by Luke Tsai
A couple of months ago we reported that Ippuku, the downtown Berkeley izakaya, was launching lunch service with an all- (or nearly all-) soba menu — seventeen different variations, both hot and cold.
Among the three major Japanese noodle genres, soba tends to get overlooked in this country. Even the most generic Japanese restaurants always have some kind of udon offering, and ramen gets all the food-nerd love. But you’ll rarely see a dedicated soba shop in the Bay Area (are there any?), despite the fact that these thin buckwheat noodles are ubiquitous in Japan — they’re especially common at train stations, I hear.
So I was excited to hear that Ippuku was making soba from scratch using flour imported from Japanese island of Hokkaido, as is traditional. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had a chance to check it out.
Ippuku has seven hot soba offerings, which are perhaps more in line with what you think of when you think of a Japanese noodle dish: noodles served in a hot broth with some kind of topping. My dining companion’s ebi-ten oroshi soba looked great, and came topped with a large tempura-battered shrimp.
But the purists eat their soba cold. In part that’s because this allows the noodles to keep their ideal texture (in a hot broth, they’ll keep cooking) — and also because there’s nothing more refreshing on a hot day. Ippuku has a whopping ten different options for cold soba, but they’re all slight variations on the same thing — a pile of noodles, some kind of meat or vegetable topping, and a dipping sauce.
I ordered the minimalist zaru soba ($10): a generous pile of cold brownish-gray noodles topped only with a handful of nori (toasted seaweed) and served on a traditional bamboo tray. This came with a refreshing (and not-too-salty) soy- and dashi-based dipping sauce that you can doctor up to taste with grated daikon, wasabi, and sliced scallions. (Traditionally, the inclusion of dried fish shavings in the dashi would make this not a strictly vegetarian sauce — I wasn’t able to get a hold of chef Christian Geideman to confirm, so double-check if that’s a concern.)