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The Great Noodle Quest

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. 

We set off in search of the Bay Area's best noodles. Here's what we found.

In the steamy kitchen of Mandalay.

Mandalay's crunchy and bright Burmese kaw soi dok.

Sharing is easy!

Ongpin in South San Francisco makes a mean pancit mikibihon.

Chef Alex Ong of Betelnut greets customers.

Ong makes Malaysian curry laksa, hailing from his home state of Sarawak.

A customer dips into a coconuty bowl of Ong's Malaysian curry laksa. 

Zen Yai Thai in the Tenderloin. 

A special worth all 250 pennies. 

Spicing up the boat noodles at Zen Yai Thai.

At Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara, noodles are ready to go.

Lots of happy customers!

Chef Maruyama of Orenchi Ramen delivers a meal.

 

 

At Orenchi Ramen, the tonkotsu is rich but balanced.

Oakland's Pho Ao Sen makes a statement with its southern-style pho.

Herbs and bean sprouts are key at Pho Ao Sen.

Ramen Shop's vegetarian ramen.

Burmese

Kaw Soi Dok
Spicy, vegetarian.
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.

 

Korean

Bibim Naengmyeon
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.