Noodle Salad

Noodle Salad

The mention of terms like vegan and macrobiotic usually gives me hives, but my mum is vegetarian, so I’ve been accomodating her tastes while she visits this week. Mum was seriously craving noodles the day she got into New York after a grueling 20 hour flight, so I brought her for some vegetarian ramen at Souen, a relatively new noodle joint in East Village. It has 2 sister shops in Union Square and West Village, but the EV one specializes in noodles, offering not just vegetarian, but also chicken and seafood broths. No milk white pork broth reminiscent of Ippudo in sight, but my mother’s ramen was springy, chockful of fresh vegetables and the miso broth actually had depth and flavor. Not as flavorful as less healthy versions of ramen, but nonetheless pretty tasty for a meatless stock.

My ramen salad was even better. Souen’s version of the hiyashi chuka was packed with fresh and pickled vegetables, the lotus roots and seaweed providing crunch and chew, the sprouts and carrots natural sweetness. The cold broth enhanced by a lemon’s tang and the addictive ume paste made for a most refreshing light lunch. Just perfect for the long, hot summer.


Souen Organic Ramen

326 E 6th St (Between 1st and 2nd Ave)

anchovy kal gook soo

anchovy kal gook soo

Mee Hoon Kway is to me as the madeleine is to Proust, but after so many years, I’ve given up searching for a bowl of passable mee hoon kway in this country. It is impossible to find that many restaurants that serve the rustic hand-made noodles in a rich and salty pork/anchovy based broth, much less tasty versions complete with all the requisite toppings of fragrant fried onions and crispy dried anchovies. However, with  Kal Gook Soo, I might have found mee hoon kway’s Korean soul sister.

For a hearty bowl of kal gook soo in the city, one turns to the newly opened Arirang, a specialist in handmade noodles, perched on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on 32nd street. It was hidden well and took me awhile to find my way up the stairs where I met Goh Siew for our Sunday lunch.

Being our first visit, we both picked noodles, although Arirang’s menu does diversify somewhat beyond the obligatory bowl of kal gook soo, but is in no way as expansive as the regular Ktown restaurant. The noodles come 2 ways, either hand-cut into long, uniform strands, or hand torn into irregular flat pieces (su jea bee) just like my beloved mee hoon kway.  Order both in the same bowl to figure out which one you love best. 5 types of broth are available, chicken, anchovy,  seafood, vegetable and kimchi. Goh Siew picked the chicken broth, and the steaming bowl of soup was a milk white broth that thickened as the noodles soaked, and had a very pure taste of poultry. I decided to challenge my childhood tastebuds and ordered the anchovy based soup, anchovy soup being one that I seriously detested growing up, especially when it came with gummy mee sua and overboiled sweet potato leaves. Thankfully, my tastebuds have grown up, and I now can appreciate the faint seafood flavor and umami of the anchovies. Thankfully too, for the absence of the little fish. In the giant bowl of soup laid a neverending supply of noodles, its texture slightly thicker but 90% like mee hoon kway, a little chewy but mostly yielding to the bite. It was such a delight.


32 W 32nd St (3rd Floor)

Uni with Yuzu jely

Uni with Yuzu jely

As long as I can remember, soba was the plainest noodle dish available. Cold grey strands of buckwheat noodles set on a bamboo tray, with nothing but a soy-based dipping sauce accompanying it. Simply put, one eats soba purely for the noodles and not the fanciful toppings or flavor-packed sauces that come with other noodle dishes. At Matsugen, the newly opened Japanese restaurant anointed with Jean Georges Vongerichten star power, you can choose to slurp your choice of three sobas plain. However, you do not need to be a purist at Matsugen, where its house specialty comes topped with a myriad of toppings. After all, this is the U.S, where choice is king, and this is a JGV establishment, where liberties are allowed. 

Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce
Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce


The noodles ranging from smooth to coarse were handmade and had good al dente bite to them. and an intrinsic nutty taste heightened by the sesame based dipping sauce. The guys enjoyed their Matsugen soba, also known as the “everything but the kitchen sink” noodle, with scallion, bonito, yam, okra, wasabi, egg and other ingredients thrown into the mix.

With a menu that tries to cover so much ground, it would be remiss if we didn’t try the other dishes. We decided to forego the sashimi and sushi, which to our knowledge was pricey and average, and instead picked a few interesting dishes. The uni with yuzu jelly was fantastic, with the jelly and uni simulataneously sliding to the back of one’s throat, while providing contrasting sweet and sour flavors. The Bakudan too had uni, along with other slimy components such as raw squid, natto and a poached egg, with each different flavor layered on top of each other, the funkiness of natto staying safely in the background while fresh wasabi gives it a bracing finish. Between our final two and most expensive savory dishes, I would count the kurobuta pork shabu shabu the more successful one. The tray of thinly sliced pork, after being lightly swished into a boiling pot of water and vegetables and then dipped into ponzu sauce was clean tasty yet very meaty, a taste akin to liver. The Uni Kamameshi (yes someone on the table really likes uni) was slightly disappointing, as the big pot of sea urchin cooked fluffy white rice smelled transcendent but tasted flat. It is indeed a waste to cook uni.

grapefruit jelly

grapefruit jelly

We ended the night with desserts, ranging from Jean George’s famous molten chocolate cake (with green tea icecream providing the Japanese touch), a parfait with mochi, grapefruit jelly that looked ingeniously like slices of real fruit (the jelly is solidified within an empty grapefruit skin) and a bruleed ice-cream that unfortunately tasted far too ordinary to be so enthusiastically recommended by our server. With all the hype surrounding the restaurant, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Could the room be less stark and plain, and more decorative fixings added to the series of fish filled tanks to brighten the aesthetics? Sure. And could the expensive and sometimes random menu be more tightly curated? Definitely. But this is seriously good soba, and this is as good a place as any for a bowl of quiet luxury.


241 Church St (Between Church & Leonard)

shio ramen

A bowl of noodles in a salty seafood broth enriched with the umami of seawood and dried scallops, topped with scallions, menma, roast pork slices and half a hard boiled egg. This is a bowl of Ramen Setagaya’s signature shio ramen. On hot, steamy summer days, I much prefer the tsuke men, where you a bowl of cold noodles accompanied with a smaller bowl of warm, broth concentrate that is chockful of broken roast pork slices and chunks of dried scallops. Dip the cold noodles in the hot soup and you get a contrast of cold, bland, al dente noodles swathed in hot, savory soup.

I do find the broth at Setagaya inconsistent, sometimes wonderfully flavorful yet other times tasting one-note and plain salty. And the pork can range from a micro thin slice to a big fatty chunk in the same bowl, which I’m sure was not the intention. But one thing has always on point, and is the reason I go again and again, and its the shio tama. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the hard boiled egg is cooked in salted water, such that the whites and firm, yet the yolk is not quite fully set, and the middle has a brillant golden hue, and a slightly gooey and almost creamy texture. So go for the egg, and a bowl of ramen while you’re at it, and you’ll find out why Ramen Setagaya is perpetually packed with noodle and egg lovers alike. 
Ramen Setagaya
141 E 1st St (Between 9th St & St Marks Place)    

Ippudo shiromaruLook at this bowl of ramen and tell me how much I’ve sinned. Well technically this wasn’t my bowl but Rosie’s. However, mine was even richer, with the deeply flavored milky pork-bone tonkotsu broth further enhanced by red chili sauce and some unidentifiable dark colored oil/sauce. Any richer and I could be drinking melted jello. For those not into the rich Hakata styled broth, miso and shoyu ramen are also available, with a list of other items including fried chicken and salad. I must emphasize though that the Hakata broth is what’s famous. The char siu was good too, fatty and reasonably thick with a clean taste, and the ramen, thinner than usual, was cooked well, although not quite springy enough for me. Then again, I’m into very al dente noodles. On this unseasonably cold Friday night, a big bowl of ramen from Ippudo, the new ramen-ya currently in soft-opening mode certainly hits the spot. Not cheap though, as a $13 bowl of noodles would probably be on the higher range of ramen prices even in this city where price inflation is the norm. However, this isn’t your regular hole-in-the wall, but part of a renowned chain. It is also the flashiest of its counterparts, complete with a bar (decorated with bowls on the walls and squares of dried instant ramen below the glass counter), ample seating (pleasantly surprised by the different seating arrangements that caters for different group sizes) and space between seats so that I can slurp my noodles without knocking elbows with my neighbors. They also serve specialty cocktails, quite the departure from my neighborhood Men Kui Tei and Sapporo noodle shops. For noodle fiends, this is a worthy addition to the local ramen scene.  


65th 4th Avenue (Between 9th & 10th Sts)


Soba-ya is one of my East Village standbys, and for very good reason. Comfortable seating, good prices, polite service and most importantly pitch perfect buckwheat noodles, made-in-house and begging to be dipped in sauce and slurped aloud. However, while the place is not exactly a hole-in-the-wall, its not big either and waits, especially on weekend nights can border on egregious. One way to game the system is to come in for lunch, where I found myself some weekends back with a group of friends.

Most of my companions were taken with the price-buster of a bento set. For a ridiculously low price of $15, you get, not only an expertly made serving of nutty, chewy soba, you are also served a lacquer-box filled with 4 food types: salad, nimono (stewed root vegetables) , agemono (tempura) and yakimono (for that day, a slice of teriyaki salmon), on top of pickles and dessert. I found myself lusting over the tempura, the shrimp and vegetables showing through a crisp and light coat of batter.
Besides the bento set and bowls of soba and udon (also made in house), diners can choose from a multitude of noodles + rice combos as well as a daily special (Chirashi soba, with the ingredients artistically fanned out on of a mound of noodles in a large ceramic bowl). A fan of fish roe, I had to get the salmon + roe ricebowl + soba combo. For a non-sushi place, Soba-ya serves really fresh fish, and I absolutely adore the burst of brininess with each bite of the glistening salmon roe pearls. The salty rice, and the austere zaru soba make for a contrasting but good meal.
We washed down our lunches with leftover sauce and the soba water, left over from the cooking process and dug into the complimentary desserts, precious little pots of eggy custard. With noodles this good, who needs eggs for brunch?


229 E 9th St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)

Give me winter over summer anytime. At least, indulgence in rich and buttery food are condoned and flabby arms are hidden from sight by clever jackets and coats. The streets look cleaner, the subway smells less rank and my electricity bill is much lower. But one thing summer has over winter, aside from plenty of lush stone fruits and the joys of ice cold beer and watermelon slices is the comeback of seasonal cold noodles. It could be soba slick with a soy and wasabi concoction, or fabulously thin and elastic korean naeng myun nested in a ice-cold beef broth.
My favorite cold Asian noodle however is a Japanese dish called Hiyashi Chuka. And of all the ramen-yas in Midtown, I favor Menchanko Tei’s version the most as the flavors are clean and fresh and the presentation aesthetically pleasing. A big heap of thin egg noodles hides under a profusion of toppings that include cucumber, lettuce, marinated shitake mushrooms, chicken, a thin egg omelet, seaweed and scarily red pickeld ginger. All toppings were sliced almost as finely as the noodles are thin. A dollop of mustard also helps clear sinuses and gives the sweet and sour soy-based broth a bracing lift. The mustard’s heat and the vinegar’s tartness stimulates dormant summer appetites and before you know it, you’d have eaten the entire bowl of noodles. It doesnt look like much but you’ve got the equivalent of half a pack of dried pasta by the time you roll out of the restaurant. Be warned though, that I’ve observed a negative side effect after eating this dish. The noodles do such a great job of waking my tastebuds that instead of feeling full, I leave in search of even more food, especially dessert. Oh man, will I stop eating already! But I don’t have to look far, since Japanese icecream or pudding are on sale at Menchanko too!

Menchanko Tei
131 E45th St (Between Lex & 3rd Aves)
43-45 W55th St (Bet 5th & 6th Aves)

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