Soba Ichi: The Soba Experience

If ramen, udon, and soba noodles were siblings, soba would be the middle child. Soba noodles don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. I can’t count the number of bowls of ramen and udon that I have consumed in my lifetime because it is too many. I can count with one hand the number of times I have eaten soba and it was probably dried soba produced in Japan. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and there are no restaurants in the Bay Area that specializes in fresh soba until now. Soba Ichi recently opened in West Oakland giving “The Town” another thing to brag about.  

Chef Koichi Ishii is the man behind the soba. The soba is freshly prepared everyday from scratch in house, by hand by grinding buckwheat flour in a stone mill. They get their supply of buckwheat from Kitawase in Washington State. The demand has been exceeding the soba production as it seems they are consistency selling out before lunch ends.

My colleague and I went to Soba Ichi last week and we arrived twenty five minutes before they opened to ensure we were part of the first seating. I wanted to start with one of their small plates and chose the nameko oroshi-ae which was a mushroom and daikon dish. It was definitely small, but size was not an indication of flavor. The mushrooms were rich and earthy and combined well with the finely grated daikon.
Soba Ichi offers both hot and cold soba. My colleague and I both opted for the Jyuwari soba which is 100% buckwheat versus the Nihachi soba which is 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour. Our noodles are available cold and we ordered it with tempura. I was excited when my tray came out as it instantly transplanted me to Japan. (I haven’t been but this is what I imagine it to be like).  

I prepared my dipping sauce by adding the daikon and green onions to the soy based sauce. I opted out of the wasabi but added some chili powder instead. Using my chopsticks, I picked up a few noodles and plunged them into the sauce. The soba was light, clean, earthy, and slightly chewy. 

The shrimp and vegetable tempura came with what looked like a matcha salt to season. This was the best tempura I have ever had, especially the shrimp. I kept alternating between the soba and the tempura. It was a perfect match.  
When we were done, the server brought out a teapot filled with broth that we were supposed to add to the remaining dipping sauce to drink. It was warm and good for the soul. This actually helped fill me up.
I didn’t want my lunch to end so I ordered the dessert which was sobacha mousse. The tea flavor was nice and it had both jelly and custard topped with rice crispies.  
What appears and tastes like a simple meal at Soba Ichi is quite complicated. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the experience. Although I was treating myself to a pretty expensive lunch, I knew I was paying for a labor of love.  

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Best Xiao Long Bao in East Bay

I am super excited to share a recent discovery of delicious xiao long bao in the East Bay. Din Ding Dumpling House is located in the City of Fremont. It is still a bit of a trek, but at least for me, I don’t have to cross a bridge to get there. I have made three trips to Din Ding Dumpling House in the past few months and I’ll share the highlights.

Of course the driving factor of every visit is the xiao long bao, soup dumplings. When I say soup dumplings, I literally mean soup inside the dumplings. Din Ding offers two types, one with pork and the other with pork and crab. I feel like a purist as each time I have only ordered the pork variety. Each order comes with eight dumplings on a bamboo steamer. The dumplings are dipped in ginger and vinegar before the pork and soup explodes in your mouth.The wontons with spicy sauce are some of my favorites. I believe in quality over quantity and that is the case here. These wontons in chili oil are topped with egg, wood ear, and carrots providing for some extra textures.  

I found the beef brisket noodle soup to be simple and comforting. It comes with baby bok choy which balances the bowl.  
Din Ding usually offers a few different stir fried vegetable options. I have noticed that their veggies always looks fresh, bright, and glistening. I enjoyed their pea sprouts with garlic very much.
 I had the qishan minced meat noodle dish. They call it a dry noodle dish, but that is completely inaccurate as it’s not dry at all. The noodles are drenched with loads of goodies such as beef, egg, potato bits, green onions, and carrots that are bound by gravy that is meant to be mixed together.
Ham fried rice is more like spam fried rice. There’s something nostalgic about this plate. It would make a great after school snack. The canned meat provides such great flavor to the dish.  

The deep fried rice cake is a great choice for dessert to end a meal at Din Ding. It’s warm, crispy, chewy and filled with red bean.  

Dumpling Empire: A Taste of Shanghai

photo by Donna Hui

It was this photo from my friend @cwpiequeen that lured me to try Dumpling Empire, located in South San Francisco. This is a dish of green onion pancake, a popular savory snack from Shanghai. When the batter is cooked, it turns into thin flakey layers filled with a depth of onion flavor. I don’t get to eat them often, but the green onion pancake here was cooked to a perfect crispy golden brown that could conquer any empire.  
The small restaurant is called Dumpling Empire, so of course I had to have some dumplings. Shanghai soup dumplings or xiao lung bao are filled with pork and soup and are my favorite kind of dumplings in the whole wide world. These were pretty solid as only one was missing soup. Having experienced making these before, there is a high level of difficulty in cooking xiao lung bao. The burst of broth always gives me a heavenly feeling.

The second dumplings I tried were the Shanghai pan fried soup dumplings. They had the similar meat and soup filling of the xiao lung bao, but the outer layer was a doughy bun that was pan fried. I thought the inside of the dough was slightly undercooked and it was not crisp enough on the outside. I would likely skip these next time, but there is a list of 21 additional dumplings on their menu.  

I also ordered the mustard green noodle soup which includes hand made noodles with thinly chopped mustard greens and pork. I enjoyed the fresh chewy noodles and the subtle infusion of the mustard greens in the entire bowl. The simplicity and the flavors of this bowl brought back memories of when I visited Shanghai.

I made a special trip out to Dumpling Empire and thought it was worth it. If you happen to be near the San Francisco Airport (SFO), I highly recommend making your way to Dumpling Empire for a taste of Shanghai.

Duck Hunt: New King Restaurant

The first thing you see when you walk into New King Restaurant (actually, entrance is from the back door via their parking lot) is a window display of roast meats including roast pork, BBQ pork, and roast ducks.  
New King is located on one end of International Blvd., only a few blocks from Lake Merritt and serves a combination of Chinese and Vietnamese food. A close friend introduced me to this place about a year ago. She frequents the place often in the mornings to pick up a Vietnamese iced coffee. With a lot of choices in Oakland for Chinese or Vietnamese food, I have been drawn to New King more often in the past six to eight months.  
One day I was craving wonton noodle soup and discovered that New King makes a good one. You can select one or more of their roast meats hanging from their display as a topping. The plump wontons are filled with pork and shrimp. I found the wontons to be fresh and just the right size. The egg noodles also had the right texture. My topping was a delicious BBQ pork. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to savor the sauciness of the BBQ as much because it slowly melted away in my soup. 

My favorite noodle dish at New King is a Vietnamese dish called Hu Tieu Mi Nam Vang Kho, where the broth is served on the side. It comes with assorted sliced meats including some intestines as well as seafood. Topped with an abundant amount of cilantro, there are other deep flavors that meld together to make this dish wonderful. It’s nutty, garlicky, and kind of umami.  

If you look closely enough, there are two kinds of duck that hang on display. The first is the common Chinese roast duck. The other is a flattened duck called Peipa duck. I had never eaten Peipa duck before. Last Friday, I planned “Duck Day” for a small group of my colleagues. I bought the two ducks cut up, brought them back to the office, and we ate.  
Two liked the traditional roast duck (pictured on right) best and two liked the Peipa duck (pictured on left) best. The Peipa duck was a bit leaner and had a deep sweet flavor I enjoyed very much. Most importantly, the skin was crispy like what you would find on a Peking duck. One coworker found this one “gamey,” but that didn’t bother me. I did a Google search to find more information on the Peipa duck and interestingly enough, it was named after the Pipa, a Chinese guitar that is pear shaped. When the duck is cut open and flattened, it resembles this instrument.

Aside from flavor, I look for a crisp tight skin and juicy meat on a traditional roast duck and this one had both. I have enjoyed New King’s roast duck a few times now and I find that it is one of the best you can buy in Oakland.
I would be remiss not to mention the roast pork at New King. I bought a small sample and my colleagues devoured it. With its crackling skin, I can’t imagine anything better at that moment of consumption.

Takashi: A Chicago Find

I had never heard of Chef Takashi before my recent trip to Chicago. My friend and I were looking for places to eat in Chicago and first found “Slurping Turtle,” a restaurant of Takashi’s, which specializes in noodles. The menu didn’t “wow” us, but then we found the restaurant of his namesake. That was enough for me to make an Open Table reservation for this Japanese and French inspired restaurant.
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My friend and I arrived to find a really cute, upscale restaurant. As we reviewed the menu, we decided on sharing two appetizers and two entrees. The appetizers of our choice were the corn chowder and the soy ginger caramel pork belly. The soup came out first and was enjoyable with a nice, sweet flavor and was comforting to the palette.
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The pork belly arrived with a pickled daikon salad and steamed buns that were meant to create open faced sandwiches. The pork belly was incredibly good, cooked with a sweet flavor of hoisin sauce that melted in my mouth. Oh, I wanted more.
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One of our entrees was the sautéed west coast sea bass. The fish came with a ratatouille on a bed of white beans. The fish was cooked very delicately with a crispy skin.
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Our other entree was the seared loin of veal. We got three pieces of veal each prepared on top of something different. We had a gratin of onion and zucchini couscous, asparagus, and bacon preserved lemon-caper brown butter. I haven’t had veal in a long time, but this was likely the best preparation I have had.
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My friend and I were quite full and ended up foregoing dessert. To be honest, we thought the choices were unattractive and slim. It was okay, because we enjoyed everything we ate.

As we were leaving, I saw copies of Chef Takashi’s cookbook, “Noodles”. As I flipped through it, I found that his recipe for the pork belly was in it. I asked the host if they had any autographed copies. The host responded that the Chef was there and could sign it. I ended up being able to meet him and have a photo with him. He was extremely nice and gracious. I am now a huge fan.
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Orenchi Ramen: A Perfect Harmony of Soup and Noodles

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When people think ramen, the first thing that comes to mind is probably an instant bag of noodles that cost pennies. For Asians, it is comparable to Kraft macaroni and cheese as a college staple.

I became introduced to restaurants that exclusively served bowls of ramen noodles living in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s. Being 500 miles from home, a bowl of ramen gave me a sense of comfort. These bowls were much more sophisticated than throwing a bag of dried noodles into a pot of boiling water.

I’ve had a few good bowls of ramen in the Bay Area. If I were on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” I would be confident to announce ramen at Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara. I’ve never had better.

The two key factors in a good bowl of ramen are the noodles and the soup broth. The noodles used at Orenchi are thick noodles that are springy and neither too soft nor too hard. The broth is made with pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables and cooked for a minimum of 18 hours.

The menu at Orenchi is fairly simple. You have a choice of three types of ramen which are shoyu (soy base), shio (salt base), and Orenchi (tonkotsu or pork bone base). I cannot get enough of the Orenchi Ramen which comes with pork, green onion, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, sesame, nori seaweed, and a soft boiled seasoned egg. It is pure delight.

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There are also a number of appetizers at Orenchi, but there really is only one reason to go there. The ramen at Orenchi is indeed the perfect harmony of soup and noodles. If only it was closer to me!

Sumika in Los Altos is their sister restaurant that serves grilled meats and things. This year it was included in the Michelin guide and I hope to try it someday soon.