Katana-ya, a two-year-old ramen shop — conveniently located across the street from the Geary and Curran theaters — is so tiny you’ve probably walked by and never noticed its red-cotton banners inscribed with white Japanese script flapping in the breeze.
The narrow dining room, packed with postage stamp-size tables and a sushi counter with stools, is usually full, so patrons write their names on the clipboard at the door and hover outside. Seats do open up quickly. The unspoken etiquette at ramen shops is to order decisively, slurp fast and leave. The four-page single-spaced menu — which is really a list of variations on a theme — may seem daunting, but after a few visits, you’ll know how to navigate.
Katana-ya’s ramen are thin fresh egg noodles, not to be confused with soft, slimy instant ramen, a fast food invented in 1958 that conquered the world. Fresh ramen are toothsome.
Katana-ya bathes the ramen in flavorful, steaming-hot broth made with pork and chicken, seasoned with your choice of salt, soy sauce or miso. Try clean, clear salt broth with corn and butter ramen ($8.50), a Western-inflected favorite that is authentically Japanese. You know what salt does to buttered sweet corn. Every bit of that lusciousness is captured in a bowl of Japanese noodle soup with a thick slice of tender roasted pork, a few bamboo shoots and seaweed, all of which comes in every bowl of ramen. Sound weird? Just taste it.
Broth seasoned with soy sauce works with Katana-ya’s invention of fried chicken ramen ($9.80) topped with big, juicy, crisp hunks of boneless chicken. Miso-flavored broth is cloudy and fuller in the mouth. I like the way it works with cilantro ramen ($8.50) or scallion ramen ($8.50).
Further customize your bowl of noodles at the table with pepper. Tougarashi or dried red pepper gives miso broth a nice little kick. Use white pepper on the salt- and soy-based soups. Finally, specify light broth unless you want a layer of fat on top.
One of my favorite ramen preparations, tsukemen ($9.80), comes in two separate bowls: noodles in one, broth in another. By dipping the noodles into the broth, you experience them in a different way. A hard-boiled egg and pork come in the broth, while fried chicken and ribbons of nori garnish the noodles.
Fried rice and gyoza are also traditional at ramen shops. At Katana-ya, be sure to have a small bowl of beef fried rice ($5.50), full of egg, salty bits of tender brisket, scallions and ginger. It’s addictive.
The house-made gyoza ($6) have chewy noodle wrappers with one crisp, golden side, and a filling heavy on cabbage and garlic chives. I recommend dipping them in vinegar and chile oil.
Non-traditional salmon skin salad ($6) — a fluffy pile of mizuna, crisp salmon skin, pickled burdock and daikon, in a sweet and sour ponzu dressing — draws on the best California influences. A snowfall of shaved dried bonito adds a haunting layer of smokiness.
A tall glass of cold Sapporo draft ($5) or a small bottle of cold junmai ginjo sake ($14) from Hakutsura — a big commercial producer in Kobe — hit the spot.
I’ve had some disappointing ramen in San Francisco with muddy broth and soggy noodles. But whenever I’m anywhere near Union Square, I start edging towards Katana-ya.
Most books by restaurant chefs are worthless for the home cook. David Tanis, of Chez Panisse, is a restaurant chef who doesn’t believe in restaurant cooking. In fact, he almost never goes to restaurants. He’d rather eat with friends at home. To that end, he has written a book, a social narrative really, about a year of cooking at home with friends — eight to 10 of them. He has documented the preparation of six menus for each season, stunning in their simplicity and beauty. Some menus really are easy: Just find good stuff — which we can easily do here in the Bay Area — and essentially put it on a plate. The right plate. Other menus require some time, but not fussy time. Tanis’ funny, iconoclastic voice is so encouraging about the benefits of the communal experience — and forgiving of screw-ups — that he empowers us to throw these satisfying dinner parties. This book, he says, is about eating as much as it is about cooking and he seduces even a diehard restaurant-goer like me.
A lavish Asian food and wine tasting hosted by the Asian Chefs Association — with an Asian fashion show, raffle and entertainment — benefits the Asian Chefs Foundation’s Annual Christmas Food Drive for Glide Memorial Church. The event is Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m. at Ana Mandara, 891 Beach St. (Ghirardelli Square), San Francisco. Tickets are $125. Visit www.acasf.com for tickets and information or call (510) 883-9386.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.