Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dish on Dining: Katana-ya

When it rains, find shelter in ramen
430 Geary St., San Francisco
Between Union Square and Nob Hill neighborhoods
PH: 415.771.1280
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m., weekdays, noon to 1:30 a.m., weekends
Major credit cards accepted, no reservations

It’s been a bit wet and cold in the Bay Area lately, so all I want to do is stay at home. Probably the only thing that can force me to put on my rain gear and venture out is the idea of a piping hot bowl of ramen.

That’s how I found myself this past weekend in San Francisco, with umbrella in tow, looking for Katana-ya near Union Square. It’s supposedly the best ramen in the city, which actually isn’t saying much because the general consensus is that the best ramen in the Bay Area can be found mostly closer to Silicon Valley. But I don’t have a car to make the trek down the Peninsula, so Union Square sounded like the perfect spot to get off BART and get myself a bowl of ramen.

Ramen is the crinkly soup noodles from Japan. Pretty much every college student has grown up with the instant version of it and a bowl of it can make people a wee bit obsessive (case in point: a whole blog searching for the best ramen). In Japan, the best ramen are often found in little stands or joints tucked inside a crowded neighborhood, serving the slurpily good noodles into the late hours or early mornings.

Katana-ya offers up that same feel, with its red banner out front and the dark, cozy room inside (there are a few tables in the front and a sushi bar in the back). Across the street from the American Conservatory Theater, it would make a great spot for a late-night snack after a show.

But I was there for lunch. And because of the rain, the tiny restaurant wasn’t too crowded.

The menu includes a variety of sushi, donburi (rice bowls) and ramen. With the ramen, you can customize it by choosing the broth (shoyu, miso or shio), picking the protein toppings and whether you want the broth light or rich. (Be warned, rich just means more pork fat.)

If you can’t decide what to get, the best way to go is to spin the wheel. Well, not literally. But on one page of the menu, Katana-ya offers combinations. In the center is a bowl of ramen, of course. Surrounding it (like a wheel) are other options that you can combine with the ramen, including sushi, various donburi or even fried rice. (The combo price varies depending on which category you go with.)

I ended up going with the combination ramen and BBQ Pork Donburi with Spicy Negi (thinly sliced green onions) for $9.50.

First up came the pork donburi. It was a nice portion that gave you a good taste of the dish but left you enough room for the ramen to come. While this place is all about the ramen, I have to say that when I took my first bite of the pork, rice and spicy negi, a big smile came to my face. My mouth felt like it was reborn, discovering that umami taste of savory, sweet and spicy. Plus, the rice (sushi grade) was perfectly cooked and fresh. I quickly ate the whole bowl and wondered if maybe I should have just gotten a full order of the donburi instead?

Side note: The spicy negi tasted like it was marinated with the same spicy ingredient used to make the Korean kim chi. So if you like kim chi (and I do), then you’ll like the spicy negi.

As I was still finishing up my wonderful pork donburi, with its clean flavors and freshness, my bowl of ramen came. I ordered the standard ramen (which comes with pork) but with a miso broth.

The bowl was big, making the ramen seem like it wasn’t very much. But when I stirred it, I could tell that I had a nice-sized serving of the ramen. It came with a couple of slices of BBQ pork (just like my donburi), pickled bamboo shoots (adds a nice crunch) and nori (the dried seaweed).

My mouth wasn’t as excited as when it took a bite of the pork donburi a few minutes earlier. The ramen noodles were chewy (like it should be) but if I made a guess, I would say it was overcooked by one minute. The broth was on the rich side (I should have asked for the light broth) so that meant it was a bit oily. Also, I didn’t really taste a strong miso flavor, although it looked rich with miso. (When eating other miso ramen, I could often smell the miso flavoring as I ate. I couldn’t here.)

Don’t get me wrong, the bowl of ramen was satisfying and it was the perfect cure for a rainy day. But the quality seemed similar to bowls I’ve eaten in San Francisco’s Japantown. So I don’t know if I would go as far as to call Katana-ya the best ramen in the city.

Still, it’s a decent bowl of ramen at a central location. And after the pork donburi and spicy negi, I’d be interested in trying the other combos with my ramen to see what else Katana-ya has to offer.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (clean flavors)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Katana-Ya in San Francisco

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