[Daly City, CA] - Noodle in a Haystack

Noodle in a Haystack is a ramen pop-up that I have been following for about a year now. Through following them, I learned that they had been working on their yuzu shio ramen for a few years now, and that they started making their own ramen because the local selection wasn't great , especially after having gotten used to the ramen in Japan (I was pretty excited to know that I wasn't alone in this assessment, or that others have suffered from culture shock moving back to the States!). Before I went to Japan and had real ramen, I wasn't that picky. After having Ichiran and a few other random places, I just wasn't able to eat ramen anywhere. Santouka became the only place that I would go to, but their ramen is only tonkotsu. I personally prefer miso ramen, so the tonkotsu is too heavy for me to enjoy frequently.

At first, I wasn't sure about going to Noodle in a Haystack because it looked like it was $50 for ramen. Let me explain why it's more than just ramen, and why it's well worth the price:

1. Clint and Yoko love ramen. They put their love of ramen into every ingredient. Always improving when they can to meet their high standards. They source ingredients locally, and from Japan.

2. Their focus is ramen. Having lived in Japan (I believe Clint said he lived there for 6+ years?), he got used to places that just have one focus and perfecting that one item for the rest of their life #kaizen #改善

3. $52-56 is very competitive pricing for a pri fixe menu. They don't just serve ramen and send you on your way. They create an entire meal in a relaxing atmosphere. I have had pri fixe courses in high end restaurants that didn't mesh. Clint and Yoko have definitely succeeded in making all of the dishes work together.  

4. Most places don't have chicken paitan, and most places don't have a very good chintan. The shio and shoyu ramen I have tried in Norcal generally hasn't been memorable. Noodle in a Haystack is as close as you're going to get to Japanese ramen that tastes like you're in Japan and it's not a chain.

5. Clint and Yoko are both awesome, fun people who enjoy talking about food, and how they make their food. How many chefs will give away details about how they make their broth? --Short story: My aunt's sister was traveling in Vietnam and had a bowl of phở that blew her mind. She asked how it was made and they told her that if she gave them $20 USD, they would give her the recipe. She thought she was making off with a steal. It's cheap enough she could go back to Taiwan and open up her own shop! It was in English so she couldn't read it though, so when my uncle translated it for her, she was dismayed to find that the first ingredient listed was... bouillon cubes.

I could go on, honestly, but I really want to get to the food!

Seating is limited (if it's one of the seatings in their home, the max amount of guests is 10), so get on that mailing list and make your reservations! It took me almost a year before I was able to get in. And let me tell you, it was worth it. I hung out in Japantown before my 1:00pm seating and walked past two super long lines for ramen that, I have heard, is not great.

First appetizer - deviled eggs Noodle in a Haystack style. It is topped with their house cured ikura, chicken skin cracklins that are time intensive (it's not just fried... it's a multi step process to make sure that it's perfect in texture and flavor), Yoko's daikon pickles, and of course, egg yolk blended with fish powder from Japan.

Throughout the courses, Clint would stop and explain each dish and a lot of the process that went into it. If anyone asked questions, he would  take a moment to answer them. I enjoyed the pacing of the meal even more because of this. It wasn't just about eating and dashing - we learned some fun behind the scenes things along with being able to eat great food! The food discussions also opened up other conversations amongst the diners. It's always great being among other food lovers.

They called this "mala tofu" because they used Sichuanese peppercorns for that numbing effect, and topped it off with some pickles. It's a bite sized taste and it was very refreshing because of the cool tofu with the teeny tiny flash of heat. It disappears just as fast as you taste it. My preference would have been more heat though, as when I hear 麻辣, I mentally prepare myself for the flavor onslaught. Truthfully, the mildness of this mala tofu made more sense though since it's a Japanese take on spicy Chinese food. And if I had the chance, I would love to have another spoonful.

More of Yoko's pickles. On the left, daikon with yuzu zest. On the right, mustard greens. Normally, I only see pickled mustard greens from the Southern Chinese/Chinese-Vietnamese set. Clint mentioned that they added some heat to the mustard greens and like the tofu, flashed heat and before quickly subsiding. This had more of a heat flare and I found it enjoyable. The mustard greens had a stronger flavor next to the lighter daikon pickles. Which were again, refreshing because of that yuzu zest. I haven't enjoyed yuzu this much in a long time since so many chefs overuse it and it becomes their only flavor.

Arugula salad with their homemade dressing. It's salad on a salad, as Clint mentioned that they blend other vegetables into it. The tri-tip was sous vide for ten hours so that it would be tender. Just before he sliced it, he seared it with a torch. I really liked the full flavor of the meat, and the umami from the tare. Please note that if you are dining "alone" (the seating is communal and everyone chats with each other) you get half of this salad, and two slices of meat, so don't be surprised if your portion doesn't look identical to this one. In the email prior to dining there, it tells you that some dishes are served family style. I was originally a bit worried about that as I am a bit of a germaphobe and the idea of sharing plates with strangers (who may or may not lick their utensils before grabbing from a communal plate) gave me the heebie jeebies. Fortunately, family style meant just your dining party.

Are you ready for the main event? At this point in the meal, I sure was! I present to you, Clint and Yoko's pride and joy, Noodle in a Haystack's yuzu shio ramen! Look how clear and beautiful the broth is! It's so clean and pretty and after you finish it, you don't feel greasy and gross.

Just look at it! You can see how tender that chicken and pork shoulder is. It's even more tender when you bite in! If you thought the appetizer was tender, just wait until you get your maw on this! The chicken breast is so tender, juicy, and Q! This is probably the only time in the States that I have eaten a chicken breast that had bounce to it. To achieve this, Clint says both are marinated and then sous vide. 

If you look to your right, you'll notice a big, fat wonton with thin skin. Apparently Yoko just decided to do that spur of the moment. Of course, the skins you buy in the grocery store aren't the best, so she decided to make them herself (which set her back an hour and we didn't start exactly at 1:00pm... but no one was upset about it because it was worth it! And goes to show you that there ARE nice people out there in the world still who have patience!). A lot of the time when wontons are that big, and you can see all of that meat through the skin, it just tastes like a flavorless meatball with some extra dough. But this wonton, this spur of the moment wonton, was really good! The skin is very important and it was as thin as the skins from Tai Kee Wonton. 

Two things I would like the point out: 1) I ate all of the meat. I usually throw half of it into someone else's bowl because I'm too full and don't want that much meat, and 2) every bowl at that sitting was completely empty. That is to say, everyone ate all of the meat, the perfectly cooked soft boiled egg, the onions (everyone knows that one person who picks out the onions, right?), the wonton, the noodles, and of course, the soup. I have never seen that many bowls cleaned. It says a lot that everyone finished every tiny bit. Including those pink peppercorns and yuzu zest. It really adds brightness to this very clean soup.

And if you don't believe me about the egg, here's the ocular proof: 

...You didn't think I was finished already, did you? There's still dessert! If you are dining alone, you have to pick between their strawberry matcha, or their seasonal offering. Today (8/11/18), they had a hojicha/mochi ice cream. Being in a pair, we chose one of each. 

If you have had hojicha before, this tastes exactly like having a cool cup of hojicha with some teeny crackers thrown in. And for a fun variety of texture, you get the two balls of mochi on the side. I really liked this dessert. This is something I wouldn't mind eating every few days.

Strawberries, matcha crumble, and freshly made strawberry jam; this was yet another refreshing course. When asked to pick which I liked more, I couldn't say. Both are really good in their own ways. It's choices like these that have me picking up two pints of ice cream when I buy ice cream (Tillamook Cold Brew Coffee, and another of some fruity flavor).

Clint showing us just how much konbu is used for their broth. It's a lot because they don't use MSG. On top of that, their yuzu shio broth uses four types of fish dashi. Seriously, if you haven't been yet, try it! And, you don't have to wait in line! Book your seating time and just show up (and bring your own drinks, or they also have some available for purchase via venmo)!

Last but not least, say "hi" to their cute little poodle, Toto! She brought smiles to everyone's faces that day.

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Ramen Championship 2017


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