(Formatted with All Pictures here:
Soba Noodles can be an acquired taste. It is far less popular than its Ramen Noodle cousin outside of Japan, but understandably so: Unlike Ramen, Soba Noodles are generally simpler in taste and flavor combinations, and in its simplest form, it seems so basic that it may come off as "boring" or "too plain" for many. And the fact that Soba can be served chilled / cold doesn't help those preferring hot food.
But therein lies the beauty of Soba Noodles, and my favorite incarnation of it: Zaru Soba (Soba Noodles served atop a zaru (a bamboo slotted "plate"). Soba Noodles are usually made with a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour, depending on the style of Soba, and paired with a simple Tsuyu (a Soba dipping sauce made up of a soy sauce-type base, mirin and dashi). The fresh-cooked Soba Noodles are then immediately chilled, and simply dipped into the Tsuyu sauce as you take each bite. Its simplicity reflects a meditative, Zen-like feeling while eating good Soba Noodles on a hot Summer's day: Each bite is so refreshing and cooling! (^_^)v
Finding a So Cal restaurant that serves handmade, fresh Soba is rare, and the ones I had tried up till this day were ranging from "very good" to "so-so," but I still hadn't found a Teuchi (Handmade) Soba locally that was truly "amazing." Until today. :)
Ichimian (English name, "Bamboo Garden") is located on a quiet side street off of Cabrillo. It specializes in Soba and the majority of its menu is purely Soba in many variations. I enlisted the biggest Soba Hound I know to come along with me, and the anticipation grew as we entered the small establishment, placed our order and sat down to wait.
Ichimian Honten (Original / Main Branch) makes their Soba Noodles by hand every morning, and when they sell out, they're done for the day. They also make Soba for their sister restaurant, Inaba.
While there were quite of few enticing variations, I wanted to try my favorite (and simplest form) on the menu: Zaru Soba (Buckwheat Soba Noodles), Hosomen (Thin Noodle) style. At Ichimian, you can order each type of Soba dish with either "Hosomen" (Thin Noodle) or "Futomen" (Thick Noodle); Ichimian's Adachi-san recommended their Hosomen, which is what I went with. :) The Zaru Soba arrived soon after, and was served with the traditional Tsuyu Sauce, Negi (Green Onions) and Wasabi. Mixing it all together, I eagerly dipped the fresh-cooked and fresh-chilled Soba Noodles into the sauce and took a slurp.
The subtle fragrance of the Buckwheat Flour in the Soba Noodle, the freshness of the Noodle itself, cooked perfectly with a slight chew and good firmness yet suppleness, this was true Soba Excellence! The Hosomen-style thinness was just right. It had none of the slight chalkiness found with many Soba preparations found in So Cal, and the housemade Tsuyu was also wonderful: Strong, flavorful, but never overpowering.
This was easily the best Zaru Soba I've had in Southern California. I turned to my Soba Hound who wore a ridiculous grin while eating the Soba: "I could eat this every day." And with each bite of the refreshing, chilled Soba I had, I would agree. :)
I ordered a small Don (Rice Bowl) as well, trying their Shirasu Gohan (Whitebait Fish Rice Bowl). Ichimian's Shirasu Gohan arrived with a decent amount of Shirasu (Whitebait), a Quail Egg and some Nori (Seaweed) and Negi (Green Onion) atop some fresh steamed Rice. This was even lighter than the Zaru Soba in many ways, with no additional Salt or Seasoning added to the bowl. It was literally those simple ingredients together. It was a touch too bland for my tastes (but adding a little Shoyu remedied that).
We also split one Ume Okaka Onigiri (Japanese Plum Rice Ball). The Onigiri was rather small, and it was average in execution, with a small bit of Ume and mostly cool rice, a far cry from the goodness I had at Yakitori Bincho, and homemade versions, but for $1.50, I didn't mind.
Still, their specialty was Soba, and it was excellent, so that was good enough. :) It was so good that I returned for another visit a few days later, with another Soba Hound in tow, to get their perspective (and to make sure my visit wasn't a fluke (^_~)). We arrived on our second visit and I decided to try a variation on the chilled Soba Noodle:
Their Mentai Oroshi Soba (Marinated Pollock Fish Roe, Grated Daikon Radish Soba Noodles) arrived quickly, with their chilled, handmade Soba Noodles topped with Karashi Mentaiko (Lightly Spicy Marinated Pollock Fish Roe), Oroshi (Fresh-grated Daikon Radish), Negi (Green Onions), Nori (Seaweed), Wakame (Kelp) and some Shiso Leaf. Mixing it all together, I took a bite, and just like my previous visit, it was sublime! :)
Only this time, the Fish Roe and Fresh-grated Daikon Radish added a nice layer to the simple Zaru Soba Noodles, and the Green Onions, Shiso Leaf, added an even more refreshing, Spring feeling to the dish.
My other Soba Hound on this trip looked up after taking one bite of the Zaru Soba and could only utter, "Sugoi!" ("Amazing!"). :)
On this visit, I tried out another of their small Don (Rice Bowls): Sake Ikura Don (Salmon and Salmon Roe Rice Bowl). The Don arrived with a generous helping of minced Salmon and Salmon Roe, with some Green Onions and Seaweed atop some steaming Rice. This was a touch too salty for me, from the saltiness of the Salmon and the inherent saltiness of the Ikura (Salmon Roe). But when eaten with a big bite of Rice, it evened out.
Ichimian is a very simple mom-and-pop operation. You enter and order at the cash register, and help yourself to complementary Ice Barley Tea, or Hot Tea, or Ice Water. But all their menu items already include tax, and they don't expect a tip, but are willing to take any donations. :) At $5.90 (so, $5.45 before tax!), Ichimian's Zaru Soba is one of the most fairly priced Teuchi (Handmade) Soba dishes in Southern California and a bargain for the greatness of the Soba! We averaged ~$11 per person (including tax and tip!), and if you're not that hungry, you can skip the Don (Rice Bowl) and average about ~$7 - 8 per person total.
(Note that you can order a batch of the Fresh Soba Noodles (Uncooked), To Go, for a bargain of $7 for a Double Serving!) (Note also that they serve Hot Soba and Udon as well, if you're in the mood for something warm.)
Of the 5 Teuchi Soba Specialists I've visited in Southern California, Ichimian rises to the top as my new favorite Zaru Soba shop. Ichimian's Zaru Soba, Hosomen (Thin-style Noodle) is the perfect antidote to the hot Southern California Summer: An order of refreshing, chilled Noodles that invigorates the mind and body, and cools you down from the heat outside. Simply wonderful.
*** Rating: 8.9 (out of 10.0) ***
Ichimian (Honten) Bamboo Garden
1618 Cravens Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
Hours: Mon, Wed - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.