Friday, July 13, 2012

The Ideal Summer Lunch: Cold Soba at Ippuku

by Luke Tsai
Fri, Jul 13, 2012 at 2:38 PM

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.)

Ippukus <em>zaru</em> soba, served with all of the traditional accoutrements.
  • Luke Tsai
  • Ippuku's zaru soba, served with all of the traditional accoutrements.


As is the case with everything at Ippuku, the presentation was elegant. And I’m no soba expert, but I thought the house-made buckwheat noodles were very good, with a nice springy texture and a subtle nuttiness. Dip and slurp. Dip and slurp. Repeat until you’re done.

Best of all, at the very end of your 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 — and again, very traditional.

All in all, the soba makes for a perfect summer lunch, especially if you add some side dishes for a bit of 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 an interesting (and tasty) black-sesame dressing, and a vinegary cucumber salad that had a strong shiso kick.

The three-item bento varies from day to day.
  • Luke Tsai
  • The three-item bento varies from day to day.


One of the menu’s quirks is that it’s all in Japanese — no English descriptions. So if you don’t happen to know your tororo (Japanese yam) from your kinoko (mushroom), and don’t have a smartphone at your disposal to look it up, you’ll have to ask your server to take you through the list, item by item. Not a biggie.

In addition to the soba options, Ippuku’s lunch menu now also includes a few rice bowls, including the classic chicken-and-egg oyako-don (oyako meaning “mother and child,” literally — one of my favorite food translations).

Given the restaurant’s popularity, it’s surprising how little buzz there has been about Ippuku’s soba. As of this posting, the Ippuku website still hasn’t been updated to include their lunch hours (11 to 2, Monday through Friday), so the whole operation has kept a low profile. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that means it isn’t worth checking out.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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