Saturday, June 1, 2013

Hello Kitakata! Karamiso Ramen At Tanpopo Is A Chewy Delight

I went to Japantown today for something called the "Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival" (and we've got to liberate that event from the priestly castes!). Crossing the  Buchanan Street Mall I noticed the big yellow banners proclaiming "Kitakata Ramen" in front of the venerable (and fortuitously named) Tanpopo Restaurant.  It was a term I'd heard before, and I wondered if Tanpopo was pushing a regional ramen riff to help it stand out in the increasingly competitive Bay Area ramen-ya world.  None of the Tofu Festival offerings had tempted me (why can't they have stinky tofu?) and I was hungry, so I decided to check out the Kitakata ramen at Tanpopo.

Tanpopo was slammed at that hour, but I managed to get a seat at the long counter and pretended to study the menu, though I thought I knew what I wanted -- Kitakata ramen. When the server appeared to take my order, I asked about the Kitakata ramen. "It's in all our ramen," she said.  Suddenly having to make a snap decision, I requested the generally fail-safe Karamiso (spicy miso) ramen. (I've always found miso the most forgiving of the Big Three ramen broths, and a decent spiciness can cover a multitude of sins.)

It turns out that "Kitakata" can either designate the regional soup style of the City of Kitakata, or simply the particular type of noodle associated with that soup style, and Tanpopo was using the term in the latter sense.  According to the Rameniac blog, Kitakata ramen features
"...a noodle made largely from mountain spring water. A significant amount of water is added to the noodle, which shapes up flat, wide, and curled. A tactile sensation of slurping and the chewiness are the key features of Kitakata ramen noodles."
 When my ramen came, the noodles weren't particularly flat or wide, though I'd say they were slightly larger (and perhaps a bit more squarish in cross-section than standard ramen noodles). They were, however, gloriously chewy; they had an assertive presence which I had seldom, if ever, found in a ramen noodle.  It was a presence that is found in the best of Chinese noodles, and which in large part makes me a noodle lover, and it lasted to the bottom of the bowl. There was also a generous portion of noodles and toppings (except for the chashu, which was one thin slice) and the spiciness was at a forthright, sinus-clearing level.

Tanpopo is a hectic but cheerful venue which fits my imaginary picture of what a popular ramen-ya should be like, and has a long and varied menu of both ramen and sides. I'll be back.

Where slurped: Tanpopo Restaurant, 1740 Buchanan St San Francisco, On the Buchanan Street Mall.

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