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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.