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Noodle in a Haystack serves the best ramen in the Bay Area

Few dishes span the high and low ends of the culinary spectrum as successfully as ramen.

For most people, our interactions with ramen—and the universe of instant noodles that grew out of it—are a practiced series of movements that take place in our home kitchens. It’s turning on a kettle, unwrapping crispy plastic wrappers, the timed wait while dried fried noodles and dried chunks of carrot rise in boiling water. When you think of luxury, it’s in the form of a last-minute cracked egg whose tender, semi-translucent egg white swims in the broth, or a kraft single that slowly melts over pasta.

But even “high-end” ramen from the ground up remains a proletarian pursuit: In Tokyo, Michelin-starred ramen shops ask you to order your $10 bowls from ticket machines. Locally acclaimed spots like Ramen Nagi and Mensho Tokyo average around $15 to $20 per bowl. In that context, the price of admission to Noodle in a Haystack, which husband and wife team Yoko and Clint Tan opened in San Francisco’s Richmond District earlier this spring, may come as a shock: $175 for a ramen tasting menu?

It’s a total nerd, but I’m here to tell you that it absolutely works.

You might think the price points to something lavish and ridiculous, like noodles spun from edible gold and topped with braised white rhino and nori harvested by maidens on an ancient seabed. The real highlight of the 10-course tasting menu is more subtle: a combination of exquisite ingredients and superior, even geeky, technique resulting in a quality of ramen you won’t find anywhere outside of Japan. It will probably be the best ramen you’ve ever had.

In the spring, it was abura soba, a steamless and oilier version of ramen — noodles thickened with wagyu beef fat and topped with a sticky, slow-poached egg, bamboo shoots, and greasy picanha slices, or top sirloin, cooked sous vide. The creamy texture achieved when the runny egg yolk mixes with the hot beef fat is similar to carbonara; Chunks of chopped raw onions soaked in water to remove the rim kept the richness from becoming overwhelming.

In late summer, it was ebi shio – pasta in a translucent, salt-spiced broth paired with shrimp and meaty New Caledonian blue shrimp. An orange oil made from the shells of the crustaceans perfumes the broth made from the post-extraction shells and chicken with the luscious aroma of shrimp heads. The noodles were garnished with sprigs of coriander, and we were encouraged to squeeze halved key limes into the soup. If you close your eyes, this combination of lime, cilantro, thin noodles and seafood makes it a dead ringer for Vietnamese bún riêu.

Ebi Shio Ramen.  Noodle in a Haystack is a tasting menu style restaurant where the owners serve up an exceptionally geeky take on ramen.

Ebi Shio Ramen. Noodle in a Haystack is a tasting menu style restaurant where the owners serve up an exceptionally geeky take on ramen.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle

You will find the noodles served in different shapes depending on the type of soup (or lack thereof). The Tans work closely with local noodle maker Iseya Craft Noodle, founded by a former Amazon engineer, to commission custom sizes, hydrations and textures for their dishes.

It took the Tans a long time to open this restaurant, which they successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter in the summer of 2021. Eight years ago, the couple, who share a common background in the financial services world, moved here from Tokyo to be closer to Clint’s family. It pained her to realize that local businesses were not a hair’s breadth from where they lived in Japan. To emulate what they craved, they studied cookbooks translated from Japanese. In 2015, friends and family convinced her to start making pop-ups.

At their Daly City home, the tans frequently hosted sold-out dinners via online platforms such as Feastly and Eatwith. Customers sipped bowls of ramen in their living room surrounded by family photos and the tans’ son’s Minecraft toys.A surprisingly strong performance at the 2017 World Ramen Grand Prix in Osaka, Japan gave them the boost they needed to take their hobby seriously. The Kickstarter tripled its goal and the restaurant finally opened this year.

In this new space, transformed from a former curry cafe with a new hood and wooden counter that seats about a dozen, the couple cooks with an arsenal of tabletop induction burners and appliances. There is plenty of time during the meal to chat with the chefs, who rarely call in friends or helpers to serve, and the atmosphere is always friendly and unpretentious. The lo-fi setup bridges the gap between Noodle in a Haystack’s early days and the elegant restaurant they have today.

To maintain the intimacy of the experience and to allow for the micromanagement of each noodle, the number of seats here is the same as the number of seats at the Tan’s house, so naturally reservations are extremely difficult to come by as there is only one seat each night. As I was writing this review, I felt like an understudy at the theater, fervently hoping that someone would catch a cold or lose a babysitter so I could hop in their place. My advice is to keep an eye on the restaurant’s Instagram stories just in case something becomes available at the last minute.

Clint and Yoko Tan serve one of the courses at Noodle in a Haystack, a home for ambitious and upscale ramen in the Richmond District.

Clint and Yoko Tan serve one of the courses at Noodle in a Haystack, a home for ambitious and upscale ramen in the Richmond District.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle

At Noodle in a Haystack, the Tans and their team use the early aisles to deconstruct and dissect the components of ramen. This approach was particularly evident in the spring menu, which felt like a medical school-style seminar on all the ingredients that make ramen tick. Bean sprouts, an often underestimated side dish, were blanched and mixed with a sesame sauce vibrating with Sichuan pepper and chili flavors. In a tiny bowl, a silky block of fresh tofu and crab meat was smothered in a thickened Cantonese-style dashi, with sea beans adding a different kind of oceanic bite.

The notion was most evident in the opening shot of a deviled egg, made from the signature marinated egg seen floating in a bowl repurposed as an hors d’oeuvre. His egg yolk was whipped with Kewpie mayonnaise, concentrated fish powder, and pickled daikon radish juice, and topped with toppings of fried chicken skin and boba-style marinated salmon roe. Like Willy Wonka’s three course chewing gum, this single half of an egg seemed to contain a complete narrative within itself.

That course has since been replaced by a coat button-sized brown butter financier topped with a fluffy dollop of smoked soy sauce crème fraîche. The bite was perfumed with dabs of garlic oil behind the ears, and it was all topped off with a salty dollop of black caviar. It’s not as obviously an act of foreboding, but it did have everyone at the counter cooing with delight.

The new menu has also drawn more closely on the conventions of seasonal produce in California cuisine. A delightful miniature ramen came disguised as Pomodoro pasta, complete with a strong Early Girl tomato jam, a seaweed tomato broth, and even some burrata with chilli crisp oil. The tans also got on the corn train: For a scallop and sea urchin dish, they mashed Brentwood sweetcorn and turned it into a fluffy, whipped version of Corn Chowder, the French-influenced cream of corn chowder you can buy from vending machines on the streets of Tokyo .

A consistent course is the roast pork belly, which I hope will never disappear from the menu. At the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the main exhibit is a Qing Dynasty piece of banded jasper carved to look like a piece of stewed pork belly; This dish reminds me so much of that rock in a weird twist.

Kakuni Karaage (pork belly).  Noodle in a Haystack is a tasting menu style restaurant where the owners serve up an exceptionally geeky take on ramen.

Kakuni Karaage (pork belly). Noodle in a Haystack is a tasting menu style restaurant where the owners serve up an exceptionally geeky take on ramen.

Carlos Avila González/The Chronicle

The pork is braised for 16 hours until it’s basically a meat jelly, then coated in starch and fried. The result is a deliciously melt-in-your-mouth texture, not unlike a campfire-roasted marshmallow, or, as the Tans put it, xiaolongbao. The rugged coating clinging to the flesh also has a quartz-like quality, making the piece look like something you’ve painstakingly dug out of a cave wall. Served with a solid mixed leaf salad and a pair of shiso leaves marinated in a chili sauce to refresh your taste buds. You will definitely be satisfied with this and with the ramen.

It’s an uphill battle for a restaurant like this to earn a relatively high entrance fee, especially when it focuses on a dish that’s generally considered cheap. Ramen and many similar dishes are popular around the world because they are fast food – the fuel of a working person. And you can feel that vibe at this restaurant, which celebrates even the most overlooked aspects of the dish in a way that never fails to surprise and delight the senses.

Noodle in a haystack

4601 Geary Blvd. (on 10th Avenue), San Francisco. www.noodleinhaystack.com
Hours of Operation: Generally one session at 6pm, Tuesday to Friday.
Accessibility: Lower counter seating available; single toilet. No printed or online menu. Indoor seating only.
Noise Level: Moderate, depending on who is sitting near you.
Meal for two without drinks: $350.
What to order: Ten-course tasting menu ($175), with limited ability to substitute.
Meat Free Options: None.
Drinks: beer and sake. A $70 sake pairing of four 3-ounce pours is available.
Transportation: Easy street parking.
Best Practices: Reservation required. New reservations are posted on Tock every second Sunday of the month at 9pm. Join the waiting list or keep an eye on the restaurant’s Instagram page

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hooleil

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