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Yoshimi Soba Puts Japanese Noodles on the Map in Anaheim

July 28, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County.

In his classic memoir "Between Meals," New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling lamented the modern scarcity of what he called "good little holes where you eat for nothing." A pity the man isn't alive to try Anaheim's amazing Yoshimi Soba.

In case you haven't guessed from the name, Yoshimi Soba is a Japanese noodle restaurant specializing in homemade soba (buckwheat noodles). But soba is only the start. Yoshimi Soba also prepares other favorite Japanese noodles such as udon , somen and ramen and serves them in a variety of tempting ways.

Tokyo may be the world's most expensive city, but its thousands of noodle shops are modestly priced. First-time visitors to Tokyo often do not realize how easy it is, even with the yen through the roof, to get a delicious meal for under $10. That's all you'd pay at almost any Tokyo noodle shop for an enormous bowl of pasta in a rich broth called dashi , topped with meat, vegetables or shrimp tempura. The taxi fare might set you back a week's pay, but that's another story.

Step inside Yoshimi Soba and you'll think you have been transported right to Tokyo. This modest storefront is sparsely decorated with Japanese pop cultural icons: papier-mache demons ( tengu ), a beer poster illustrated with a Japanese bathing beauty, a bookshelf full of manga , the wild serial comics that younger generation Japanese read obsessively.

Otherwise, Yoshimi Soba is little more than a spare, simple box, all white pine furniture and black slate flooring. Nothing about it violates the most chaste Japanese aesthetic standards, meaning that it's modest enough to be a noodle shop. If the decor were a touch showier, the customers might not feel comfortable slurping their noodles, as a true noodle connoisseur must.

The cooking comes from the hand of chef and owner Hiroshi Serizawa. It is sublime, as good as any Japanese food I've had since leaving Japan and, frankly, quite a bit better than you'd find in the typical Tokyo noodle shop.

At dinner you can start things off by ordering kappo appetizers from the bilingual blackboard menu. These snacks, mostly designed to promote thirst, are actually typical more of a nomiya , or pub, than a noodle shop.

One of the best is an omelet made with natto , the slimy fermented soy beans. Tokyo natives love to watch visitors squirm when tasting natto for the first time, but here they will be cheated. The natto blends magically with the eggs to make a delicious omelet without the usual odd textures and slightly bitter aftertaste of natto.

Another good appetizer is yodofu ; Serizawa does a masterful job with these fried cubes of bean curd. Fried teba (chicken wings) are great too--thickly covered with batter, in the Pioneer Chicken mode, but lacking the burnt-oil aftertaste of your average fast-food chicken.

Then you should be ready for some of the noodles, and take my word, they're beauts. Soba are a light grayish-green color. They're long on the chopsticks, and on the palate. I like mine in ultra-Japanese fashion, topped with yamaimo and a lightly poached quail egg. Yamaimo is a slithery mountain yam that looks like egg white, and I must say that it is an acquired taste. If it's too exotic, try your soba with vegetable and shrimp tempura. We're talking three giant shrimp thickly breaded in the true Tokyo style, along with some onions and a green vegetable.

Udon are fat, white flour noodles also eaten in soup, and I like them with a different set of toppings. The restaurant does a mean chicken and green onion udon as well as one flavored with baby clams. If you're feeling austere, try a topping of crunchy seaweed and chopped-up green onions in a simple mushroom and shaved bonito broth.

Ramen are the long, thin Chinese-style noodles, and Japanese chefs really cut loose with them. They're served in the biggest portions of any noodles, in the biggest ceramic bowls, with the widest variety of toppings. Ja-ja mein is actually a Taiwanese dish that the Japanese took a liking to during their long colonization of that island. It's cold ramen topped with sweet, spicy ground beef, a great lunch dish for summer.

Roast pork ramen is radically different from udon or soba : a bowl of noodles in delicious, meaty broth mixed with lots of thinly sliced meat, garlic, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots.

If you're inclined to experiment, try champon , a meibutsu (regional specialty) of the southerly city of Nagasaki. Champon is ramen soup covered by a mountain of sauteed vegetables (mostly cabbage), squid, shrimp and pork. You'd better be on your way to sumo wrestling class if you plan on finishing this one.

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