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Tops in Ramen

[whitespace] noodles
Christopher Gardner

Super Bowls: Mountain View's noodle palaces serve up Asia's pasta variations--ramen, udon, hand-pulled noodles, rice noodles, buckwheat noodles, glassy potato noodles, wonton soup and more.

Take the chill off a winter day by noodling around in downtown Mountain View

By Andrew X. Pham

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS chilly off the bay, and the pregnant clouds drag their bellies over the mountains to unleash the fury of Old Man Winter on hapless Siliconians, we find hearty comfort in noodling around downtown Mountain View. There is no better cheer on such a day than the stomach-warming, appetite-filling properties of a good bowl of noodle soup.

Mountain View has it all: fresh pasta, wonton soup, egg noodle soup, udon, hand-pulled noodles, rice noodles, buckwheat noodles, glassy potato noodles and more. Two of our favorites are Ryowa, a new arrival to the Castro Street scene, and Pho To Chau, a little-known veteran of downtown. Incidentally, these noodle haunts are almost next to each other, sandwiching a beauty parlor between them like two vying suitors.

At Ryowa, the weekday lunch offerings draw contingents of Japanese nationals who buckle down to slurp ramen, no doubt feeling very much at home in this little slice of Tokyo. Everything is very Japanese, save the low prices and the jumbo sizes of the entrees. From its bright pine trimmings to its tightly configured seating arrangement, Ryowa shouts authenticity. Japanese music videos blare from an overhead television set; the bookshelves are filled with manga and Japanese magazines. Only two tables accommodate couples. Besides a pair of benches for waiting patrons, some two dozen stools corral two horseshoe bars stocked with trays of kimchi (Chinese cabbage pickled in hot chili paste and garlic), scallion-chili relish, sesame oil, hot oil and various powdered spices.

The Ryowa Ramen Lunch Special includes succulent gyoza triplets: pan-seared dumpling purses filled with pork and scallions and a small side of steamed or fried rice ($6 and $6.50, respectively, or $5 for just ramen). There are basically three stock bases: miso, soy sauce and corn cream. Although not produced in-house, the ramen are made fresh locally. The noodles were ever so slightly overcooked, shaving off that extra "squiggly ramen body" that would have produced a resounding "Wow" rather than a "Hmm, pretty good." The various broths, however, were delicious, just a tad on the salty side--per Japanese preference.

For dinner, the kitchen also serves a mediocre tofu and ground pork donburi (over steamed rice, $6) with a small bowl of egg and chicken soup. Too bad, no libations on the menu. Dessert? Not here, but just down the street, Double Rainbow Ice Cream Parlor scoops up special Eastern-inspired flavors like lychee, mango and green tea.

PHO TO CHAU has been around for a long time. Longevity has given the cooks time to refine their soup over the years, producing a clean, clear broth with a minimal amount of MSG. The rice noodles are aptly cooked, not too soft and without the flour odor of inadequately rinsed noodles.

The pho here is a simple, honest bowl of noodle soup, topped with a variety of meats and freshly chopped scallions. The broth is clear and fragrant with a subtle blend of star anise seed, fennel seed, cassia, beef stock, onion, fish sauce and wild pepper. A side of fresh basil, bean sprouts, chile pepper and lime accompanies every pho order.

Prepping a bowl of pho is something of a personal ritual that might go along this line: Taste broth, add bean sprouts, shred and add basil leaves, squeeze in a few drops of lime juice, add chile and bean paste (personal preference here), mix all ingredients thoroughly and enjoy.

First-timers might want to stick with the basic pho chin ($3.75 regular, $4.35 huge), which is topped with lean, thin slices of beef brisket cooked as part of the broth. Those who enjoy carpaccio might consider pho tai, where the noodles are topped with a layer of raw carved beef. The hot soup broth is then poured over the beef to scald it. Other meat choices are fatty flank, tripe, tendon and beef balls.

Rice plates and bun thit nuong (dry rice vermicelli served with grilled meats) are available, although they are nowhere near the caliber of the pho. Desserts present an array of sweet beans, coconut milk and tapioca puddings ($1.50).

Souping up savory and authentic noodles in any weather, Ryowa and Pho To Chau form a nifty neighborhood destination for couples aiming to dine on $10 and change.

Cuisine: Japanese noodle bar
Ambiance: Casual bar dining
Menu: $5-$7
Hours: Tue.-Fri. 11am-2:30pm and 5:30-11pm; Sat. 11:30am-11pm; and Sun. 11:30am-8pm. Closed Mon.
Address: 859 Villa St., Mountain View
Phone: No phone

Pho To Chau
Cuisine: Vietnamese noodle house
Ambiance: Fluorescent cafeteria
Menu: $3.75-$4.95
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 10am-9pm; Fri.-Sat. 10am-9:30pm
Address: 853 Villa St., Mountain View
Phone: 415/961-8069

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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