Mystery. We’re drawn to it. The unknown calls us like moths to a flame. The human spirit finds a mystery irresistible. Mystery is a puzzle to be solved, and it stokes the imagination in all of us.
When I was a kid, there was an old, dilapidated house that sat on the lot next door to my friend Susan’s home. It sat on an isolated corner of that otherwise familiar street, its large, dusty windows barely visible behind the spiraled fence of twisted trees that obscured the sunlight. They covered the old house protectively, the gnarled hands of a crone shielding her face from unwanted attention. The shrubbery only served to enhance the gloom that encased the old mansion. We could see curtains behind the dust— thin, shredded veils further adding to its mystery, like the partially closed, paper-thin eyelids of a corpse, hiding the spirit of the person who once inhabited it. What fascinating scenes had been played out within its dark and ominous exterior? Did it hold monsters or history? Did any living thing linger there, in its shadowy depths? Such are the musings that captivate the imaginations of children. I’m certain there was a story there, but it was not for us to know.
Food can also be mysterious. Foreign ingredients. Unusual combinations of flavor. I know many who fear to go beyond the comfort of the food they grew up with. It’s familiar. They know where it will take them and have no urge to venture beyond the scope of that which they understand. They are inextricably compelled to repeat the dining routines of their childhood. Not I. One of my favorite adventures is to sample the cultures of other places and peoples through food. The tastes of travel, the full-Bourdain experience, if you will. Fortunately, my hometown of Oakland is teeming with opportunities to do just that.
My most recent foray into the world of new food exploits has been to dabble in ramen. To examine this science experiment of Eastern sensibilities, to see just how it has been reinvented for a modern palate. Ramen has hit the food scene like a Sharknado, the unexpected and the impossible all rolled into one delicious bowl of magic and adventure.
So when Sobo Ramen was brought up a few weeks ago as a lunch option at the office, I was all over it. The only ramen I’d ever tasted was “Top” and that experience had not left me craving more. Ramen, in my mind, was boring. Then came David Chang, and his re-invention of the dish for an American audience. Many trusted friends had flocked to try these delicious bowls of enigmatic ingredients, insisting that this new breed of ramen was not to be confused with the fast food variety of yore, so I really felt it was time to give this new fad a try. I was not disappointed. Not only is ramen delicious, Sobo Ramen has mastered the art of turning out a complex and mysterious bowl of great food.
We’ve been twice, and the second visit held just as much flavor-packed fun as the first. We began by sharing the Soft Shelled Crab Appetizer, which presented itself as four lovely sticks of tempura-battered crab and a lemony bright dipping sauce. The crispy batter combined with the punch of citrus in a blissful balance of splendid flavors. Nice.
Our Partner in Food Crimes and the Hubs both ordered the Lobster Ramen, which is a special right now. It is extraordinary. Lobster bathed in a rich, buttery broth, piled high with plenty of trimmings. The spice level was tolerable for the Hubs, who is an admitted “spice lightweight,” though we are bringing him along nicely, as he gets a bit more adventurous with every meal. The lobster is always perfectly cooked, and though it’s a pricy bowl at around $20, the half-tail portion of lobster is generous. The men always leave stuffed, and they are eaters with very healthy appetites. Bottom line, it’s enough food for dudes.
The Peruvian Paralegal had the Tsukemen Ramen, a fantasy platter of noodles, toppings and dipping sauce, leaving the eater to create his or her own dining experience, making for a “choose your own adventure” meal. Every bite is different, as one can combine any or all of the ingredients in each spoonful to taste them individually or as a whole. They play off each other symphonically, the pickled ginger on its own, so good as to be an examplary and memorable representative of the concept of umami. The “perfect bite” the PP made for each of us that featured all the components together, was good enough to convince me I must order this dish next time we visit. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s also a lot of fun. I’m a fun fan.
As for me, I had the Black Garlic, again, because I could. Unfamiliar with ramen offerings, I had ordered it on my first visit, because garlic has been a part of my food experience since I was a kid, and it seemed a good jumping off point. Anything with garlic has to be good, I reasoned. On this, my second visit, I ordered it solely because I’d been dreaming about it since the first time. That’s how good food does you, it haunts your dreams like memories of a lost love, until you can repeat the experience for one more stolen kiss. Ecstasy.
If you haven’t been to Sobo, and you are a fan of ramen, check it out. If you have never had ramen, this is a fantastic spot to experience it for the first time. I guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed. Check it out, solve the mystery that is ramen, and make a memory of your own!
988 Franklin St, Ste 186 (between 11th St & 10th St)
Oakland, CA 94607
Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown