I am willing to make the claim that I could eat noodles every night for a week and have each of those meals originate from a different country/culture. It’s a widely know (and skinny jean-sabotaging) fact that grains are the base of most diets. Be it rice, noodles or bread, there is some kind of grainy carby love serving as the backbone of most traditional dishes.
Tonight for dinner I made myself some Italian-inspired fettuccine with a tomato-garlic sauce, shrimp and basil. Last night I ordered in Pad-Thai. The night before that, I walked a few blocks to my neighborhood Udon restaurant to get my noodle fix. As a kid, my favorite meals were served with noodles: Fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, lo mein and my granny’s macaroni salad. In college, my freshman year roommate introduced me to Cup Noodles, one of our favorite post-party snacks packaged conveniently in a Styrofoam cup and requiring only a short stumble to our hall water fountain’s hot water tap. Growing up in Kentucky followed by college in Central Ohio provided limited pasta options, so it wasn’t until I moved to California for culinary school that my eyes were really opened to the wide world of noodles.
My first noodle awakening happened randomly one night when my friends got hungry after a shopping trip in Santa Rosa and decided to stop for food. The boys had heard about a Pho place nearby that was supposed to be good. I had no idea what “Fuh” was but said as long as they had something “normal” to eat there I would go with. Like a fool, I ordered Chicken Teriyaki and immediately regretted my choice when the steaming bowls of noodle goodness were placed in front of the others. Pho, as it turns out, is Vietnamese comfort food and most importantly, the ultimate hangover cure, consisting of thinly sliced meat that cooks in the remarkably flavorful vegetable broth ,Thai basil, bean sprouts, hot peppers, a cocktail of house sauces, and most importantly, noodles. One bite and I was hooked.
Pho eventually became a staple in my weekly diet. Claiming that he had found the best Pho spot in the Bay Area, my friend Bobby drove me the 45 minutes to Fairfield for an $8 lunch. And despite how silly I knew it was to drive so far for what is essentially fast food, I went back with him almost every weekend. The full bellied satisfaction you have after eating a bowl of Pho is reminiscent of chicken noodle soup on a cold day as a kid, and just as addictive.
There is an art to eating Pho. How much basil do I add? Is it a pepper day? Do I want Sriracha and the house chili paste? Hoisin? Soy Sauce? Fish sauce? It took me a long time to master the proportions. Bobby has his down to a science, filling his little sauce dish before he even orders- the same amounts each time to ensure the perfect blend. Like the white girl I am, I unceremoniously squirt things straight into the bowl, stirring and hoping I don’t accidentally burn my face off. Alas, most meals end with a bright red face, runny nose and broth-splattered shirt. But I keep coming back for more.
Since moving to San Francisco, I have so many more options for international cuisine at my fingertips- especially noodles; With Japantown, Chinatown, and Little Italy all within walking (or busing) distance, how do you choose? Yelp. As controversial as it is, it remains one of the easiest ways to discover new food, among other things. The newest addition to my noodle repertoire is a mere three-block stroll from my front door, and was discovered thanks to a tandem Google/Yelp search. Kaka Udon is a tiny and cute restaurant that serves the expected Teriyakis and sushi, but the staple of the eatery is, as its name states, udon.
Unlike the thinner rice noodles in Pho, Udon are fresh thick egg noodles that, at least at Kaka Udon, are handmade in house. Garnished with only the basics –tofu, oyster mushrooms, and nori- most of the flavor is derived from the broth. Really? …that’s it? Noodles and broth? How good can that really be? This was my initial reaction. As a blue blooded American eater, I wanted more stuff in my bowl. Where are all the “goodies?” Shouldn’t it have at least two kinds of meat and a vegetable or something? As it turns out, you can order udon with meat or veggies if you want, and it’s really good that way, but its also really, really good if you leave it alone. Once I got over the initial shock of the simplicity of the dish, I understood why it is the way it is. Suddenly I was wishing I had worn baggier pants, cursing my stomach for being so small, and wondering if it would be completely ridiculous to call a cab because I didn’t want to slosh the three blocks home.
I found myself craving it again the next night for dinner, and the next… Udon has bypassed Pho and become my new zombie master. I try to distract myself with other noodles- pad thai, chow mein, linguini- but nothing is the same. Nothing is good enough. It’s all about the udon, baby. That is, until I find another noodle. I still have a lot of eating to do.