Picture this: It’s hot outside, that particular kind of hot that you seem to find only in late summer in Southern California. The sky is beige, and the air seems so thick you nearly swim through it. Even after you’re inside the air-conditioned restaurant, you feel the residue on your skin. But there in front of you is a reed mat. Piled in a rough tangle on top is a low mound of pale buckwheat noodles; there’s a scattering of dark green slivers of toasted seaweed on top and a small cup of tea-colored liquid next to it.
You gather a mouthful of noodles on your chopsticks and dip just the trailing strands into the liquid. Then you slurp down the noodles with a flourish. The first thing you notice is a cool moistness -- the traces of leftover cooking water still clinging to the strands. Then comes the subtly earthy, slightly mushroom-y taste of the noodle itself. Finally you get the salty, complex whip of the dipping sauce.
Can you imagine anything more refreshing or satisfying?
Soba -- in Japanese the word refers to the buckwheat plant, the flour that is ground from it, the noodle it is made into and even the whole slurpy ritual of eating it -- is a mainstay of summertime eating for many in Southern California. You can find it on menus in almost every Japanese restaurant that isn’t strictly a sushi bar.
But when people who really know soba want to eat it, they head to a nondescript block of Western Avenue in Gardena, where Seiji Akutsu crafts handmade soba at his tiny Otafuku restaurant.
Otafuku’s small dining room (“minimalist” would be a polite description of the decor) always seems jammed. And it seems that at every place there sits a plate of soba.
What makes Akutsu’s noodles so remarkable is the texture. They almost feel alive in your mouth, they are so springy to the bite. You could say they were chewy, but that might connote a certain toughness, and after the first bite these turn positively silky.
That quality can only come from freshly made noodles. While there are hundreds of places in Southern California that serve soba, there are only a few that take the trouble to make it fresh.
“Once you’ve had Otafuku’s soba, there’s no sense going anyplace else,” says Kazuto Matsusaka, chef at Culver City’s booming Beacon restaurant. Matsusaka, who was chef at Chinois on Main for 10 years, says he and his wife Vicki Fan used to make regular pilgrimages to Otafuku before their restaurant got so busy.
“We’d go to exercise, then head down to Marukai to go shopping,” he says. “And we’d stop at Otafuku for lunch. We’d do that two or three times a month. I really like it for dinner, too, when he makes all those special small plates to go with the noodles.
“Now because of running this restaurant, I haven’t been in a couple of months,” he says wistfully. “They really are the best.”
You might expect noodles like this to come from the hands of some Zen soba master, a craftsman who has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of coaxing buckwheat into noodles.
That’s not exactly the way it happened for 61-year-old Akutsu: He has been making soba for all of eight years. The son of a family who arranged special events for the Japanese royal court, Akutsu came to this country for the first time on a tourist visa in the mid-'60s.
He decided to stay and attend language school, but extending his visa made him eligible for the draft. So, in 1968, he was called up into the United States Army and served for two years during the Vietnam War.
When his commitment was completed, he returned to Japan and went to work in the family business. Eventually, that got old, so he decided to go out on his own, opening a yakitori restaurant in a building the family owned.
“I decided to cook yakitori because it seemed like something anyone could do,” he says. “It was easy to begin.”
That business closed when the Japanese economy collapsed in the late ‘80s. He returned to the U.S., this time to open a soba restaurant. “There weren’t many soba places here,” he recalls, “and Japanese people eat soba every day.”
For Otafuku he chose a spot across the street from the Japanese restaurant where he had waited tables in 1966.
His mind made up and the spot rented, he set about learning his craft, teaching himself to make noodles. “I made mucho soba,” he says.
Soba flour comes in several grades depending on how polished the grain is before it is ground. Akutsu imports all of his flour from Japan and has it delivered every two months. For most of his noodles he uses the No. 2 grade, or the third-lightest.
But the soba the purists seek out at Otafuku is made from the most highly polished flour, called sarashina after an area of Japan where soba is especially popular. It is nearly pure white and was traditionally served only to the royal court.
Akutsu calls this noodle seiro and the regular noodle zaru after the traditional woven steamer basket and plate.
A simple aesthetic
Traditionally, soba is served simply. Unlike Italian noodles, in which every strand should be touched by some kind of sauce, with soba the noodle is the thing.
Cold soba is most often served on a mat simply garnished with slivered nori or perhaps a mound of freshly grated daikon radish, or a spoonful of fragrant natto, fermented soybean paste.
Alongside there will be a teacup-size container of tsuyu, a salty, fragrant broth made from shoyu (Japanese soy sauce), mirin (sweet sake) and dashi stock made from katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).
The preparation of this seasoning broth is as much a part of the art of soba as the making of the noodles (at good restaurants, when you’re done with the noodles, they will bring you a pot of the starchy soba cooking water to add to the leftover tsuyu and drink as a soup).
Almost always there will be a plate of sliced green onion, a smear of wasabi paste and a container of shichimi togarashi, a fragrant pepper blend, to season the tsuyu.
Commonly, some kind of tempura is served on the side. Akutsu says that’s because soba was traditionally a working man’s lunch and a complementary protein was needed to finish the meal.
It may also be because the flavors of fried batter and buckwheat noodle go together so perfectly. Indeed, one popular soba topping is little bits of fried tempura crumbs (tenkasu).
Sometimes soba is served in a bowl of vibrant cold broth. As a summer special, Otafuku serves a gorgeous one garnished with julienned radishes, cucumbers and raw okra and an assortment of Japanese pickles. The broth is fragrant with slivered shiso leaf and pickled sour ume plum.
You can find soba served in similar preparations in locales such as Little Tokyo, Sawtelle, Torrance and Orange County. What makes Otafuku’s soba special is the handmade quality.
While fresh pasta is so common in Italian restaurants it’s now almost passe, hardly anyone makes fresh soba. There’s a very good reason: It’s devilishly hard to make.
That’s because buckwheat, which isn’t technically a member of the wheat family, contains no gluten, the tough, stringy chains of protein that hold together most noodles and breads. Without gluten, buckwheat doughs are extremely fragile.
This is why most cultures that use buckwheat as a regular part of the diet eat it either in the form of a whole grain (buckwheat groats or kasha) or folded into delicate batters (buckwheat pancakes, galettes and blinis).
To get the soba noodles to hold together, some wheat flour is usually mixed in. “That gives the glue,” says Akutsu. The better the soba maker, the smaller the percentage of wheat flour in the dough.
Most commercial, dried sobas actually contain more wheat flour than buckwheat flour. (When shopping for dried soba, read the label carefully: Buckwheat flour should be the first ingredient listed. There are dried sobas with 100% buckwheat, but these can be tricky to cook.)
Akutsu uses 20% wheat flour in the zaru noodles and 25% in the seiro, but he also serves as a special a noodle called kikouchi, made from pure buckwheat flour.
The right touch
As he makes this fragile dough, it seems to come together almost by magic. He gathers the flour in a steel mixing bowl and gradually sprinkles filtered water over it.
The water is poured from a pitcher that has ceramic balls rattling around in it -- they “purify the water,” he says, but perhaps it is more likely that they add to the mineral content.
After the first moistening, he reaches into the flour and starts tossing it with his fingers, distributing the water evenly. What flour sticks to his hands, he scrapes off and breaks into little pieces.
He repeats this, slowly adding more water so the flour begins clumping in ever larger pieces until they are about the size of peas -- like pie dough after the butter has been cut in.
This Akutsu kneads gently, gradually adding water almost a drop at a time until the dough holds together in a single ball. It feels stiffer and slightly rougher than that used for Italian pasta.
After a brief rest to allow the moisture to distribute evenly throughout the dough, he forms it into a rough square with a rolling pin and then (in a break with tradition) finishes rolling it out on a machine. Kikouchi is rolled out about 3 millimeters thick; seiro and zaru about 2 millimeters.
In addition to these sobas, there are several other interesting variants. Akutsu makes one during the winter that includes the zest of yuzu -- an aromatic Asian citrus. In Japanese markets you can usually find soba that is made with the addition of yamaimo -- mountain yam. Its moisture helps hold the buckwheat together. And there is a pretty pink soba that’s made with ume.
By far the most popular soba variation is cha-soba, which is made by adding finely powdered green tea. These noodles have a faint hint of tea flavor, but their real attraction is their beautiful jade color.
Cha-soba seems to be especially popular in Asian fusion restaurants. Both Matsusaka and Mako Tanaka, chef at Mako in Beverly Hills, say the main reason they like it is because of the green color, which is more appealing to non-Asian customers than the tan-beige of plain soba.
At Mako, Tanaka serves cha-soba in a cool dashi broth topped with sauteed fish -- usually skate wing, sometimes flounder or halibut -- and seasonal mushrooms. He says the fish cooked this way reminds him a little of tempura.
“I didn’t want to do something that was authentic, I wanted to do something creative, something different,” he says. “I love skate wing, and the way we prepare it, it’s nice and crispy and the crispy flavor matches with the noodles.”
Matsusaka serves cha-soba at Beacon, but as more of a salad, seasoned with a shoyu vinaigrette instead of tsuyu. He tosses the noodles with slivered vegetables and tops the dish with grilled shrimp.
Whatever the type, soba is cooked in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Fresh takes less than a minute; dried takes four to five minutes. For cold soba, the noodles are drained and placed in a plastic basket in a bowl of room-temperature water where they are briskly rubbed to remove any surface starch. At home it’s easier to rinse them under a tap until the water runs clear.
Traditionally, the soba is then arranged on the woven mat for cooling and draining. But the climate in Japan is much more humid than in Los Angeles, so Akutsu gives the noodles another final bath in ice water to chill them thoroughly before they can dry out.
In Irvine, Yasuhiro Fukada also makes handmade soba, serving it with traditional accompaniments such as natto and tenkasu at his restaurant Fukada.
“There are no secrets to making good soba,” says Fukada, who was chef and part owner at the Los Angeles restaurants Mishima and Taiko. “I import my flour from Japan and get up every morning to make the noodles and shave the dried bonito flakes.”
Good soba, says Akutsu, is just a matter of kodawari, the Japanese word used to describe the way an artist concentrates on perfect brushstrokes.
“Soba is so easy to make,” he says, proving himself a master of kenkyo, the Japanese ritual of hyperbolic modesty. “It really doesn’t take any technique. All you have to do is get the best soba flour, the best shoyu, the best katsuobushi, the best mirin....
“It’s only good ingredients. You just have to be smart. It’s all a matter of paying attention to details. That’s what makes my place different from any other. I concentrate on making good soba and good broth. Everything else is easy.”