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Oodles of Noodles

Christopher Gardner

Soup Is Good Food: Noodles are such an integral part of Asian life that it is impossible to claim an understanding of either culture or cuisine without an appreciation for noodles.

From Sunnyvale to San Jose, a beginner's first step toward exploring Asia's souped-up answer to pasta

By Andrew X. Pham

Noodles can delight the senses. Seen through some eyes, they may appear mysterious, meager, sloppy and unappetizing. But from other perspectives, noodles are not only convenient and fortifying, but also soulful and even downright sexy.

Consider how noodles come to the table self-contained in a soup bowl, speaking volumes of simple elegance. Sometimes herbal, sometimes spicy, often sweet, the aroma of the soup rises in steamy curls to arrest the eyes, snare the senses. When the bowl is held, a reassuring heat seeps into the hands, adding more sensory input to the meal. At the first sip of broth, a soothing warmth grows in the stomach and gradually blankets the abdomen. Visually, the bowl presents exciting whirls of noodles scantily clad beneath a colorful costume of meat and vegetables.

Even eating is a dance of chopsticks, a contest of will and skill to undo the tangled strands, a debate on what to consume next: noodle, vegetable or meat. The experience is so complex and involved that it stirs up memories of other meals--particularly those enjoyed in foreign places.

Noodles are the breads of Asia: a hot breakfast on cold morning, a fast lunch on a busy day, a bracing afternoon snack, a satisfying dinner after a long workday, and much more. Asian diets on average include one noodle meal each day.

Noodle symbolizes good fortune and longevity. Japanese who are building homes give noodles to their new neighbors at the construction site just prior to raising the roof. The dish is also served at train stations to those departing on important trips. Southeast Asians ladle out noodles at engagement parties and wedding banquets. Chinese dish up noodles on practically all occasions.

Noodles are such an integral part of Asian life that it is impossible to claim an understanding of either culture or cuisine without an appreciation for noodles. Historically, noodles are a poor man's food. A noodle meal requires fewer ingredients to make than a rice meal. A single sliver of meat and bits of vegetables can substantiate a bowl of noodles, but would be powerless to make a bowl of rice into an entree.

It is the soup that binds and gives soul to the noodle. And the soup itself is really little more than water, spices, bones and useless cuts of meats. Across Asia, the price of a noodle meal remains a third to a half less than that of a rice meal.

Noodle houses have blossomed all over the South Bay, offering a diverse selection of dishes. The menu variety at Asian noodle houses far outstrips the number of pasta choices in Western restaurants. The six suggested dishes below will help the noodle novice get started on a South Bay culinary tour.

OUR FIRST STOP will be a ramen house--but beware, these noodles can prove addictive. Katana-Ya in San Jose cooks up the best ramen in the South Bay. The Japantown eatery doesn't have a token-operated vending machine or a standing-room-only noodle bar, but it does exhibit all the other markings of a genuine Japanese noodle house. The noodle experience here is just about as authentic as it gets in the South Bay. Foremost, the kitchen turns out spectacularly fresh and delicious ramen. One bowl of Katana-Ya ramen will expose the instant ramen concoctions as the lousy frauds that they are.

Friendly and small but not cramped, the dining room encourages bold noodle slurping. Everything is simple, from the chairs to the empty white walls. Katana-Ya's devoted clientele, mostly Japanese-American businessmen, will say much about the food, all of it good.

In addition to the long list of ramen, the menu offers donburi, fried rice and Japanese curry. The prices are higher than usual, but the noodles are definitely worth the extra yen. For best value, savvy diners steer clear of everything but the basic ramen. Prime choices range from $4.55 to $6.80. The deluxe noodles and combinations are redundant because the portions are already twice the traditional size.

The Katana-Ya Special Ramen ($6.80) arrives with slices of pork, boiled seaweed, corn kernels, bamboo shoots and a single luscious crab claw. The vegetable stock is clean but rich in flavors. The ramen shines with the strong consistency of freshly made noodles.

The mightiest of appetites may attempt the F Plus Combo ($11.95), the deluxe of deluxe meals. In addition to the Katana-Ya special ramen, the meal includes two jumbo prawns, fried and unshelled, a pair of gyozas (pork dumplings), a mini salad, some pickled radish, and a bowl of steamed rice. The extras are forgettable--the prawns dry and overcooked, the gyozas unremarkable.

The menu offers a dozen choices and combinations of ramen toppings, every one of them promising, with excellent noodles and broth.

CHINA CHEF'S specialties run the gamut of Chinese and Vietnamese noodles, both the soupy and the fried varieties. It sits in a run-down strip mall next to a grocery store in San Jose. The place is humble, but the noodles are superior. The restaurant is the third expansion originating from a successful parent noodle house in Orange County, Calif.

This place is well versed in the basics of Chinese noodle soups. Upon request, the kitchen will substitute the listed broth on the menu with one of the several others available (no vegetarian options). At this place, the Chinese dishes are superior to the Vietnamese dishes, the noodle soups superior to the fried noodles, and the egg noodles superior to the rice noodles.

A new patron may well start with the house noodle ($3.50), a soup which showcases the kitchen's masterful chicken and pork broth with egg vermicelli, scallions, pork, chicken and a shrimp fritter. This provides a straightforward measure of the restaurant's capabilities.

A favorite is the wonton noodle soup ($3.50). The wontons are delectable dipped in a bit of vinegar and soy sauce. The soup is smooth and sweet, the helpings generous and the noodles well-cooked.

Overall, China Chef exhibits all the signs of a great noodle house deserving of regular visits.

THE PRIMARY JAPANESE food is not sushi but noodle. The most popular and beloved is udon, a thick rice noodle. Udon symbolizes purity and is widely recognized as superior to soba and ramen.

Udon constitutes the majority of noodle options in the South Bay's Japanese restaurants. One eatery stands out as the top udon house in the valley. Although other restaurants offer a wider variety of toppings, Sushi Zen crafts the best basic udon noodle.

Soups here come only in sumo size. The bowl is too big and heavy to be picked up for direct broth-sipping, so a spoon is provided. The nabeyaki udon ($7.50) arrives in a preheated iron pot. Boiling hot, the soup sizzles on the walls of the pot. A generous serving of succulent udon sits in a clear vegetable stock. A raw egg is cracked on top of the udon and covered with tempura of carrots, eggplant, yam, broccoli and prawn. Shredded spring onions top off the ensemble beautifully.

The broth is clear, naturally sweet with vegetables, and deep with a touch of soy sauce and rice wine. Typical of good Japanese broth, it has a very clean and refreshing taste. When topped with tempura, the soup rounds out nicely with a minuscule amount of oil from the fried batter.

The udon, the heart and muscles of the meal, couldn't be better. Each strand is perfection in details: silky between the lips, resilient between the teeth. Most important of all, it is rich and hearty without being starchy.

There are only four choices of udon toppings on the menu: chicken, beef, tempura and nabeyaki (a combination of seafood and raw egg). The best bets are tempura or beef; the nabeyaki offered little real seafood, and the raw egg blunted the clean broth.

FOR THOSE WHO aren't fond of noodle soup, Minh's Restaurant in Milpitas poses a welcome alternative. The kitchen performs competently on most menu items, but its true specialties are the dry noodle courses served with various grilled meats. Bun cha dong xuan ($4.50), a northern Vietnamese specialty, pairs noodles with marinated pork slices that are grilled to perfection and then plunged sizzling hot into a small bowl of chile fish sauce. Prior to the grilling, the pork gets a deep marinade of garlic, sugar, soy sauce and fish sauce. Meat juice, caramelized marinade and bits of charred fat enrich the fish sauce into a fabulous, thin and tangy gravy. Accompaniments include rice vermicelli and a vegetable platter consisting of huge portions of romaine lettuce, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, mint and chile. The greens and herb refresh the palate after every bite of meat.

A good appetizer is banh tom co ngu ($4.50). Julienned yam, dipped in batter and garnished with an unshelled shrimp, is deep fried in patties. Paired with fresh vegetables, herbs and a slightly stronger fish sauce, the dish serves four.

Nothing more elaborate than a neighborhood diner, the restaurant proves itself to be all business--all about fast service and good food. So even if a diner strays from the specialties, satisfaction is still fairly certain.

VERY POPULAR IN JAPAN, soba--buckwheat noodles--remain largely undiscovered in America. Soba packs a nutritional wallop more potent than either ramen or udon, but its soft texture and modest sweetness have yet to win a large American following.

Japanese restaurants of the South Bay rarely make their own soba, relying instead on dry packaged noodles. Others strike soba from their menu altogether--a shame, because soba makes a light yet filling meal. Most basic is the zaru soba. Served cold and unadorned by meats, vegetables or broth, zaru soba's simplicity forces the noodle to stand on its own merit--a high expectation if the soba is not fresh. This dish is an acquired taste, best acquired in Japan.

Fairly decent zaru soba can be found at Hakata in Palo Alto. The restaurant serves tempura with zaru soba, calling it tenzaru soba ($6.95). Cooled with ice water after cooking and then served on a bamboo strainer, this soba comes with a light but distinct dipping sauce, a side of tempura, and garnishes of wasabi, chopped scallion and grated mountain yam.

A bit of soy sauce, sweet rice wine and fish broth make up the basics of the dipping broth, which is surprisingly mellow and sweet with just a touch of saltiness. This superior dipping broth makes Hakata a standout. The perfectly fried yam, carrot, zucchini, shrimp and crab tempura--also definitely first-rate--complete the entree with a nice flair.

OUR LAST STOP is in Sunnyvale for a rarely seen Chinese-Vietnamese duck noodle soup that is strictly the domain of native or intrepid diners. A recent arrival in the South Bay, mi vit tiem dac biet ($4.95, #11 on the menu), some patrons claim, brings flavors directly from Chinatown in Saigon, Vietnam.

Sunnyvale's Pho Binh wins a steady following on this single entree--an amazing fact given the soup's appearance. Enigmatic, murky and burgundy dark, the broth differs starkly from all others in the Asian noodle soup repertoire. Rich with duck fat, soy sauce, peppercorn and a slew of Chinese spices, this broth has a body fortified with baby bok choy, pickled carrots and squash, and Chinese mushrooms. A large side of bean sprouts, fresh basil, chile, cilantro and lemon comes with the soup.

A generous mound of egg vermicelli nests at the bottom of the bowl. A quarter of a duck, marinated in strong herbal sauce and braised to a blackened char, crowns the soup. The duck fat is reduced to a minimum, leaving the meat lean and firm but tender enough to be picked off the bone with chopsticks.

Pho Binh is located in a small strip mall amid office buildings off Lawrence Expressway in Sunnyvale. Formica tables and cafeteria chairs are just about all the amenities besides the table condiments. Lunch draws a steady crowd from the local offices, but dinner is often slow and the staff sometimes closes the restaurant early. Lunch is probably the best time to try this specialty simply because it is reassuring to see scores of other patrons eating this bizarre noodle.

154 Jackson St., San Jose, 408/286-3362
China Chef Restaurant
1609 McKee Road, San Jose, 408/937-5688
Sushi Zen
1305 N. First St., San Jose, 408/453-1071
Minh's Restaurant
1422 Dempsey Road, Milpitas
448 University Ave., Palo Alto, 415/325-1605
Pho Binh
1274 Persian Drive, Sunnyvale, 408/734-3066

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro

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