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From Spaetzle to Saimintosoda 

The world on a string

Wednesday, Feb 9 2000
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Photo by Anne Fishbein
Early on in history, some say about 100 A.D., humanity concluded that it positively would not live on bread alone. The baguette-addicted French might say “C’est ridicule” to this notion, but noodles became the world’s favorite comfort food probably the moment folks discovered a cheap, easy way to mill large quantities of grain. Noodles captured the fancy of cooks everywhere, for unlike breads, they required no rising or long baking time, nor did they need lengthy cooking like whole grains. A batch could stretch more expensive ingredients to feed a house full of hungry children for a mere pittance.

Like many others who grew up in America, for the longest time I thought of noodles only as a plate filled with spaghetti and meatballs smothered in tomato sauce, or elbow macaroni floating in pools of very yellowy cheese. The noodle world changed for me, however, in ’85, while researching an L.A. food-shopping guide. As I struck up conversations with good cooks about where they got their spices or their specialty ingredients, they’d eagerly ply me with tips on other good things to eat. More often than not, their leads involved some sort of noodle — perhaps a wonderful bowl of ramen from a hole-in-the-wall in Little Tokyo, or a German restaurant that made fine spaetzle.

Those were the days when fresh pastas were thought to be the ne plus ultra of noodledom. But as I poked around various food stores, I came across Hungarian tarhonya, Korean dang-myun, Hawaiian saimin, Vietnamese banh canh, even Persian toasted noodles called reshteh. I began to think of L.A. as the most wildly diverse noodle city anywhere. Fifteen years later, the single most obvious thing I notice is how much more refined our noodle choices have become. Hand-pressed chitarra, hand-swung Chinese mein and handmade soba, among other artisanal noodles, have raised every noodle lover’s standards. What follows is a sampling of some of the best noodling around.

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New Comfort Foods

Many new hip semiretro coffee shops like Axe, the Standard and Fred 62 are redefining comfort food just as seared ã ahi redefined what was once acceptable on a French menu. Soba in dashi broth, or Korean glass noodles in cold spicy sesame dressing, appear on their menus as nonchalantly as if they were a BLT or a tuna melt. Yet for me, and a lot of others who ate in school cafeterias here, a bowl of unadulterated Americana means macaroni and cheese. I went everywhere hunting for the best, from home-cooking places to supermarkets, delis and coffee shops, and sadly found the dish defiled with mushy noodles and insipid cheese sauce. I did, however, come upon one great version, the MacDaddy and Cheese, at Fred 62. It’s a soup bowl full of perfectly cooked elbows in a creamy, soupy, cheese-intensive sauce, spiked with bits of fresh green chile. Topped with a thin brûlée-like crust of buttery crumbs, a spoonful brings up wonderful stretchy strings of well-ag ed sharp Cheddar. A slightly more elegant mac and cheese comes from Greenblatt’s Deli. It stands on its own, like cold lasagna, with a sauce that’s almost pure cheese, wedged between perfectly cooked noodles. A thick layer of Cheddar forms its crumbless topping. It’s easy to wreck this dish while warming it up later, so cover it, use a 300-degree oven, and pull it out exactly when the cheese becomes molten.

The European Noodle

Deli foods of Russian extraction, and the noodles of Greece, Germany and Mittel Europe, are seemingly on the wane. Yet they are thriving, if you know where to look. Kasha varnishkas, the bow-tie noodles with toasted buckwheat, used to be one of my favorite Jewish-deli dishes. Lately I’ve found sloppily made versions in Nate ’n’ Al’s, Art’s, Canter’s and even Brent’s. But Langer’s, the King of Pastrami, puts forth a perfect, steaming plate of bow ties, encrusted with still-slightly-toothy buckwheat redolent with sweet, smoky notes of caramelized onion. Langer’s also prepares one of the best noodle kugels. It looks kind of homely next to the tall, beautiful one from Greenblatt’s, which ties with Brent’s for second place. But Langer’s pudding is a soft, meltingly tender, egg-rich custard, rather than stiff or dry and rubbery, as inferior versions can be. Pastitsio — macaroni layered with ground beef or lamb, infused with Greek seasonings and crowned with a savory cheese-custard topping — has to be one of the great Greek noodle creations of all time. I remember loving the pastitsio at Joseph’s Café, yet when I last ate it there it was truly a sad example. Fortunately, I’ve found two marvelous replacements. Delphi, an okay restaurant in Westwood, surprised me with its savory, tender-topped version, and the Greek Bistro in Encino not only does a fine, creamy pastitsio, but offers a long menu of Greek-inspired linguine with charbroiled octopus or crumbly, aged mizithra cheese, both with garlic and olive oil, or with oven-roasted lamb in its own juice.

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