Oodles of noodles

From Los Angeles to Rome to Tokyo, the beloved culinary staple crosses cultures as a fixture in delicious dishes

WORDS Gerald Tan
January / February 2019
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What comes to mind at the mention of noodles? Could it be the flowing strands of hair-like lamian flamboyantly hand-pulled by Shanghainese chefs? What about those canary-tinted egg pastas rolled out in Italian kitchens? Or perhaps it is the bouncy, transparent mung-bean threads so elemental to Thai cuisine? For me, noodles conjure an image of simple pleasures, of inhaling the fragrant steam from a piping-hot bowl and then savoring the enveloping warmth. In cooler months, I find myself craving the food in its myriad iterations. Whether the noodles swim in soups, slither in stir-fries or shimmer in sauces, they are sure bets for a dose of delectable comfort.

Ramen at Tsujita LA

Los Angeles

It wasn’t long ago that ramen held an ignominious reputation as the starving student’s dinner staple. But those dehydrated instant cup noodles are a distant cry from the Japanese dish that now inspires cultish obsession. Hipster neighborhoods boast competing ramen bars, each with a signature interpretation of the almost creamy, unctuous pork broth that provides an unmistakable umami blast. At Tsujita LA in the Sawtelle district of West Los Angeles, the tonkotsu broth is simmered with bones and fat for a staggering 60 hours, then served with noodles, nori seaweed and thin slices of pork. Heaven! For those who prefer a less messy affair, try the equally addictive tsukemen, whereby noodles and broth arrive separately.  

 

Soba at Honmura An

Tokyo

If ramen is the rock star of Japanese noodles, then soba must be the classical pianist. The former is robust; the latter, delicate. Made from buckwheat, the noodles themselves take center stage whether enjoyed hot in broth or icy cold with a light dipping sauce. And Koichi Kobari is a soba virtuoso. After developing a loyal New York fan base, the chef shuttered his successful Honmura An in SoHo and recycled that name at his new restaurant in Tokyo. A departure from the ubiquitous standing-only soba shops, Honmura An invites diners to a more measured, sit-down experience. The menu is an ode to soba, with raw sea urchin, whipped mountain yam and cherry blossom all proving worthy accompaniments to the handcrafted noodles. 

Pho at Hanoi House

New York City

Few dishes inspire as many puns as the Vietnamese noodle soup pho—delightfully pronounced “fur”—which is pho-nomenally good pho you (sorry). The dish is a masterpiece, a balance of hearty beef stock with fresh basil and mint rounded off with citrus juice. That widely available iteration is southern Vietnamese, but Hanoi House in New York’s East Village serves a northern-spirited pho, richer and punchier as a result of beef cuts and bones brewed for more than half a day and then perfumed with spices. Don’t expect any leafy condiments—instead, pickled garlic and a chili sauce accompany the sublime brisket and filet mignon slices, with the option of oxtail and bone marrow extras.

 

Saimin at Palace Saimin

Honolulu

Most visitors to Hawaii leave with culinary memories of sea-fresh poke and seaside shave ice, eating kalua pig at a luau or trying loco moco, the heart-stopping trinity of burger, rice and fried egg with gravy. Yet tourist brochures seem to sideline the locally popular saimin. This riff on Chinese wonton noodle soup and Japanese ramen is chiefly composed of egg noodles in a clear dashi, topped with slices of ham or roast pork char siu, scallions and fish cake. It is neither elegant nor elevated, just satisfying. Honolulu’s family-run Palace Saimin—which has operated in the same spot for more than half a century—doubly rewards diners with the added offering of teriyaki beef sticks.

Pasta at Antica Pesa

Rome

The provenance of pasta is an age-old debate. Did ancient Romans develop the starchy strands? Was it explorer Marco Polo or Mediterranean traders who introduced the noodles? Its origins may be ambiguous, but pasta’s cultural existence is unquestionably Italian. After all, they perfected marinara, pesto, ragù and a catalog of other sauces to bathe noodles in every shape imaginable. One pasta dish that captures my heart is the minimalist cacio e pepe—cheese and black pepper. The handsome plate at Rome’s Antica Pesa features a dreamy combination of Parmesan and Roman ewe’s cheese mingling with perfectly al dente spaghetti. This establishment is an A-list celebrity haunt, but the food remains the star of the show.

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