The Bay is brimming with satisfying noodle soups, from ultra creamy tonkotsu ramen to crystal clear pho ga. But while many ramen masters refuse to let noodles sit and soften in takeout containers, the pandemic cracked open a new format for noodle soup kits, which boast better texture and flavor with a quick simmer at home. Today noodle soups represent one of the richest categories on Pastel, and our small and local food makers come from diverse backgrounds, so they’re spinning different cuisines and personal styles. So let’s pull those noodles to talk texture, plunge a spoon into the depths of flavors, and dig into the details. Here are five under-slurped noodle soup bowls from across the Bay Area, each with its own voracious fan following.
The niu rou mian or Taiwanese beef noodle soup from Chiang Beef Noodle has won an underground following for its luxuriously rich broth and toothsome wheat noodles. Justin Chiang was born in Florida but raised in Hong Kong, where his family loved visiting nearby Taiwan. After cooking in ramen restaurants for five years, he thought he was over noodles, but when the pandemic hit, started craving a different flavor. He simmers beef bones for eight hours; infuses warm spices like star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, and dried mandarin peels; and sources fresh wheat noodles cut with square edges and bundled into tidy rounds. Soup insiders always load up on extra pickled mustard greens, and he adds chiles to the mix for a spicy kick. And meal planners, take note: Aside from the fresh veggies, the broth, beef, and noodles all freeze beautifully, if you want to stock up for later.
The ohn no khao swe or Burmese coconut noodle soup was the early hit for Love Khao Swe, and it's a bright golden chicken curry, sunk with tender egg noodles, and topped with crispy crunchies. Mary Wong says that at many Burmese restaurants in the Bay, tea leaf salads tend to steal the show, while ohn no khao swe might be buried lower down on the menu. But it’s Wong’s favorite dish that her mama made every year on her birthday. “My mom learned how to cook it back in Burma, just by watching other people, when she was helping out at aunties’ houses … ” Wong says. “Then she took the things she liked from each auntie’s recipe.” Now they cook the chicken curry separately, and it could be a whole dish on its own, featuring big hunks of tender chicken. The sauce is golden from turmeric, fragrant with aromatics, and thickened with chickpea flour. And the fresh toppings feel special: Thinly sliced red onion and cilantro, charred chiles sourced from Burma, and crunchy fried noodles, which are another separate process to shape and slide into hot oil one at a time.
The seafood laksa from Dabao Singapore is a rich red coconut curry swimming with fish cakes, fish balls, and shrimp. Born and raised in Singapore, Emily Lim has cooked for luxury steakhouses, but the pandemic brought her back to hawker fare. For Singaporean people in the Bay, she hopes to serve that Ratatouille moment, when even the most draconian critic gets transported back to his childhood — and that tastes like laksa. “I personally find that laksa is a great representation of the multicultural city, country, and island … ” Lim says. “There’s seafood from the island, noodles from China, spices from the spice trade, and coconuts are a Malay ingredient. One beautiful dish comes out. It means a lot to me.” She makes the rempah chile paste from scratch, which is a labor of love; sinks shrimp shells into the stock, so it’s fabulously fishy down to the last drop; and sources fish cakes from Singapore, so they have just the right “slight bite and potent flavor.” To reheat at home, she recommends separating the seafood — you don’t want to blast shrimp until they curl, just float them gently on top. Certain customers have been known to grumble about $20 for a noodle bowl, but when you sink a spoon into these premium ingredients, labor, and love, you can taste the difference.
The bakso is the iconic cloudy meatball soup that got everything rolling for D’Grobak. Christna Lim and Yohannes Ng grew up on different islands in Indonesia, where Lim remembers waking up from her afternoon nap to the sound of the bakso man banging a soup spoon against his pushcart. Craving comfort food during the pandemic, they couldn’t find bakso anywhere in the Bay, and started slinging it for friends. The cloudiness of the broth comes from buttery bone marrow, flavored with lots of garlic and sharp white pepper, and it simmers for 12 to 14 hours. The meatballs are bouncy and chewy, and Ng plays with the presentation, wrapping the meat around a mini quail egg, and letting it peek out of a stuffed tofu pocket. Two types of noodles, both yellow egg noodles and slender rice vermicelli, get completely covered in toppings, with a wild crispy wonton jammed upright. If you want to “bakso like a pro,” Lim says to taste the cloudy broth first, before hitting it with homemade sambal and sweet black soya sauce.
A spicy red curry sunk with chewy curry noodles is the unmistakable work of Basil the Bold. True to PanPan Thiravechyan’s colorful and creative style, it’s a twist of traditions: She was born and raised in Bangkok, but her family is originally from China, so the bold curry is Thai, but the extra thick noodles are Taiwanese. She’s picky about ingredients, and flew all the way to LA, walked into the factory, and convinced an auntie in the back to sell her these specific noodles. (They now like to text each other with koala bear emojis.) A stickler for texture, she doesn’t offer them for delivery, they’re only available as the kit, to keep that big bounce. When you’re simmering at home, if the noodles start to stick, Thiravechyan says it’s okay to give them an aggressive shake. She promises they’ll slip apart once they hit the curry sauce, which has bright red chile oil marbling the top (a very good sign). Freshly fried shallots and fragrant basil leaves take it over the top, and fish sauce comes on the side, in consideration for vegan friends.
While all these bowls might seem deceptively quick and easy to simmer up at home, they’re the final result of hours of hot work, prepping many different components, and packaging every fresh basil leaf and tiny sauce tub. “I hope people understand the process,” says Wong from Love Khao Swe. “It’s not like we just throw everything into a pot. There are a lot of intricate things on the side.” Thiravechyan from Basil the Bold echoes the same sentiment. “I really really care about my food,” she says. “I want people to eat something very delicious that they’ve never had anywhere else. Hopefully people can feel the love and care put into every part of the process.”
Chiang Beef Noodle, Love Khao Swe, Dabao Singapore, and Basil the Bold noodle soup kits are available for pickup and delivery across the Bay Area through Pastel. D’Grobak is taking a brief break from the platform, but the bakso is still available through their own website.