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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.

Chinese

Ho Fun
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.

Lo Mein
Housemade noodles.
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
Housemade Noodles
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
Housemade 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.

Tan-Tan Noodles
Spicy
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.