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Regional Interests

SF’s Most Exciting New Ramen Restaurant Is Moving Out of the Living Room

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or the better part of the past six years, Clint and Yoko Tan have welcomed customers into their Daly City home for a blowout, multi-course ramen dinner. The pop-up, Noodle in a Haystack, started out small: six guests seated around the dining room table a couple of nights each month. Tickets started selling out so quickly, though, that the Tans soon expanded. They squeezed two more guests on either side of a little folding table—then three more in their living room, on a snug Ikea sofa they dubbed the “VIP couch,” where the Tans’ dog, Toto, often joined the fray. 

“Legalities aside,” Clint says, “the whole atmosphere of it felt more akin to eating at our favorite restaurants in Japan.” Or, perhaps more apt, like a rollicking dinner party that they might host for a group of friends. 

Noodle in a Haystack quickly became an underground favorite, both for its atmosphere and for what many ramen connoisseurs considered to be some of the finest bowls of ramen in the Bay —labor-intensive dishes like their brothless wagyu beef abura soba, their duck shoyu ramen or the bright yuzu shio ramen that earned the couple a finalist’s spot at one of Japan’s biggest ramen competitions, the 2017 World Ramen Grand Prix held in Osaka.

Then COVID happened, and, with no viable way to continue serving guests at home, the pop-up went into an extended hibernation. 

Now, as the San Francisco Chronicle first reported, Noodle in a Haystack will open as a standalone restaurant in the Inner Richmond, in the space recently vacated by the Japanese curry shop Konomama. The Tans hope to open as early as August or September of this year—though given the amount of renovation work they need to do, they say the end of 2021 might be a more realistic target.

The Tans plan for the restaurant to be different from any other ramen spot in the city: It will be a tiny, intimate operation, likely serving no more than 20 customers a night. Instead of cranking out hundreds of bowls a night at $12 or $15 a pop, the restaurant will serve one of the Bay Area’s most unique tasting menus: $100 for six to eight courses, with a bowl of ramen—a different style each month, laboriously prepared over the course of three or four days—as the main event. 

A version of the pop-up’s internationally recognized yuzu shio ramen. (Noodle in a Haystack)

Clint, who was born and raised in San Francisco, first met Yoko, a Tokyo native, in 2008, shortly after he’d moved to Tokyo, where he worked as a salaryman for six years before returning to the Bay Area. The self-taught chefs started their at-home pop-up as a way to recapture the local ramen culture they’d both fallen in love with in Japan.  

“Watching people take a slurp of the ramen, they give you that look,” Clint says. “There’s nothing better in the world than seeing that reaction. That was a drug to us.”

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]o much of the pandemic hinged on the luck of timing. There were splashy new restaurants that opened, with a sad trombone sound, just days before the first shelter-in-place order shut them down right away. For others, permitting snafus and construction delays proved to be their saving grace—they wound up sitting out the worst of the ordeal. 

In the case of Noodle in the Haystack, the timing could scarcely have been worse: A couple of months before the pandemic hit the Bay Area, Chron food critic Soleil Ho shouted out the at-home pop-up as the best meal she ate all year, saying what she ate there “destroys every bowl of ramen in the Bay.” A couple of weeks later, Ho included the pop-up’s deep-fried pork belly in her list of “must-eat” dishes for 2020. Already a hot ticket, a seat at one of Noodle in the Haystack’s ramen dinners became nearly impossible to snag, often selling out some five minutes after they were posted each month. 

The pork belly kakuni karaage was one of the pop-up’s signature dishes. (Jason Wang and Grace Chen, @cityfoodsters)

“We were on the highest of highs,” Clint recalls. “We were going to come out from that rock that we were hiding under.” The Tans started looking for a space where they could turn Noodle in the Haystack into a real restaurant. Then, right at the peak of the pop-up’s popularity, everything got shut down. 

“It was a tough pill to swallow. We didn’t know if we were ever going to cook again,” Clint recalls. 

The Tans never stopped looking for a restaurant space, but they couldn’t ever quite bring themselves to pull the trigger on signing a lease, especially as COVID numbers around the Bay looked worse and worse. “You would expect there to be fire sales with all these empty properties, all these businesses that closed down,” Clint says. “The crazy thing is the prices never really changed.” 

They thought about moving back to Japan, where, even at the height of the pandemic, friends of theirs were able to open a new bar or restaurant in a matter of months. (Perhaps the only thing that stopped them, Yoko notes, was the fact that their aging dog wouldn’t have been able to make the trip.) 

Then, rather quickly and unexpectedly, the space at 4601 Geary Boulevard fell into their laps. It isn’t necessarily the ideal space; it has a kitchen that, as it’s currently set up, isn’t equipped to cook anything much more complicated than “curry in a bag,” Clint says. Already, the Tans are expecting many months of permitting headaches. The good thing about having done pop-ups for so many years, they say, is that they’re used to bootstrapping together a kitchen.

Yoko and Clint Tan at a fundraiser event in 2017. (Noodle in a Haystack)

Perhaps the even bigger challenge, then, will be maintaining the intimacy of Noodle in the Haystack’s pop-up incarnation. After all, Clint says, “eating in America, even at the best meals, feels transactional at best. There’s this invisible, tangible wall that you can’t get past with the way food is made here.” That wall by and large didn’t exist at Noodle in a Haystack’s home pop-ups—not when customers sat inches away from the kitchen and could poke their heads in at any time to watch the Tans prepping the meal.

How, then, to translate that experience? The Tans’ solution, counterintuitively, is to make the restaurant even smaller in scale, serving their tasting menu to just eight to 10 customers at a time, with two seatings a night, three or four nights a week. “To people in the industry here, it’s ludicrous,” Clint says. “In America, businesses like that just don’t work.” 

It’s worth noting, too, that dinner at Noodle in a Haystack will be a more expensive meal than what you’d find at your typical a la carte ramen shop—again, probably about $100 a person for the six- to eight-course tasting menu. 

The tom yum paitan ramen is one of the pop-up’s original creations. (Colin Ma @eatfreakz)

There isn’t, at this point, much to add to the ramen pricing discourse, wherein the Yelp review–writing masses collectively lose their minds anytime a ramen shop charges more than $15 or $16 for a bowl. There’s something to be said for ramen’s origins as an affordable working-class staple in Japan, but in the United States, the arguments in favor of paying more for the kind of highly labor-intensive ramen made by Noodle in a Haystack are hard to refute—especially when the dining public seems perfectly content spending $20 or $30 for a simple plate of pasta. 

“That’s really the running joke in our pop-up: Maybe we should be selling carbonara instead,” Clint says. “If I put those same noodles in bacon and eggs, someone will be fine spending $30; I don’t need to be spending three days making [ramen].”

That’s part of the reason why the Tans have no intention of opening a conventional ramen shop: They just don’t think it’s a viable business model in the Bay Area—not with rent being as expensive as it is, and not, as Clint says, considering “what it costs to make a properly, legitimately, thoughtfully made bowl of ramen here.”

“We’re not for everybody,” he says. “And that’s fine.”

The meals won’t be strictly Japanese either—though “living in the Bay Area, missing Japanese food” will be the driving aesthetic. Certain staples of the pop-up will probably be part of every meal: a deviled ramen egg that starts each meal, for instance, and seasonal dorayaki (stuffed pancakes) that Yoko makes for dessert. Mostly, Clint says, they’ll just cook whatever they’re into at the moment.

Cheesecake dorayaki with salted brown butter crumble. (Noodle in a Haystack)

Given all of the hoops they expect they’ll need to jump through, the Tans admit the August–September opening they were originally shooting for is probably unrealistic, though they hope to be able to open in some form during that time frame, even if it’s only to sell the take-home ramen kits they offered periodically during lockdown. It’s likely that the restaurant will fully open closer to December.

Fortunately, Noodle in a Haystack’s fan base appears to be unwavering in its enthusiasm. Earlier this month, the Tans launched a Kickstarter campaign to help mitigate the expense of those likely delays—and to pay for expensive equipment like the kind of special Pi water filter that’s used by Japan’s top ramen restaurants. At publication time, they’ve already raised nearly $100,000, more than tripling their target.

Noodle in a Haystack will open at 4601 Geary Blvd. in San Francisco.

Copyright 2021 KQED