Take Your Taste Buds on a Tour of Tokyo in the East Bay
Newcomers are serving up everything from fresh soba to authentic ramen and locally crafted sake, and the lines are long.
Soba Ichi’s handmade noodles earn high praise.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
The East Bay’s long-held penchant for Japanese food has recently reached new heights, with a wave of specialty culinary treasures from the country sprouting up in Oakland over the past year. Newcomers are serving up everything from fresh soba to authentic ramen and locally crafted sake.
One of the most highly praised restaurants is Soba Ichi in West Oakland, the first restaurant to serve handmade soba noodles in the area and one of the few in the entire country to do so. It opened in mid-2018 by the people behind Ippuku in Berkeley.
Soba noodles — a beloved dish considered comfort food in Japan — are made from buckwheat and water and can be served either hot in a dashi broth or cold over a strainer with a dipping sauce. Despite the popularity of soba noodles in its home country, Americans haven’t caught onto it like they have with ramen. That’s because the process of making soba is time-consuming and a demands a certain level of skill that takes years to master.
Chef Koichi Ishi, who trained in Japan, makes four batches of fresh noodles every morning (and is known to sell out at peak times) using equipment imported from Japan and buckwheat from a farm in Washington.
“It’s very rare to find real authentic soba in the states,” said Shinichi Washino, one of the restaurant’s owners. “People are coming in here to learn about and experience soba often for the first time.”
The restaurant space was designed by one of the owners, Paul Discoe, who is a Zen Buddhist priest and wood craftsman. Despite being in the middle of an industrial park, the craft wood tables and beams create a tranquil atmosphere that makes you feel like you could be in a small town in Japan.
Photo by lance yamamoto
Soba Ichi's West Oakland space is a zen-like spot.
Right next door, in the same working community known as O2 Artisans Aggregate, sits another standout: Den Sake Brewery, the first local craft sake brewery in the East Bay. Yoshihiro Sako and fiancée Lani Pederson opened the brewery in 2017 and started selling their product in August 2018.
Sako, the mastermind behind the sake, is a native of Japan who has been in the Bay Area since 2000. After working for years as sake director at Yuzuki in San Francisco, he decided to return to Japan to study brewing techniques to start his own business. Today, he makes one type of sake in a small batch production — one that’s bright and acidic, meant to pair well with California cuisine.
“Our goal is to get local wine drinkers to think about ordering sake with all types of meals, not just Japanese food,” Pederson said. “People are lining up for ramen and even soba now — and I’d say sake is just starting on its own boom, too,” she said.
Den Sake is now on the menu at restaurants throughout the area and at shops like Umami Mart, another local Japanese favorite. The pristine, highly-curated shop operating in Oakland since 2012 offers Japanese knives, pottery, tabletop pieces, pantry staples, and barware. This spring, owners Kayoko Akabori and Yoko Kumano are moving into a new, larger space in Temescal to open a tasting room, where they will pour sake, soshu, beers, and limited tastings of Japanese spirits.
“When we first opened, we didn’t really know what to expect, but the Oakland community has been so supportive of us,” Akabori said. “Japanese food and drink will continue to thrive here, because people are so open to continuous learning more about it.”
You can’t talk about Oaklanders’ love of Japanese food without mentioning their collective obsession with ramen. In addition to staples like Ramen Shop (Rockridge), Itani Ramen (Uptown), and Ippudo (Berkeley), two not new ramen joints that have received acclaim include Shinmai in Uptown and Marufuku in Temescal.
At Marufuku, the lines haven’t slowed down since it opened in early 2018. On a weekend night, it’s not uncommon for hungry customers to wait patiently for up to two hours to get their steaming bowl. This is the restaurant’s second outpost, with the first opening in 2017 in San Francisco’s Japantown.
photo by lance yamamoto
Marufuku is known primarily for its delicious ramen, though its rice bowls and izakaya-style appetizers prove to be winners, too.
Marufuku is known for its hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, which has a rich, milky, umami-packed broth that’s cooked for more than 20 hours, served along with noodles and seared pork. Also on the menu is a white chicken paitan ramen and an off-menu vegan ramen, along with mini rice bowls and izakaya-style appetizers.
Manager Yuki Sakakibara said the team was excited to arrive in the food-focused and diverse neighborhood already home to stellar Burmese, Korean, Thai, and more.
“We came here wanting to serve authentic, delicious ramen and knew that people who live in Bay Area are already fans, but we were a little surprised by the long lines to eat at our restaurant,” said Sakakibara. “It was a very happy thing for us to see.”
Over in Uptown, Shinmai arrived in mid-2018 with a menu that featured both ramen and izakaya.
The space itself has an upscale, chic interior with a playful twist on the exterior — no signage that indicates which restaurant it is, which is common at ramen joints in Japan, said owner Yingji Huang.
After working with sushi for years, Huang (who also owns Kakui Sushi in Montclair) decided to pursue his passion for ramen with partner-owner and lead ramen chef Andy Li by studying techniques in Japan. On the menu, you’ll find various styles of ramen, including tonkotsu, vegetable, and shoyu (a seafood and chicken broth). He said they plan to add a spicy miso ramen this year.
The team’s goal is to create a delicious, “Oakland-style” ramen inspired by the bounty and diversity of the area. Huang said it was proud to open in Uptown as it continues to thrive with a new energy.
“In Oakland, you have so many choices, and I think healthy competition makes better food and better reputation for the town,” Huang said. “It’s exciting to see Japanese food in the East Bay growing up and so many people in the industry working hard like us to make it even better.”