Fresh Okinawa soba noodles are almost impossible to find in San Francisco, unless you know someone who can make them for you. The closest noodle factory is located in Hawaii. Imported noodles are delivered frozen to Asian markets, but while frozen soft udon noodles remain mostly unaffected, the freezer destroys the firm texture of Okinawa soba. So when we heard that 6-month-old Ramen Tenma in San Jose was selling fresh ones we jumped in our car for the journey south.
Okinawa soba is a regional specialty from Japan, up until now available only once every April in S.F. at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown. Okinawa soba is quite unique. The wheat noodles resemble udon noodles in thickness, but are slightly flat. Regardless of shape, the taste is distinct from all other Japanese noodles. It's not technically even a soba noodle, since it doesn't contain the required 30 percent buckwheat flour of traditional Japanese soba. Still, it's the only Japanese product allowed special dispensation to use that term (although nowadays many people use the term "soba" for noodles in general). National Okinawa Soba Day is Oct. 17 in Japan, celebrating the day commercial producers were granted government approval.
It was a half-hour wait for one of the coveted 20 seats at San Jose's Ramen Tenma, with two groups of four ahead of us. Chef Yoshiaki Senaga manages the kitchen with the help of a dishwasher, while an assistant takes the orders and attends to customers. The super-short menu includes a few bowls of ramen and the Okinawa soba, plus about a dozen appetizers and sides. The standard ramen is a tonkotsu broth ($8.50); new additions are spicy red miso ($9.50) and kotteri ramen ($9). We highly recommend the kotteri, a robust pork-based garlic broth, over the tonkotsu, which is a lighter version than nearby competitor Santouka.
Our bowl of Okinawa soba ($10.50, $8.50 without pork ribs) had two thick slabs of tender boneless pork ribs, along with pickled ginger, fishcakes, and the noodles in a delicious pork dashi broth. You can customize your bowl with extra toppings, or adjust the food portion to match your appetite ― add $2 for a larger bowl, or a smaller bowl for $1 less.
While most ramen fans are not as fanatical about noodles as we are, we think it was well worth the trip to San Jose for this slurpable noodle. Once you start eating you can't stop until it's all gone. Cheaper than a flight to Hawaii, and less excruciating than waiting until April.
Back in September, a frustrated thief who couldn't find anything of value at Ramen Tenma ripped the wooden shelf that held the printed menus, newspapers, and other ads, which was bolted to the wall near the entrance. Or maybe the thief was merely a fan of good noodles, desperate for copies of the menu to give to friends? Hey, it's possible.
Ramen Tenma: 487 Saratoga (at Kiely), San Jose, 408-557-8799. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Wed.-Mon., 6-9 p.m.; closed for dinner Tue. Cash only.