Soba -- those delicate, earthy strands of pasta you find floating in a bowl of hot broth or piled onto flat bamboo trays -- is one of the most difficult creations in a Japanese noodle chef's repertoire. Since the ash-colored buckwheat flour from which they're made contains almost no gluten, soba noodles are notoriously fragile, pulling apart like wet paper with a few rough tugs by a pair of chopsticks. With its textural difficulty and its subtlety of flavor, in Japan soba-making often falls between high art and minor religion.
Though it might have been less represented than udon, its thicker, chewier cousin, or the ubiquitous bowls of ramen noodles, Los Angeles was never exactly hurting for a good batch of fresh soba. Otafuku in Gardena coaxes springy, silklike noodles out of a special type of super-fine, white buckwheat flour once used only for royalty. Ichimiann's oddly speckled variety is fine, with its more pronounced nutty flavor. Sanuki No Sato doesn't serve the most refined specimen, but makes up for it by topping its bouncy noodles with pretty much anything your heart could desire.
Back in February, though, the noodle game got a little more serious. Common Grains, a Japanese cultural organization with food-corporation ties, started featuring handmade soba pop-up dinners at Breadbar in Century City, then at Atwater Crossing, and finally at Soba-Ya, a restaurant that opened in Torrance specifically to serve as a permanent home for the noodlerati once they finished touring the city.
Then there was Soba Sojibo, which opened a few months ago in a corner of Torrance's Eastgate Plaza in the shadow of Japanese corporate campuses across the street. Soba Sojibo is the first American outpost of a rather popular Japanese chain -- there are more than 30 branches in Tokyo alone -- known for its cheap but quality handmade soba. Like many of the new Japanese chains that have opened here, the space is clean and minimal, with a smooth-jazz soundtrack piped in over the speakers instead of blaring J-pop hits.
The specialty here is cold zaru soba, a tangle of plain noodles topped with a haystack of seaweed and soy-mirin dipping sauce called tsuyu. In Japan, Sojibo is known for grating its fresh wasabi tableside, but here it comes in a little dab on the side of the plate. In the kitchen you can see chefs dunking the cooked noodles into vats of ice water, giving them a texture-firming shock treatment and a delightful chilliness. Few things can beat a plate of zaru soba on a sweltering day.
Even though Sojibo is pretty much carb heaven (Would you like mixed-veggie fried rice or onigiri with your noodles and tempura?), there is about a page of health benefits on the naturally low-calorie, low-fat soba listed on the inner flap of the menu -- high polyphenol levels to prevent heart disease, a free radical-fighting substance called rutin, enough fiber to "control bile levels in the digestive system," as well as pretty much every type of amino acid in existence. ("I translated that page myself," said one of the hostesses cheerfully -- she was a bio-chem major at Fullerton.)
You might even get the idea that this was some sort of health restaurant if you didn't know any better, especially when one of the most compelling dishes on the menu, neba-neba soba, is listed under a section that reads "healthy special." Neba means slimy or slippery in Japanese -- a phrase that probably would make most Americans squirm -- and here it entails a kind of bizarre mega-combo of weird textures compartmentalized on top of your noodles.
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There's a dollop of tororo, a viscous mountain yam pureé that looks a lot like molten mozzarella; some bright green baby okra, blanched just long enough to ooze their starchy mucilage; a scoop of natto, that gloopy, fermented soybean stuff that tastes like gym socks or fine French cheese, depending on who you ask; a handful of tenkatsu, little flakes of fried tempura batter, a bit of minced shiso and ginger buds, green onion, two types of seaweed and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. The kitchen will add a raw quail egg upon request. You stir the whole thing up with shoyu and wasabi like your life depended on it, until the pungency of the natto and shiso have mellowed and the sliminess of the ingredients has yielded a kind of vegan carbonara sauce. Imagine eating the best creamy pasta dish you've had in your life after it had been left in the fridge the night before. This is health food?
Even if you leave Soba Sojibo devastatingly full, you probably will feel somewhat lighter, at least in spirit -- this is the magic of soba.
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