Among the three major Japanese noodle genres, soba is the one that tends to get overlooked in this country. Even the most generic Japanese restaurants have some kind of udon offering, and ramen gets all the food-nerd love. But I don't know of a single dedicated soba shop in the Bay Area, despite the fact that the thin buckwheat noodles are ubiquitous in Japan.
So I was excited when I heard that Ippuku, the downtown Berkeley izakaya, had launched lunch service with an all-soba menu. For the past couple of months, the restaurant has been making soba from scratch using flour imported from 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 picture when you think of a Japanese noodle dish: noodles 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 purists eat their soba cold. In part this allows the noodles to keep their ideal texture (in a hot broth, they'll keep cooking) — also, there's nothing more refreshing on a hot day. Ippuku has a whopping ten different options for cold soba, but they're slight variations on the same thing.
I ordered the zaru soba ($10): a generous pile of brownish-gray noodles topped only with nori (toasted seaweed) and served on a traditional bamboo tray. This came with a refreshing 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 couldn't get a hold of chef Christian Geideman to confirm, so double-check if that's a concern.)
I'm no soba expert, but the noodles were very good, with a springy texture and a subtle nuttiness. Dip and slurp. Dip and slurp. Repeat until you're done.
At the very end of the meal, the server brings out a container of the hot cooking water in which your noodles were prepared. You pour this broth into whatever dipping sauce you have left and drink it like soup. It's a nice touch — again, very traditional.
All in all, the soba makes for a perfect summer lunch, especially if you add some side dishes for variety. The three-item bento box ($6) is a decent deal — the day I ordered it it came with inari sushi (a rice-filled tofu pocket), green beans in a tasty black-sesame dressing, and a vinegary cucumber salad that had a strong shiso kick.
As of this printing, Ippuku's website hasn't been updated to include the restaurant's lunch hours (11 to 2, Monday through Friday), so the soba operation has kept a fairly low profile. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth checking out.
A New Home for the Berkeley Tuesday Farmers' Market
Last week the Berkeley Tuesday farmers' market opened for business at its new location, along a parking bay at the intersection of Adeline and 63rd streets. The new layout is less compact than it was at the market's original Derby Street location, and street parking, while plentiful, seems more spread-out, too. But despite the new digs, there's plenty that hasn't changed: It's the same collection of vendors, the same ladies hawking copies of Street Spirit, the same glorious mid-summer produce.
Many farmers seemed upbeat about the change, which moved the South Berkeley market farther south by about a mile, into the Lorin district.
"This is going to open up the market to a new section of the community and bring North Oakland a little closer," said Travis Jackson, who was working at the Dirty Girl Produce stall.
Nevertheless, the move was somewhat bittersweet. Organized by the nonprofit Ecology Center, the Berkeley Tuesday farmers' market had 25 years of history at its original Derby Street location, making it the city's longest-running market.
Didar Singh Khalsa, the proprietor of Guru Ram Das Orchards, who has sold at the Tuesday market for 22 years, said, "We've got a lot of people that are excited [about the move], and then there are a lot of people that are saying, 'What the hell are you doing?'
Ben Feldman, the farmers' markets director for the Ecology Center, said it was mainly economic factors that necessitated the move. According to Feldman, vendors at the farmers' market have reported declines in sales in recent years.
"Our core shopper base is very dedicated to that market, but we couldn't find new people," he explained.
The other motive behind the move was more "mission-driven," Feldman said. In general, the Lorin district doesn't have a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables — the nearest full-service grocery store, Berkeley Bowl, is about a mile away.
As before, the Tuesday farmers' market will open at 2 p.m. each week, though it will close a half an hour earlier, at 6:30 p.m. On July 24, the market will hold a grand opening celebration.