Dandelion Elegy: A Ramen Roundup

Long Life Noodle Co. & Jook Joint
139 Steuart (at Mission), 281-3818. Open weekdays 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult days, possible evenings. Muni via all Metro lines and Market Street buses. The Embarcadero BART station is a block away.

Oiri Ramen House
120 Cyril Magnin (off O'Farrell), 989-9760. Open daily 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: no. Muni via all Metro lines and Market Street buses.

Sapporo-Ya
Japan Center (Post & Fillmore), 563-7400. Open daily 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Japan Center garages. Muni via the 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 4 Sutter, 22 Fillmore, and 38 Geary.

Tanpopo
1740 Buchanan (at Post), 346-7132. Open daily except Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Japan Center garages. Muni via the 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 4 Sutter, 22 Fillmore, and 38 Geary.

Toraya
1914 Fillmore (at Pine), 931-9455. Open Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: hell. Muni via the 1 California, 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 4 Sutter, and 22 Fillmore.

"They say that when you die, you see something like a movie," says the gorgeous gourmet gangster at the beginning of Tampopo (A Noodle Western). Alas, there'll be no more movies by writer/director Juzo Itami, who committed suicide Dec. 20 (the same week Toshiro Mifune died), but we'll still have Tampopo, one of the most delicious films of all time.

El Nino has been whetting diners' yens for the quick hearty comforts of Asian noodles just as, 11 years ago, Tampopo sent Kabuki moviegoers surging through Japantown in search of ramen. As the movie begins, Goro, a craggy cowboy-hatted truck driver, and Gun, his young sidekick, chug into the outskirts of Tokyo and stop at a grungy noodle shop run by a lovely widow named Tampopo. (Her name means "dandelion.") Tampopo inherited her late husband's shop, but not his cooking skills. "They've got sincerity, but they lack guts," Goro ruefully describes her noodles. "Please be my teacher! Meeting you makes me want to be a real noodle cook!" Tampopo pleads, like a wannabe warrior (say, Mifune in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) begging instruction from a samurai (e.g., Mifune in Yojimbo). Tampopo and company critically sample the bowls at various ramen houses, while the truckers and assorted friends teach her to turn her noodles into top ramen.

The dish that Tampopo strives to perfect bears minimal resemblance to the quick-cooking Top Ramen (by whatever name) you've surely scarfed some evil evening -- the latter stands to honest ramen as bouillon cubes compare to homemade chicken soup. A Japanese adaptation of Chinese lo mein, ramen are thin, spaghettini-size wheat noodles typically served in pork-and-chicken broth with soy sauce or miso and varied garnishes. The most common garnish is chashu, roast pork -- which is typically roasted plain, without the soy-honey-saltpeter glaze of true Chinese char siu. Ramen aren't the same as Japan's home-grown soba (vermicelli-thin buckwheat noodles) or udon (bucatini-thick white wheat noodles), both of which are far easier to find at local Japanese noodle houses (e.g., Mifune, in Japan Center).

"I didn't finish the soup because I couldn't. It stinks. ... The vegetables you're using to hide the pork stink are too sweet." -- Goro, at a bad ramen shop

For me, Itami's death triggered a three-month elegiac quest for great chashu ramen. Lunchtime prices for chashu ramen ranged from $4.95 to $7.25; fancier extravaganzas (like seafood ramen) were up to $9. Unlike Tampopo's place, all but one used dried, rather than house-made, noodles; nor did these local ramen houses resemble the movie's counter-seating slurpaterias -- all had tables and attractive decor. Downtown's Long Life Noodle, which serves trendy Pan-Asian fast food, has decor in spades -- slick and corporately stylish, with lots of shiny black. While I won't say that the broth in their overconfidently named "Tampopo Ramen" ($7) actually stank, it was indeed weak and oversweet, with a strong undertone of onions and a slight overdose of soy sauce thinly veiling a lack of substance. Presentation was pretty, but the noodles were soggy and the pork tasted bland and boiled. Garnishes included minced scallions, regular and pickled bamboo shoots, and kamaboko, a thin slice of tsurimi "fish sausage" with a flowerlike decoration of pink food coloring. (Tsurimi, Japan's worst invention, is extruded pressed pollock, sometimes found masquerading as crab in airline meals.) I found the whole production lacking both guts and sincerity -- noodles painted by the numbers.

"The kombu is too strong, and your overcooked pork is like cardboard."
-- Goro
Oiri Ramen House is an eatery I've long been seeking, a serene spot for tasty, affordable eats near Macy's. Low-key but attractive, it has the friendly atmosphere that Tampopo's friends taught her to cultivate, starting with the warm welcome from a droll, graceful young Nisei waiter. Since the menu listed "boiled pork" rather than roast, I wigged out and tried the "corn and butter boiled pork" ramen ($6.25). It was beautifully presented in a celadon-green bowl, a central pat of butter melted over pork slices scattered with corn kernels on the left and, on the right, dark green chopped seaweed, spinachlike but for a powerfully fishy aroma. Amid the greens floated rectangles of sweet-sour, succulent pickled bamboo shoots. The noodles were cooked to the right doneness but lacked some subtle vibrancy. The pork was plain and a tad dry, and the soup had a reasonably substantial mouth-feel but too much soy for my taste, again. (BTW, Oiri also offers vegetarian broth and garnishes.) Still, in a neighborhood frequented by Japanese visitors, Oiri's ramen seemed honest and authentic, and the restaurant is a haven in a place of need.

"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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