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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.

Japanese

Ten Zaru Soba
Housemade Noodles
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.

Tonkotsu Ramen
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.

Tonkotsu Ramen 
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 Ramen
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.