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Noodles

Noodlepalooza: A Comprehensive Guide to Asian Noodles in L.A.

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Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge a bowl of ramen - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • a bowl of ramen
If you’ve driven on Sawtelle during lunch hours lately, you’ve likely noticed a crowd around Tsujita, the artisan noodle shop that has grown famous for the specialty ramen dish called tsukemen. The crowd is part of a growing legion in Los Angeles who've chosen to dig deeply into noodle culture. Eating ramen and its variations in Los Angeles right now is what eating sushi was a couple decades ago: It is, to put it simply, cool.

What you may not know is that ramen was originally Chinese, first eaten in one of Japan’s many Chinatowns about a century ago. Most Asian noodle dishes are, in one way or another, Chinese in origin. But what happens once a noodle dish migrates to another Asian country can vary considerably, from that bowl of ramen, where the noodles are laden with viscous pork-intensive broth, to pad kee mao, the Thai dish where the noodles are flash-fried at temperatures hot enough to send diamond past liquidus. When you’re eating a bowl of noodles at some Vietnamese pho joint or Korean cold noodle parlor, you taste a thing distinctly different from its Chinese source. We could, if we were being facetious, even call it fusion.

There is no better place in the world to sample Asia’s vast tapestry of noodle dishes than Los Angeles, a city that is a fusion of its own. We're lucky enough to have a glimpse at Seoul in Koreatown, a taste of Shaanxi’s thick wheat noodles in San Gabriel, a sample of Chinese-Indonesian street noodles in West Covina. And yes, we have one of America’s best ramen shops.

Here's our guide to some of Asia’s many noodle dishes and where to find them in Los Angeles. JapaneseChinese, Thai, Indonesian, Burmese, Vietnamese and Korean — there's a noodle for every national preference.

JAPANESE NOODLES


click to enlarge ramen at Tsujita L.A. - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • ramen at Tsujita L.A.
Ramen

ラーメン

The godfather of Asian noodles, at least these days. Ramen is a dish of wheat noodles in hot soup, either pork- or chicken- or fish-based, with many condiments. The various components (broth, noodle, tare or flavor base, topping) vary widely, depending on the style of the region. Ramen's origins go back to China. First brought to Japan probably in the 1880s, ramen initially was made by cooks from the Guangdong region who were working in restaurants in Yokohama. The dish gained enormous popularity in Japan, thanks to an influx of postwar American wheat, urban working-class needs, and the speed and inexpensive nature of the soup. There are as many styles of ramen as there are regions of Japan, and even more hybrid variations now that the dish has gained worldwide popularity. (See: David Chang.)

Go to: Tsujita L.A. The lines outside this Sawtelle outpost of the Tokyo ramen company haven't dissipated since the place opened in 2011, even with the opening of an annex across the street. Until somebody else starts making better ramen, they're not likely to. Tsujita serves Hakata-style ramen in bowls that won't overwhelm you, each component perfectly achieved.  (Amy Scattergood)


click to enlarge soba at Ichimi-an - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • soba at Ichimi-an
Soba
そば
Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat, which is the primary ingredient in these thin, steel-colored noodles. Although buckwheat is grown primarily in the north, in Hokkaido, soba noodles have long been a popular staple throughout Japan. Buckwheat flour gives soba not only its distinctive color but also a lovely, nutty flavor. Because of this delicate taste, soba is mostly served with light dipping sauces or broths. Served simply, either cold with dipping sauce or hot in soups, soba is a traditional dish (called toshikoshi soba) at New Year's, when it's eaten before midnight for good luck.

Go to: Ichimi-an. A small noodle shop in a Torrance strip mall open for a half-dozen years, Ichimi-an specializes in soba and udon, both hot and cold, which they make in-house. Try the hot buckwheat soba with mochi or the cold, green-tea flavored soba, served with umi plums and shiso. (AS)


click to enlarge somen at Musha - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • somen at Musha
Sōmen
そうめん
Sōmen are fine wheat noodles, as thin as vermicelli. Served both warm and cold, sōmen are most abundantly consumed ice-cold, often even over ice, with a dipping sauce and condiments during the hot summer months. Sōmen are such pretty, delicate noodles that there's even a tradition of serving them via a long bamboo gutter (during holidays at festivals and even sometimes in restaurants) called nagashi-sōmen, or flowing somen. The diners stand along the bamboo and try to pluck the noodles from the water rushing down the bamboo. (See: party tricks.)

Go to:
 Musha. Unlike ramen, there are no shops devoted to sōmen, and in fact it's oddly difficult to find on restaurant menus. When you do find it, it tends to be at an izakaya, as a homey dish to help sop up all the booze and as an accompaniment to all that skewered meat. Musha, which has outposts in both Torrance and Santa Monica, has a simple, homey iteration, loaded with garlic and served in a little wok. (AS)


click to enlarge Jidaiya's tsukemen - A. SCATTERGOOD
  • A. Scattergood
  • Jidaiya's tsukemen
Tsukemen
つけめん
Tsukemen (pronounced TSKEH-men) is a recent innovation of ramen, in which the noodles and condiments are served beside a bowl of even more condensed broth. Imagine deconstructed ramen, with the components dipped, as soba noodles often are, into a bowl of sauce. This modern variation on the wildly popular ramen dish first started showing up in Tokyo noodle shops about five years ago (some sources say the trend first appeared in the 1950s, then reappeared in the '70s and again recently) and has become hugely popular. Served both cold and hot, tsukemen can have as many variations as ramen — and soba — has, which is to say quite a lot.


Go to: 
Jidaiya. Located, big surprise, in a strip mall off Western in Torrance, Jidaiya specializes in ramen but has added a stellar bowl (or bowls) of tsukemen to the menu. Dunk the lovely, chewy noodles into the insanely rich broth and keep going until you run out. And there's taiyaki for dessert. (AS)


click to enlarge Monzo's mentai squid udon - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • Monzo's mentai squid udon
Udon
うどん
A pale noodle made from wheat, udon noodles are thicker than most other Japanese noodles, dense and chewy in texture — especially handmade udon, which are rolled out and repeatedly pounded before being cut.  (Traditionally, the udon is put in plastic bags and then stepped on to knead it.) Served either hot or cold, udon often are dressed simply with a dashi-based broth. Since the fat noodles can stand up to more complex sauces, many chefs serve them with rich sauces, such as curry, or pair them with uni or duck or other hearty ingredients. A very popular (and simple) dish in the summer is zaru udon, which is just chilled udon with shredded nori presented on a zaru, or bamboo tray.

Go to:
 Marugame Monzo. This downtown noodle shop is devoted entirely to udon, which workers pound and cut behind the glassed-in open kitchen behind the bar, like a glorious floor show. The udon is thick and chewy, and comes in many preparations, from the traditional to a riff on spaghetti alla carbonara. (AS)

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