips of fried egg, fat prawns, and tofu cubes float amid the noodles, and a medley of thai basil, mint, and cilantro rings brightly over the top. Hundreds of versions of this popular street food can be found across Malaysia, chef Alexander Ong says, but this one is based on the style of Sarawak, his home state. (It can be made vegetarian upon request.) 2030 Union St. (Near Buchanan St.), 415-929-8855.
Ongpin (South San Francisco) This restaurant has one of the largest selections of Filipino noodles in the Bay Area, among them siomai noodle soup and pancit palabok with shrimp sauce and crumbled pork rinds. But the stir-fried pancit miki-bihon is the one to order. A mound of skinny, wriggly rice noodles (bihon) twines around fat golden egg noodles (miki), with vegetables, chicken, and shrimp. The umami-bump of shrimp paste is discernible but not overpowering, and a squeeze of lemon gives the flavor a jolt. 73 Camaritas Ave. (Near Arroyo Dr.), 650-615-9788.
Lapaz Batchoy (Daly City) The fantasy animating the city’s street-food explosion is that we’ll discover cooks perfecting a single specialty, just like in countries all over the world. Well, Joefred Devicais is living that dream: in his minuscule storefront, he has mastered batchoy, a noodle soup from La Paz in the west-central Philippines. Fried garlic imparts a toasty note to the clear, lightly sweet beef stock, and the soft egg noodles are smothered in chopped chicken, pork, beef, and pork liver. The crowning touch is a fluffy shower of crumbled chicharrones. So many shades of meatitude! The palate reels. 6785 Mission St. (near Westlake Ave.), 650-580-2279.
Lers Ros (Tenderloin/Hayes Valley) How did so many Americans decide that this workaday street food is the measure of a Thai restaurant? And, if it is, why do so many prepare it badly, tinting the rice noodles with ketchup and dumping on the sugar? Fortunately, that’s not the case at Lers Ros. the restaurant cooks up a great pad thai: Fish sauce and the dusky, low-toned tartness of tamarind balance the sweetness of sugar, and the noodles are suffused with smoky traces of the flaming wok. The dish tastes as if it came from a street stall, which is the highest compliment I could give it. 730 Larkin St. (Near O’Farrell St.), 415-931-6917; and 307 Hayes St. (Near Franklin St.), 415-874-9661.
Zen Yai Thai (Tenderloin) The piece of paper taped to the wall at this Thai restaurant is curt, almost oblique: “Original Thai Boat Noodles: Just $2.50.” Pester the servers about it, and you’ll learn that, in fact, Zen Yai serves three distinct preparations of these noodles, each with a choice of skinny rice, fat rice, or egg noodles. The basic boat noodles, with their opaque, ruddy broth, are arguably the best. Yes, the sauce is enriched with blood, but it provides an indistinctly meaty background over which the cooks layer flashy sweet and tart notes and a buzzy amount of chilies, not to mention pork meatballs and cilantro. Order two bowls for yourself. 771 Ellis St. (Near Polk St.), 415-885-0726.
Ten Zaru Soba
Ippuku (Berkeley) On Fridays and Saturdays, chef-owner Christian Geideman opens this izakaya for lunch, offering soba and not much else. His cook, Koichi Ishii, who learned to make soba in Yamagata Prefecture, imports mild buckwheat flour from his home city of Yamagata to make a dough that he meticulously rolls and cuts himself. If you order the noodles cold and dip hanks of them into a dashi-soy sauce, each strand retains its distinct form. The soba costs more if you add tempura vegetables, but it’s worth it. 2130 Center St. (near Shattuck Ave.), 510-665-1969.
Orenchi Ramen (Santa Clara) Yoshiyuki Maruyama’s ramen is among the best I’ve ever tasted. The tonkotsu broth, made with kurobuta pork and lightened with chicken stock, is deep but not bombastically so, and gelatinously rich. Orenchi fills the broth with thick, chewy wheat noodles, a soft-cooked egg with a vivid orange yolk, and slices of tender roast pork. 3540 Homestead Rd. (near Bing Dr.), 408-246-2955.
Spicy Garlic Pork Ramen
Spicy, housemade noodles.
Ramen Dojo (San Mateo) Kazunori Kobayashi, San Mateo’s ramen king, owns three restaurants here, each with its own take on noodle soup. Scoring a bowl of Ramen Dojo’s signature spicy garlic pork ramen requires scribbling your name on the wait list and then patiently biding your time. But it’s worth the wait. This ramen is powerful stuff: a peppery, meaty soup topped with an umami-bearing spoonful of chicken gravy and laden with sweet cloves of roasted garlic and crinkly noodles that retain their bite. 805 South B St. (at 8th Ave.), 650-401-6568.
Men Oh (Inner Richmond) While some tonkotsu broths taste, as a friend once complained, like sipping gravy, this Japanese chain’s tokushima-style ramen performs quite a feat. The flavor of the pork-bone broth is indeed meaty and bolstered by a shot of soy. And the broth is served with two kinds of pork and a raw egg that renders it even creamier. Yet it’s not nearly as heavy as you’d imagine. The noodles soften ever so slowly, evolving with each slurp. 5120 Geary Blvd. (Near 16th Ave.), 415-386-8802.
Vegetarian, housemade noodles.
Ramen Shop (Oakland) It may take you a while to notice that the guy bent over an odd little machine at the back of Ramen Shop is rolling and cutting fresh noodles. But when you start inhaling your own bowl, you can’t miss how chewy and satiny they are. While the shoyu-lemon broth at Jerry Jaksich, Sam White, and Rayneil de Guzman’s new restaurant is good, the vegetarian broth is even more nuanced and unexpected, its flavor fleshed out with red miso and finished off with a seven-miso blend, sesame oil, and riverdog peppers. Matsutake mushrooms, Mendocino nori, a tuft of mizuna, and a creamy-yolked egg top it off. 5812 College Ave. (near Chabot Rd.), 510-788-6370.
Soup Junkie (Financial District) Go to Hanoi, and you’ll probably find yourself crouched on a tiny stool, face-deep in a bowl of this crab-noodle soup. As good as it is in Vietnam, though, it won't have the elegance of the version that Hung Lam sells from his FiDi storefront: a peach-tinted dungeness crab broth, simmered for hours, its pellucid depths buoying with thin rice noodles and topped by a raft of curly green-onion slivers. The highlight is the little cloudlike crab-and-egg omelets that drift over the surface, almost too delicate to pick up with your chopsticks. 388 Market St. (Near Front St.), 415-291-0686.
Turtle Tower (Tenderloin) Over the past 13 years, Steven Nghai Pham has grown his family’s Larkin Street restaurant into a mini-empire with three locations—but it’s always good to start here, at the original. I’m partial to Pham’s chicken pho for its evocative simplicity. Chopped cilantro and scallions skim the surface of the mildly flavored, transparently golden broth, which is filled with slices of poached free-range chicken tangled in slippery-soft wide rice noodles. It’s a wonderful antidote to whatever ails you—during flu season, the restaurant becomes a virtual infirmary of sniffling diners seeking solace. 631 Larkin St. (Near Eddy St.), 415-409-3333.
Southern-Style Beef Pho
Pho Ao Sen (Oakland) San Francisco has the lock on Northern Vietnamese pho—beefy and straightforward, the kind of rice-noodle soup you want to eat on a cold, rainy morning. But the more aromatic southern-style pho is best eaten in Oakland or San Jose. The pho dac biet bo vien (house special pho with meatballs) served at Pho Ao Sen has been my favorite for a decade, and it remains so even at the restaurant’s new upscale location. The scent of fresh thai basil and garlic hovers over the clear beef broth, seasoned with star anise and swimming with wonderfully dense beef, meltingly soft and transparent tendon, and long-braised brisket and flank meat. It may be the best in the region. 1139 E. 12th St. (Near 12th Ave.), 510-835-5588.
Read More: The Noodle Virtuoso
Read More: Ramen Think Tank
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco Magazine
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