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Ramen

Noodle in a Haystack: Some of the best ramen in the SF Bay Area

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Noodle in a Haystack: Some of the best ramen in the SF Bay Area

Daly City in the summer time is like London in November. I left my house on a Sunday afternoon in August wearing shorts and a tee shirt because it was 85 degrees outside, and headed to Daly City to have ramen made by Noodle in a Haystack. By the time I arrived in Daly City, the temperature had dropped at least 25 degrees and I could barely see 20 feet in front of me. I parked in a residential neighborhood where every single house was exactly the same. They might have been painted different colors, but they were exactly the same. Street after street of them. I wondered a bit skeptically about what kind of ramen I was going to have while I searched for the right house, shivering in the mist.

As soon as I entered Yoko and Clint's house, I immediately felt at ease. They are both exceptionally friendly and welcoming. Clint lived in Tokyo for six years where he met Yoko. They moved back a few years ago and started making the ramen that Clint fell in love with in Japan. As this was my first Feastly dinner, I wasn't sure what to expect. Feastly dinners are often held in people's homes, and offered by a range of people from home cooks specializing in regional dishes to professionals building a reputation before establishing a stand alone restaurant. It was actually a lot of fun to meet seven new people and learn about them over a great meal.

I eat ramen all over the San Francisco Bay Area and all over the world. Japan is of course the best place to eat ramen, and the Bay Area and Los Angeles are probably the next best options. We are very lucky to have the ramen we have here, and Noodle in a Haystack is one of the best bowls of ramen I've had outside of Japan, and frankly even competes with the bowls in Japan.

Clint and Yoko source some key ingredients like yuzu and smoked fish powder from Japan. They have even reverse engineered a famous Japanese salad dressing called Pietro. They also take advantage of local ingredients like a blood orange oil from Monterey to lighten their chicken based ramen. 

On the night I attended we started with their signature deviled egg with pickled daikon, smoked fish powder from Kyoto, fish row, chicken skin, and togarashi. What a great intro to our meal! It was familiar, but new. The fish powder provided smoke and umami and all the components were in great balance. It was very close to fishy, but didn't go cross the line. The egg was followed by nine hour sous vide pork belly and a refreshing arugula salad with their Pietro-like dressing, and then a spicy celery salad and a savory cucumber salad. 

After the appetizers, the main bowl of ramen arrived. This isn't your typical, over the top, heavy tonkotsu (pork) based ramen. This was a shio ramen, meaning that the tare, or main seasoning that determines the type of ramen, is made from salt, and in this case, infused with dried shrimp and fish from Japan. The broth is a clear chicken stock and dashi, garnished with a delicious marinated onsen egg, scallions and garlic, crispy onions, yuzu, pink peppercorns, yuzu infused chicken fat, blood orange oil, brined chicken ham, and three salts (pink, sea and truffle). It is glorious! It has perfect balance and is not too heavy. Every component has been perfected, and when put together, they are all in balance. This isn't the tonkotsu ramen you may be used to, and that is a very good thing! Seats at Noodle in a Haystack are hard to come by, so reserve early and get ready to have some of the best ramen in the Bay Area. Brave the fog for a great time!

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

Should you plan to visit Fukuoka for one day or seven?  It is a tough choice.  Fukuoka is a city in the southwest of Japan.  It has a population of about 1.5 million people and is the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu.  It is Japan’s fifth largest city, and probably the most manageable city in Japan that I’ve visited (Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo being the others).  It was the seventh most livable city according to Monocle in 2016.  Not many people speak English and I only know a few words of Japanese, but after only a few days in Fukuoka I could easily manage the subway and the buses on my own.  I knew the major sections of the city and had found the 24 hour Ichiran, thankfully only a half mile from my hotel as I made many trips there.  Fukuoka is a city of food and shopping.  There is a park containing the ruins of the samurai compound, the ocean and associated fishing industry, and a few notable temples.  But it isn’t the wonderland of activities like the bigger Japanese cities.  There is no Disneyland, no Harry Potter Universal Studios, no giant robots walking the streets.  But there is ramen.  And that might just be enough for an entire week.

Fukuoka and Hakata are two cities that merged into one and the official name of the city is now Fukuoka, but Hakata is still often used to refer to the city and the main train station is called Hakata Station.  Hakata ramen is famous worldwide as rich, pork based tonkotsu ramen.  This is the type of ramen that is popping up on every other corner in major cities around the US and the world.  And this is may be the only type of ramen most people around the world have eaten.  In Japan there is ramen based on fish, miso, and chicken.  In most of the world there is only tonkotsu ramen.  It has taken over the world because it is so delicious.  

I managed to fit in eight bowls in three and a half days. They were all so good that it was on my last night in Fukuoka at the two Michelin star Tempura Tenko where I hit the wall, not any of the ramen joints.  It’s a good thing I walked ten miles a day while I was there.  

Ramen, in order of preference:

Ichiran - This is a global chain and for good reason.  At most locations you get your own small booth to slurp your noodles with only your ramen for company.  They make a pork broth, but it also has garlic, their special red spicy sauce, and I venture to say some other aromatics and something mildly acidic.  Every bowl is customized because you get to choose the intensity and richness of the broth, level of spice, amount of garlic, addition of green and/or white onions, addition of chashu (roasted pork), and firmness of the noodles.  The noodles in Fukuoka are a bit different than ramen noodles known to most people.  They are thin and straight.  And delicious.  Three of my eight bowls were from Ichiran, partly because I loved it and partly because the restaurant at their global headquarters is open 24 hours and I ate ramen for breakfast.  Most ramen joints do not open until 11 am and some stay open very late.  

Mengekijo Genei - Unlike many ramen restaurants where you are expected to file in, sit or stand at a crowded counter, eat quickly and get out, Mengekijo Genei is built like a stadium with the ramen chef on center stage so that everyone can watch the show.  We were early to avoid the crowd and got a front row seat.  The chef was incredibly friendly and came out to speak to us.  I was with a Japanese guide so was able to talk with him a bit and learn more about his ramen.  It is made with dried shrimp, scallops and abalone, and pork or course.  We tried their standard house ramen and a spicy version with minced pork topping.  Their house ramen was the best of the two.  It had the standard topics of chashu, mushrooms and green onions and nothing more was needed.  The noodles and broth were amazing and that’s all that really matters.  This broth was more complex than many of the others I had in Fukuoka and one of the best.

Hide-chan - Canal city is one of the shopping meccas in Fukuoka.  My dream food court is on the fifth floor and is called Ramen Stadium.  It is filled with the best ramen shops from the Fukuoka region.  My hotel was attached to this mall and it is the one and only reason I chose to stay there.  Hide-chan is very well known and has many locations world wide.  I ventured out a bit while there and chose their special fatty pork neck rather than the standard chashu.  The bowl was simple and contained only the pork, green onions and noodles.  The broth was on the complex side, which I found that I enjoy more than the simpler broths.  The pork neck was delicious and very tender.  It went perfectly with the broth.  All in all a great bowl of ramen, surrounded by seven other ramen restaurants plus Ichiran in the basement.  If only I'd been hungrier!  Heaven.  

Ganso Nagahama - This is a classic ramen shop near the fish market.  It opened right after the end of WWII and now has other branches in Fukuoka.  The original restaurant is very industrial and utilitarian.  The workers are dressed in white with rain boots.  Everything behind the counter is stainless steel and clearly built and organized for efficiency.  In the eating area there are large communal tables with stools.  There is a giant pot of warm tea on each table, a bucket of mugs, and a tub of red pickled ginger.  The ramen ticket machine outside has the fewest number of options I’ve seen.  You could choose to buy extra noodles or extra chashu and that was it.  It was also the cheapest bowl of ramen at only 500 yen (about $4.75).  This was a simple and straightforward bowl.  Noodles, paper thin chashu and a generous helping of green onions.  That’s it and really no other options.  The noodles were very good and cooked perfectly.  The broth was simple, but delicious.  I would guess that it was almost completely pork broth, but with a small bit of something else to give it slightly more complexity.   

Shin Shin - This is also a famous Hakata ramen mainstay with multiple locations.  This was my least favorite of the the five ramen restaurants I visited, but it was still very good.  Before I tried this ramen I didn’t fully understand what was meant when by a silky tonkotsu broth.  This broth had that heaviest mouthfeel of any ramen I’ve ever had.  I can imagine it will start to become a solid mass very quickly as it cools because of the amount of collagen in the broth.   The broth was meaty and full of pork flavor, but was the least complex of the five different places I tried.  It would probably be the best ramen in most cities in the world.  

Other notable Fukuoka finds:

Yatai - Fukuoka is about the only city in Japan with much of a street food culture.  Every night when the sun goes down, tiny, fully functional restaurants called yatai pop up on the street.  They serve ramen (of course!), matsunabe (organ soup), mentaiko (spicy cod roe), oden (boiled meat and vegetables), yakitori and sushi.  They are open until around 2am and are perfect for that last meal after a night of drinking with your friends.

Tempura Tenko - As mentioned above, this is a classic high end Japanese tempura restaurant.  The chef is a very experienced tempura master and provides instructions on how to eat each piece (tempura sauce, lemon, salt or curry salt).  It was the cheapest 2 star restaurant I have been to in quite a while ($150 total with sake).  It was a beautiful space and the chef and the hostess were very gracious.  We got by with my extremely limited Japanese and their slightly better English.  The chef had a list of the ingredients in English, so he would tell me in English or show me the sheet if he was unsure of the pronunciation.  As I mentioned above, after so many bowls of ramen and a meal of fried things, even if they were expertly done and very light, I hit the wall.  I could only take two bites of the last rice dish.  It was a very good experience overall.  I enjoyed the perfection of the restaurant.  The pottery was beautiful.  The restaurant was decorated sparingly and achieved that perfect simple beauty at which the Japanese excel.

Kira Hakata Steakhouse - Kira Hakata is a teppanyaki style steakhouse that is right on the bank of the river.  They serve Saga beef which is wagyu beef from the Saga region (like Kobe beef is wagyu beef from the Kobe region).  My own personal teppanyaki chef  started by cooking giant garlic chips in oil, then saved the oil to cook the subsequent steak, vegetables and fried rice.  The steak was so marbled it was half fat and half meat which makes for incredibly tender and meaty beef.  The chef cooked each bite individually.  The garlic fried rice was so well prepared that the garlic was not overwhelming and every component in the rice came together perfectly.  

Yakitori Masashi is the Japanese restaurant of my dreams.  Delicious salty grilled meats on skewers, sochu (sweet potato liquor), and fun.  The staff was incredibly welcoming to this foreigner.  They made sure I could properly say the name of each item before they served it to me, joked around with us, encouraged me to take all the pictures I wanted, and posed for every picture they caught me taking.  They even brought me a special dish of tiny taro like potatoes that had been grilled with oil and salt.  If I found a yakitori joint like this in the SF Bay Area, I would move next to it so that it could become my favorite neighborhood restaurant.  

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Ramen School in Osaka, Japan

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Ramen School in Osaka, Japan

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Over the holidays some families stick to age old traditions of cooking and baking holiday favorites.  My younger son Cooper and I make ramen! We love ramen and avidly explore every Bay Area ramen shop we can find.  When I travel across the nation and globally I do the same, looking for the best and most popular ramen I can find!  

When we make ramen over the holidays we often use the Momofuku recipe.  That is a great book with very creative recipes, many of which aren't too labor intensive, have a small number of steps and each recipe is packed with flavor.  Their ramen recipe, however, is quite a bit of work, which is why we do it over the holidays when we have time away from work and school to focus on doing it right!  

When we were in Japan last year, we were delighted to find out that there was a professional ramen school in Nagase, a short train ride from Osaka, and we made sure to sign up.  The Toranoana ramen school is run by ramen master Hiroshi Miyajima.  He trains chefs who want to open ramen restaurants, and also teaches one-day classes to amateur cooks.  Miyajima-sensei is, by his own admission, not fluent in English, so a translator allowed us to get the most of out his class.  Cooper was nine years old at the time and I love that cooking schools outside of the US are open to having children join their classes.  Cooper is a passionate cook, very responsible in the kitchen, and has an innate set of cooking skills that make him a natural in the kitchen!  It's often hard to find good classes for him to take at home but here they had no reservations about Cooper taking the class with me.  

We both learned a lot during the course.  In the morning we started preparing the chashu, dashi for tare, onsen eggs and broth.  We made the broth in just a few hours with a giant pressure cooker.  Partway through the morning we took a break to eat ramen that the chef had made in a course the day before and received a great lecture on ramen theory (as I now call it).  The morning ramen was chicken based, surprisingly rich and very tasty!  In the afternoon we climbed a set of  very steep stairs (maybe it was really a ladder) to find a few small rooms with machines for quickly making fresh noodles.  Cooper had a great time collecting the noodles quickly and efficiently as the came down the conveyor belt and placing them in a noodle tray.  At the conclusion of the class midway through the afternoon, we ate another bowl of the ramen that we had made that day.  This was pork based and just as good.  We were very full after two bowls of ramen, and actually couldn't find it in ourselves to eat any more ramen for the next few days!  This was actually very sad because we were in Japan!  The good news is that we made a quick recovery, and were able to resume our ramen regimen by the time we reached Tokyo a few days later!

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