When the shelter-in-place order closed dine-in service in March, West Oakland Japanese restaurant Soba Ichi took a few days off to figure out how to move forward. A well-loved, nearly two-year-old culinary destination known Bay Area-wide for its specialty — hand-cut soba noodles made daily from buckwheat milled on-site — Soba Ichi offers a menu that doesn’t normally translate well to takeout.
For one, part of the pleasure of eating at Soba Ichi is the dining experience. Not only is the restaurant lovely (inside, but also its peaceful front courtyard), but the service is thoughtful, and the dishes are prepared and presented in a way that inspires giddiness as each plate arrives at the table. But mostly, soba, like most pasta, is best eaten moments after preparation. If enjoyed cold with tsuyu (dipping sauce), the noodles are dunked in an ice bath after cooking to intensify their chew; if served in a hot noodle soup, they should be slurped immediately, lest they turn to mush.
Soba Ichi’s compromise during this weird time: offer its nihachi (80% buckwheat, 20% wheat flour) soba for takeout, but as packaged, uncooked noodles that diners prepare at home. Soba can be purchased on its own ($12) or as a set with a side of dipping sauce ($15) — both options make two servings. Soba Ichi also offers extra dipping sauce, house-made tofu and soba senbei (sweet-savory crackers made with buckwheat flour), each for $3, and a weekly changing special for around $10. Past specials have included tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) and gyudon (beef bowl). All alcohol beverages, including Japanese beer and sake, are 50%.
I dropped by Soba Ichi Sunday to pick up a soba set for lunch that afternoon. Here’s the rundown:
What: Fresh soba noodles and sauce set for seiro soba (chilled dipping soba)
Where: Soba Ichi, 2311 Magnolia St. A (at 24th Street), Oakland
Hours: noon-3 p.m., Thursday through Sunday
Price: The soba set is $15 and serves two. In comparison, the dine-in price for a single serving of nihachi seiro soba is $14. This is a great deal you shouldn’t sleep on.
Ordering and pickup: Soba Ichi requires orders and payment for takeout be made in-person. Customers do not enter the restaurant, but order in the courtyard at a table set up at the door. Soba Ichi marks appropriate distance for those in line with painter’s tape and cleans pens, meant for signing receipts, between use. Staff who takes orders (when I visited, co-owner Shinichi Washino was working the counter) wears a mask and gloves. While not completely contact-free, the ordering process felt well run and safe.
Packaging and presentation: Soba noodles are placed in a plastic package with instructions printed on a paper that’s folded, then wrapped around the package like a label. The dipping sauce comes in a plastic takeout container.
Preparation: Having only prepared dried soba noodles at home, I was slightly nervous about the cooking process, reminiscent of the anxiety I feel whenever I grill a pricey steak and worry I’ll overcook it. Fortunately, the noodles are very simple to prepare and come with easy-to-follow instructions that have accompanying illustrations.
With any recipe, it’s best to read the directions before starting. As Anthony Bourdain once wrote, “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.” Having ingredients, equipment and a game plan prepared in advance makes all the difference.
In the case of the soba set, having the right cooking tools and prepared ingredients in place before getting started is key: a utensil (long cooking chopsticks, preferably) at the ready to stir the noodles, a colander to drain the cooked noodles and immediately rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking and improve their texture, and prepared garnishes, like wasabi, chopped green onion and shredded nori, so you can eat as soon as the noodles are chilled. Mostly, you don’t want to overcook those precious noodles, and ideally, you’ll eat them as soon as they’re prepared.
The printed instructions refer to Umami Mart’s website, where the Oakland-based Japanese specialty store has posted more details on enjoying Soba Ichi’s soba set at home. I definitely recommend reading this in advance, too, as it has two pro tips not mentioned in the printed instructions: 1) Set aside some of the cooking water used to boil the noodles. Called sobayu, this hot water is added to the tsuyu after you finish your noodles to create a delicious sipping broth, and 2) Prepare an ice-water bath, where you’ll dunk the cooked, rinsed noodles.
Taste: While it doesn’t quite beat the experience of eating at Soba Ichi, I thoroughly enjoyed my homecooked seiro soba. Soba Ichi’s noodles get well-deserved attention — their springy texture is unbeatable, and their slightly nutty, earthy taste is vastly superior to dried storebought noodles — but the tsuyu is just as noteworthy. Complex and flavorful, the sauce is deeply umami with soy sauce, slightly sweet with mirin and wonderfully smoky with katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes). Add your garnishes to it, then dip away! After you’ve slurped your last noodle, don’t forget to add the sobayu to your remaining tsuyu to enjoy every last drop.