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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.


Bun Rieu
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.

Chicken Pho
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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