Dandelion Elegy: A Ramen Roundup

"The noodles are superb. So smooth but with great body."
-- Goro
"Smooth and strong at the same time."
-- Tampopo

In a charming Japan Center "country inn" next door to the Kabuki, Sapporo-Ya is the only ramen house I found that makes its own hand-pulled noodles. The difference is like that between dried linguini and fresh-made, a vast increase in flavor and a far more toothsome texture. And they make a good, if plain-looking bowl, graciously accompanied by a little plate of pickled cabbage. Here a fairly full-bodied pork-chicken broth had a little soy and a touch of sesame oil, complementing rather than disguising the soup's flavor. The top of the chashu ramen ($6.50) was decorated by a hard-boiled half-egg, but under that floated a whole school of pork slices (more meat than I really wanted); the restaurant tries to give you more bang for your buck. The pork was well-salted but dry-textured. The garnishes included a host of vegetables: scallions, greens, carrot slices, zucchini, preserved bamboo shoots, pickled cabbage, and more egg. I also tried corn and vegetable ramen ($5.25), which had a sturdy vegetarian stock (but not as tasty as the regular broth) and even more greenery.

"First observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glistening on the surface. Pickled bamboo shoots shining, seaweed slowly sinking, spring onions floating. Concentrate on the pork slices. ... They play the key role but stay modestly hidden." -- Old ramen expert

The first ramen we see in Tampopo are in Gun's flashback to a meal with an old man who'd "studied noodles" for 40 years. Tanpopo's array mirrors that bowl. At Tanpopo (which opened with a slightly different name shortly after the movie in the mall across Post from Peace Plaza), the counter-seating isn't just decorative (as at Long Life) but occupied, and the shiu chashu ramen ($5.75) must be very close to Tampopo's penultimate attempt -- except that, alas, the noodles aren't house-made but are dried ramen from Japan. They're cooked right, but aren't extraordinary. The plain shiu ramen broth, however, is really wonderful -- hearty, flavorful, barely soy-touched. The garnishes (the rectangle of black nori seaweed tasting like salmon skin, the sprightly spring onions, the pickled bamboo shoots, the egg slices, the stupid fake-flower tsurimi) are balanced proportionally, and the pork is really tender and juicy, not just a garnish but food. I actually finished (almost) the whole thing.

"It's the soup that animates the noodles."
-- Goro
A highly acclaimed, multifaceted Japanese dinner house recommended by "Wok Wizard" Shirley Fong-Torres, Toraya, in Pacific Heights, makes excellent sushi, robata, udon, soba, donburi -- and my near-ideal ramen. Toraya's ramen ($7.25) are emphatically closest to the Chinese original. (Even in the movie, one of the most skillful noodle-masters hails from Guanxi.) A big, rich, not-too-salty broth (barely touched by Yamasa shoyu, perhaps the gentlest Japanese soy sauce) speaks eloquently for itself. The chashu is Chinese-style, pink at the center and full of flavor. Other garnishes include crunchy fresh bean sprouts, seaweed, broccoli, and scallion tails. Noodles are done right. Heaven.

The beautiful young yakuza's immaculate white suit is flushed with his dying blood. "Shh," he says, smiling, completing the subplot that frames Tampopo. "Shh, my last movie is starting." Obrigata, Itami-san.

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