Simple Cranberry Jam (Sauce)

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Cranberry sauce is used/eaten like jam at our house. It’s cooked up in batches and used on everything from the Thanksgiving bird to toast every morning for the next several weeks. It’s also eaten with peanut butter and poured over ice cream. It’s pretty versatile. That’s why I hesitate just calling it “cranberry sauce.” It’s very limiting.

I decided to start this season’s batch early because I wanted one less thing to do for Turkey Day, and it keeps in the fridge for about 2 weeks anyway. The second jar went straight into the freezer for later use.

This recipe is so easy to make, so reliably delicious, that my official taste tester (my 4 year old) grabs a bowl of it every time it’s fresh off the stove.

And remember, it’s not just for Thanksgiving anymore.

Simple Cranberry Jam (Sauce)

- 2 twelve ounce packages of fresh cranberries. If frozen, thaw before using.

- 1 cup granulated sugar

- 1 cup water

Combine all ingredients into a saucepan and let it come up to a boil over medium high heat, stirring frequently to prevent the sugar from burning on the bottom and sides of the pan. The cranberries will pop and hiss as they get hot.

20131117_201407Then, turn down the heat and simmer on low for 20-25 minutes. Continue to stir occasionally to prevent burning and sticking. Once the mixture is shiny and coats the back of your spoon, it should be done. It will continue to thicken slightly as it cools.

ImageLet it cool for 30 minutes or so before placing into a tupperware, bowl, or mason jars for freezing/storing. It should keep for 2 weeks.

Ramen Roundup Part 2

I realized with my last roundup of ramen joints in the Bay Area that I was only scratching the surface. It seems like ramen is the new obsession around these parts, and noodle lovers have their staunch favorites.

Ramen in the Bay Area may not be the “fast food” item it is in Japan, but it’s certainly not a fussy meal, though extremely customizable. With that rich meaty broth and chewy noodles, and fixings like hardboiled eggs, corn, and dried seaweed (nori), it’s a complete comfort food meal in a bowl. In Japan, ramen noodle houses are as common as pizza joints are in the States. It’s a cheap, filling, and delicious way for them to satisfy their hunger.

So here are four more places on the Peninsula and in the South Bay I visited recently.

Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen
Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork

Ramen Club — Burlingame
This restaurant’s ramen is by no means the best, but it’s a good, fun bowl of noodles. I say fun because the Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork is not exactly authentic, but good and tasty. I loved the zesty crunch from the spicy kimchi cabbage and the added kick of the hot sauce on top. The texture of the noodles is good and chewy but not soggy. However, the broth and the pork are lackluster. Still, it’s a good version of ramen.

Ramen Club
Ramen Club & Catering on Urbanspoon

Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic
Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic

Ramen Parlor — San Mateo
If you’ve been to Santa Ramen or Dojo Ramen in San Mateo, you’ll love this place. Ramen Parlor is owned by the same folks as Santa and Dojo, and is the newest of the three. Though it’s not as popular or as good as Dojo, it is definitely a strong second, and certainly my favorite on this list. Their specialty is infusing spicy seafood elements into their broth like lobster oil, or fried soft shell crab. I ordered the Ramen with Tonkatsu (pork) Broth and Soft Shell Crab, spicy of course. Along with all those fun flavors, it comes with a glistening, buttery, full-fat slice of pork belly, pungent black garlic oil, and a creamy, perfectly cooked hard boiled egg. It is delicious, bold, innovative and every element was cooked to perfection. Heaven.

Ramen Parlor
Ramen Parlor on Urbanspoon

Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen
Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen

Santouka Ramen — San Jose
Santouka is a popular Japanese ramen chain restaurant, and this is their only franchised Bay Area outpost. Located inside the Japanese Mitsuwa Marketplace strip mall as part of a mini-food court, it’s as close to a fast food ramen place as you can get around here. The ramen noodles have that ideal chewy-but-not-soggy texture and the broth has good depth. However, I suspect it was full of MSG since I came away later that day with some serious thirst and a slight headache. And the portion itself was very small. My American palate, unfortunately, is used to a serving double the size of what they gave me.

Santouka
Located in the Mitsuwa Marketplace
Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork
Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork

Ramen House Ryowa — Mountain View
“Ryowa” apparently means sesame, so I’d be remiss not to order the specialty of the house. Out of the four places I went to, this was both the most authentically Japanese in setting (bar seating, very fast food-like atmosphere) and straightforward in terms of the food. The broth and noodles were both reliably good, but nothing to write home about. Although I loved that the ramen is served with a side of gyoza dumplings, which apparently is what they do in Japan. It makes for a nicely rounded meal.

Ramen House Ryowa
Ramen House Ryowa on Urbanspoon

Searching for Okonomiyaki

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Okonomiyaki is a dish that’s described many different ways: a savory pancake, Japanese pizza, or an Asian frittata. Whatever you call it, it can be hard to find around these parts. With the exception of San Francisco and San Jose, all places in between can be an okonomiyaki-free zone.

Okonomiyaki is a classic comfort food dish in Japan. It’s a round, flat, savory dish that’s made from flour, eggs, cabbage, and seafood or meat. It’s got a drier exterior and a soft, moist interior. A good dose of sweet Japanese mayonnaise and sweet, smoky Okonomi brown sauce is drizzled on top, and then the dish is finished with some dried fish flakes (bonito) and dried seaweed. A good version of the dish shouldn’t be to dry or too wet.

Literally translated, okonomiyaki means “grilled as you like,” which explains why you’ll see slightly different versions of the dish everywhere in Japan. Here in the Bay Area, I’d be happy to see it even half as often as I do sushi and chicken teriyaki.

I remember the first time I tried the dish at a restaurant in Japantown. I had ordered it out of sheer curiosity since the photo on the menu made it look, indeed, like a Japanese pizza. The flavors were like nothing I’d ever had before. There was sweetness from the white sauce, smokiness from the brown sauce, and seafood flavor from the bonito flakes on top. Crunch came from the cabbage inside. It was thoroughly satisfying and I couldn’t wait to have it again.

So my recent craving sent me on a search for the dish. I was determined not to look to San Francisco or San Jose, where you can find it more readily since both cities have Japantowns.

There may be tons of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, but I realized that most of them don’t serve okonomiyaki. So I was thankful to find these two restaurants that serve good renditions of the dish.

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Ramen Taro — Foster City
This newer Japanese spot may focus on ramen, but its their other dishes on the menu that are both tastier and more interesting. Their okonomiyaki is bold and chock full of ingredients. It’s drenched in more brown sauce and mayo than I’d like, but it has a load of flavor and texture with its abundance of cabbage, pickled ginger, and bonito flakes on top. And it’s not too doughy either, which is a good thing. It’s served pre-sliced so it feels like you’re eating a very exotic pizza.

Bushido Okonomiyaki
Bushido Okonomiyaki with Seafood

Bushido — Mountain View
This trendy Japanese restaurant has some very unusual dishes like a Tuna Poke Burrito and Kimchi Goyza. But surprisingly, their version of okonomiyaki is fairly straightforward, but well-balanced and had a less overwhelming mix of flavors. Their version had shrimp and veggies, giving a nice contrast of textures and tastes. My only complaint was that it was a smaller portion than others I’ve had, which would make it a good shared appetizer for the table.

I know I’m just scratching the surface on my quest to find some good okonomiyaki around these parts. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. My search continues…

Ramen Taro
Address: Map
1495 Beach Park Blvd
Foster City, CA 94404
Phone: (650) 212-2883
Hours: Mon-Sun 11am – 9:30p

Bushido on Urbanspoon

*Cross posted @ KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Curry Up Now Wants You to Join The Dosa Republic

Inside The Dosa Republic

Husband and wife team, Akash and Rana Kapoor have created a name for themselves with their Curry Up Now food trucks, specializing in authentic and boldly flavored Indian street food. Their immense popularity spawned an equally popular brick and mortar joint in San Mateo, which opened last year.

Curry Up Now started as a pipe dream for Rana. She had always loved feeding large groups of friends and family at home, and wanted to bring that feeling of creating and sharing a good home cooked Indian meal to a larger community.

But Akash, who also loves to cook and create special dishes for their restaurant’s menu, had a culinary dream of his own.

“I went to this place in India that specialized in dosas and they had 140 different kinds you could choose from. They took a traditional Indian dish and made it cutting edge. That became the inspiration for this new restaurant.”

Enter The Dosa Republic, which opened this week. The new fast-casual restaurant in San Mateo serves rice bowls, salads, inventive appetizers, and of course, dosas. The Kapoors are taking this traditional Southern Indian staple and giving it a modern twist.

Dosas are thin, crepe-like delicacies made from a rice and lentil batter, making them naturally gluten-free. The dosa crepes are then filled with a variety of ingredients. That’s where the fun comes in for Akash, who created the menu.

Paisano Dosa
Paisano Dosa

They have two dosa menus which include The Dosa Republic’s own innovative creations, like the Paisano, filled with prosciutto, figs and burrata, along with the more traditional ones, like the Bombay, with potatoes, green onions and chili. Many dishes can also be made vegan.

Kale Vada Sambar
Kale Vada Sambar

One of the more notable appetizers include the Kale Vada Sambar, a deliciously fried lentil and kale dumpling served with their lentil and seasonal veggie stew. Many dishes come with the stew or a Sri Lankan Curry to dip. Others are served with a variety of chutneys like young coconut, tomato, and strawberry habenero mint. It’s a lot of flavors to take in, but they certainly make for an extremely interesting and adventurous eating experience.

Tanga Dosa
Tanga Dosa

But one of the most popular dishes seems to be the Tanga Dosa, filled with an unusual combination of ramen noodles, carrots and cabbage for crunch, and Gobi Cauliflower (chili cauliflower), which resembles more of a Chinese sweet and sour dish because of it’s bright orange hue. “Chinese food is actually really popular in India right now, or their version of it,” says Akash. “That’s why the Gobi Chicken and Cauliflower look like something from a Chinese restaurant.” The flavors, thankfully, are more tangy and spicy than sweet and sour.

The Tanga was a wonderfully satisfying dosa, giving you a complete protein, veggie and carb meal all wrapped in one extremely delectable package.

Sinhala Dosa
Sinhala Dosa

Also notable is the Sinhala Dosa, which contains juicy chicken, curry and potato. The boldly flavored spices come through loud and clear without coming on too strong. Everything was cooked perfectly from the meat to the lightly crisp yet soft and tender crepe it’s wrapped in.

The Kapoors have taken this humble yet commonly enjoyed Indian dish and managed to make it fun, tasty, and surprisingly unintimidating to a Bay Area audience that might not be familiar with it. It’s a formula they seem to have down pat with Curry Up Now. Now at The Dosa Republic, they’re betting that formula can work for them again.

Dosa Republic Interior

The Dosa Republic
Address: Map
2299 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, CA 94403
Phone: 650.458.DOSA
Twitter: @thedosarepublic
Facebook: Curry UpNow

The Peninsula’s Best Casual Dishes

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

I’ve had the great fortune of visiting a wide variety of restaurants over the years. Most are good, some mediocre, and a few just plain horrid. But there are a few standouts; the kind of restaurant where everything comes together and you can’t stop thinking about the meal you just had there. These are places in the Bay Area peninsula where service, cleanliness, overall vibe and of course, food are not only good, but memorable and relatively AFFORDABLE!

Curry Up Now (San Mateo) – Deconstructed Samosa, Chicken Kathi Roll

Cuisinett (San Carlos) – Moules Frites

Millbrae Dumpling Shop (Millbrae) - Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Xiao Long Bao

Mingalaba (Burlingame) - House Special Noodles, Tea Leaf Salad

Osteria Coppa (San Mateo) – Tagliatelle Bolognaise

Ramen Dojo (San Mateo) – Garlic Pork Ramen

Speederia Pizzeria (San Carlos) - Indianapolis Pizza

Cuisinett: French Cuisine Gets Casual

Cuisinett interior
Cuisinett interior

French food tends to have the stereotype of being pretentious, formal, and expensive. But the owner of the newly opened Cuisinett in San Carlos, Geofforey Raby, and former Executive Chef of Menlo Park’s shuttered Marche, Guillaume Bienaime, want you to believe otherwise.

“The kind of food we serve here is the kind my Mom would make,” says Raby. “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 in Lille, France. I’ve learned that there’s importance to making people happy. But there’s a fine line between being attentive and being annoying. I wanted to create a casual, family-friendly restaurant with beautiful, simple design and great quality French food at a good price.”

Coq au Vin
Coq au Vin with Buttery Peas, Carrots and Pearl Onions

They call it “French Comfort Food,” and their main focus is to change the common perception that French cuisine is stuffy and complex. Think Pasta Pomodoro or Crepevine. “We wanted things to be understandable and uncomplicated. We’re not doing extravagant plating here. We want you to have the food you order from cashier to table in 10 minutes without compromising quality and taste.”

Enter Chef Bienaime. The two met in May through a mutual contact in the restaurant industry. Chef Bienaime spent over seven years at the acclaimed Marche, two of those years heading up the kitchen before it closed earlier this year. So why would his next project involve a casual restaurant that doesn’t even have waiters?

“For me, it’s an opportunity to do something new. There are some very old school menu items like Coq Au Vin that are very difficult to cook quickly. So it was a challenge for me to do something more contemporary with these dishes while maintaining their classic quality. The more I got into it, the more I believed in the concept,” recalls the Chef.

“Marche went through a bunch of phases. It started as a casual concept and got more and more complicated through the years. So when it closed, I had the desire to approach more people with my food,” says Chef Bienaime. “What I love about cooking is how it makes people happy. I’d rather make more people happy than less.”

Despite being open for a relatively short amount of time, the Chef’s confidence in his dishes shows. They’re solidly delicious and are expertly, albeit simply, prepared.

Diners can chose from a variety of side dishes like french fries, sautéed spinach, or buttery peas and carrots. The specialty of the house is their Roasted Chicken, which you can have with a mushroom or mustard cream sauce, or in the style of Coq au Vin. It doesn’t disappoint with its moist meat and buttery flavor. The sauces are rich, distinct, and tasty without overpowering the chicken’s flavor.

Moules

Moules Frites
Moules Frites w/White Wine, Shallots and Herbs

The most popular dish on my multiple visits, however, seemed to be the Moules Frites (Mussels with Fries) with shallots, white wine and herbs. The Chef uses Mediterranean mussels which are bigger, plumper, juicier and sweeter, and were cooked to perfection. There wasn’t a rubbery mussel in the bunch. And the accompanying french fries were perfectly golden crisp and tender inside. This was a straightforward yet wonderfully executed dish.

Ratatouille
Ratatouille

For vegetarians, their Ratatouille is quite good and is served with a simple salad of mixed greens. The buttery Parmesan breadcrumbs on top contrast nicely with the nutty, toasty flavor and the mix of yellow and red bell peppers, various squash and eggplant make for a hearty dish.

“French food isn’t just centered in Paris bistros, so we’ve divided France up into 6 regions. Now people can see the different varieties of food there are in France,” says Raby.

With the restaurant now open and the menu developed, Chef Bienaime doesn’t plan on being in the kitchen on a daily basis. However he’s constantly adjusting the existing menu and plans to add more items for children. In the future, he will serve as culinary consultant and head of operations.

It’s their hope to create multiple locations over the next few years. And in the shorter term, Chef Bienaime is hoping to entertain the idea of having some special 6-course reservation only dinners for about $100 per person on Sundays, since they’re not usually open that day. They’ll also be offering a Family Meal for four people that’ll include a whole roasted chicken, choice of sauce, two sides and a baguette for under $30 that people can take to go.

“Guillaume is about serving fantastic food, I’m about helping to creating the experience,” says Raby. “It’s like Starbucks. There have always been coffeehouses, but Starbucks they worked on the experience. To a certain extent, that’s what I want to do with French food and make it and experience that’s accessible.”

And Chef Bienaime agrees. “I believe more and more in the concept every day.”

Cuisinett
1105 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos
(650) 453-3390
Mon-Sun, 11am-9pm, Lunch & Dinner Service
Dine-in or Takeout available
Facebook: Cuisinett
Twitter: @cuisinett

Cuisinett: French Comfort Food on Urbanspoon

*Cross posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

The Nom Nom Truck: SoCal Comes to NorCal

It’s amazing what a reality show can do for your food truck.

Second place finishers on the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” and Los Angeles food truck staple, Nom Nom, have spread their love to the Bay Area.

Co-owners Jennifer Green and Misa Chien met during their time at UCLA. It was also during that time that they realized they could fill a niche in the growing food truck scene.

Nom Nom Truck owners - Jennifer Green and Misa Chien
Nom Nom Truck owners: Jennifer Green and Misa Chien.

“It started in 2009 when we had a lot of Kogi BBQ trucks around the UCLA campus and their popularity grew out of nowhere,” says Jennifer. “I made a lot of Vietnamese food for my friends on a regular basis and I realized the lack of Vietnamese restaurants in the West LA area. Then it clicked.”

Green and Chien chose the classic Vietnamese baguette sandwich, banh mi, as their truck’s specialty not only because there was a lack of places that served it in their area, but because it’s easy to eat.

“It’s portable, it’s fast and has a fresh taste that you can’t get from a burrito or hamburger,” states Jennifer. “The great thing is that we can also put a little bit of our gourmet twist on it too. One of the most traditional banh mi ingredients is grilled pork and I grill it with honey, which is a little different than the traditional. We also have Lemongrass Chicken and Vietnamese tacos, which are like a banh mi in your hand.”

“We also work with Le Boulanger to have our bread baked especially for us from a recipe I worked really hard on.”

Deli Banh Mi sandwich. Photo courtesy of Nom Nom Truck
Deli Banh Mi sandwich.

Indeed, the perfectly crusty on the outside, pillowy on the inside French bread roll is key to a good banh mi, and it was the highlight of the sandwich when I got a chance to sample their Honey Grilled Pork version. The pickled carrots and daikon that topped the sandwich were flavored well and super fresh, but I wish I’d gotten more of them to create more of a textural and taste contrast to the sweet pork. And I missed the lack of fish sauce flavor that brings it all together.

All in all, it seemed like something similar enough to what I could get in a Vietnamese Mom and Pop shop. So what’s the big deal?

First, the size of this sandwich is double the size of one you’d get at a typical brick and mortar. Coming in at 12 inches long, it’s a torpedo of a dish. But more importantly, Nom Nom is obviously trying to appealing to those who have never had a banh mi before.

“It’s exciting to see how many people who have never had one before try it and see their reaction, says Misa. “It’s like an introduction to Vietnamese food for those who have never had it. We’re appealing to the American palate.”

Their popularity has grown steadily, peaking when they started showing up on the Food Network reality show.

“We went into it wanting an adventure and it was a great way to expose our truck to a larger audience. People totally embraced us and it was great to see that feedback,” says Misa. “To see a small town embrace a food dish they’d never tasted like banh mi was a great experience.”

“We were bummed we came in second, but deep down we had to tell each other it was just a reality show. And the great thing was that we won the chance to travel and it was amazing,” says Jennifer.

Nom Nom recently acquired their third food truck and their next move was up north…at least for Misa.

“We decided on San Francisco because it’s a real foodie town and it’s been a dream of mine, personally to live up here,” she says. “We have two trucks in LA and one in San Francisco, now. I’m not complaining that I had to move up here! And the response has been great. People up here come to the truck, whereas in LA, you have to go to the people. They’re a little lazier down there.”

For now, Green and Chien don’t have any other plans to expand. “We have three babies right now and we’re focused on them,” says Jennifer.

For two women fresh out of college, running several food trucks in two major cities can be a challenge, but their goals are clear.

Misa says, “At the end of the day, we want to make people happy through our food. And as employers we want to hire staff that will work together to create an amazing company and work environment. Plus I get to build a great business with my best friend!”

Nom Nom
Twitter: @nomnomtrucksf
Facebook: Nom Nom Truck SF
Various locations throughout the Bay Area (no regular schedule)

Move Over Off the Grid: Moveable Feast Comes to the Peninsula

MoBowl, Babaloo, and House of Siam on Wheels
Three popular trucks at 5:45 = MoBowl, Babaloo, and House of Siam on Wheels

Moveable Feast is to the South Bay and Peninsula, what Off the Grid is to San Francisco. But the vibe is most certainly different.

Held this past Friday on July 1st, Moveable Feast felt way more like a county fair than OtG’s hipster foodie hotspot. The San Mateo Event Center location also had plenty of grassy areas for the suburbanite families in attendance to have a dinnertime picnic. There was also a pricier flat parking fee of $10 per vehicle, though that didn’t seem to deter most people from checking out the inaugural event.

Ryan Sebastian in front of his truck, Treatbot
Moveable Feast Operator, Ryan Sebastian in front of his truck “Treatbot”

Moveable Feast (formerly called “SJ Eats”) is the creation of Ryan Sebastian. This former transportation planner always had plans of creating community spaces, and he knew food was a great catalyst to make that happen.

“My family always had big gatherings growing up in San Jose and I loved it. And my wife has a culinary background, so it happened pretty naturally.”

It started this past April with their first food truck gathering in San Jose. Their first time out was huge, but not exactly a success.

“I own the Treatbot ice cream truck with my wife, so I knew a lot of other trucks in the area. I knew the San Pedro Square Market in San Jose had enough parking space, so we ended up there on a Saturday with about 10 trucks and spread the word through Facebook. The demand was so much higher than we ever expected and it got out of control. There was overcrowding, the wait times for food were ridiculous and we got slaughtered on Yelp, afterwards.”

Three months later, after a lot more planning and organization, the San Jose event goes off in the same place every Saturday, without a hitch.

Their success eventually caught the attention of the folks at the San Mateo Events Center, who actually called Ryan to ask if he’d be interested in doing a similar event for the Peninsula.

“This is the biggest food truck event on the Peninsula, ever. Twenty-five trucks is pretty big. We’re gonna be here the first Friday of every month from here on out.”

The line is about 20 deep @ An The Go @ 5:45
Lines are getting long in front of the “An The Go” truck at 5:45

And attendance was pretty big too. Though the event was supposed to start at 5:30, there were plenty of folks checking out the scene at 5:15. By the time I had left at 6:15, the lines for some of the more popular trucks had gotten about 20 people deep, and I estimated anywhere from 1000-2000 people total with many more streaming in. Add to that some local live music on-site, and you’ve got a huge suburban block party.

3 popular trucks at 5:45 = Mama's Empanadas, Hiyaaa, Curry Up Now
3 popular trucks at 5:45 = Mama’s Empanadas, Hiyaaa, Curry Up Now

The line-up of trucks is intentionally made up of mostly Peninsula and South Bay-based food trucks like Curry Up Now, Mama’s Empanadas, Hiyaaa Naked Chorizo and BBQ Kalbi. That’s the main difference between Moveable Feast and Off the Grid. OtG features trucks from all over the Bay Area.

But Off the Grid organizer, Matt Cohen had talked a few months ago ambitiously about starting an OtG on the Peninsula. Is there room for both of them?

At least 1000-1500 people by 6pm.
I estimated at least 1000-1500 people by 6pm.

“People in the Peninsula know there’s a huge demand for this and that the food coming out of these trucks is fantastic. This is America and there’s room for both of us in a metropolis of seven million people. I have nothing but respect for Matt. OtG is awesome!”

And Ryan has faith that mass food truck events like his are here to stay. “Ultimately, the idea of informal eating is not a new concept and it’s not a fad. When we provide legitimate marketplaces for these entrepreneurs to do business, it helps all of us do better.”

Moveable Feast
San Pedro Square, San Jose, Every Saturday 5-9pm
San Mateo Events Center, First Friday of every month, 5:30-10pm

Facebook:MVBLfeast
Twitter: @MVBLfeast

*Cross posted on Bay Area Bites

Ramen Roundup

Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn’t had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?

But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It’s what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it’s one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.

These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a “trend“. Recently, I’ve also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.

Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different versions of these tasty soup noodles.

Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen w/pork & kimchi from Santa Ramen

Santa Ramen - 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918

This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.

Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.

Kuro (black garlic) Ramen from Maru Ichi

Maru Ichi368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931

I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they’re known for a specific kind of ramen called “kuro” ramen, or “black” ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960′s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn’t taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn’t completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.

Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It’s something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor. Overall, Maru Ichi’s kuro ramen definitely wasn’t your usual bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

Dojo Ramen - 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568

This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.

They specialize in something called “sutamina” ramen, which literally means “stamina” ramen. I’d call it “extreme” ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer. And don’t come here if you don’t like spicy food.

The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.

And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.

So even without the “sutamina” label, Dojo’s was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Toasty Melts Food Truck is Grilled Cheese Goodness

The mere mention of a grilled cheese food truck tends to evoke one of two responses:

1) How hard can it be to make a grilled cheese at home? Why do you have to find a truck to go get it?
2) Damn, that sounds good.

Sure, you can make it yourself at home. But can it be easier, not to mention tastier, if you get it from the folks at Toasty Melts.

Business partners, Tiffany Lam and Alex Rando, started the Toasty Melts food cart in 2009 after being inspired by other popular carts like The Magic Curry Cart and The Creme Brulee Man. They also figured they could donate a portion of their earnings to the San Francisco Food Bank, where they were frequent volunteers.

So why switch from part-time food cart hobby to full-fledged food truck? “Matt Cohen wanted us to come to Off the Grid, but we weren’t that ambitious because we both had day jobs,” says Lam. She was a project manager for Marin company, Republic of Tea, and has since quit to devote herself completely to Toasty Melts. Rando is still at his day job. “We heard rumblings last year that the permit process was going to change. So last September, we finally started looking for a food truck to transition to,” says Lam.

Just this past March, they finally debuted their shiny new bright red food truck, ready to take on the already crowded food truck space.

But here’s the kicker: neither of them have any professional culinary experience. None! And that’s exactly how they came upon the decision to focus solely on the simplistic grilled cheese sandwich. “There’s no way we could do something fancier. It was definitely something we could execute. If we could do it, anyone could do it! It was the most realistic food avenue for us to take. But it’s also very versatile. We could be creative with the grilled cheese sandwiches and blend quality ingredients to make different variations.”

This simple sandwich requires no special equipment. They make the sandwiches on the truck’s grill, cooking up evenly and to a perfect golden brown.

I tried their two signature sandwiches: The ABC, which has thin apple slices, bacon from Zoe’s Meats and cheddar cheese; and the 3 Cheese, made up of smoked gouda, jack and cheddar cheeses. Both were served on Panorama bread, made locally in San Francisco. Most of the cheeses they use are from Kerrygold.

Both had the perfect amount of toastiness with the right amount of crunch. But the interior of the bread was also soft and pillowy with just enough buttery goodness.

3 Cheese

The 3 Cheese stood out because it was amazing to me how distinctive all three cheeses were even when melted together. The jack cheese was smooth and creamy, the cheddar gave it the classic flavor, and the smoked gouda provided a wonderfully sharp punch that made it stand out. I absolutely loved it.

I have to admit, though, that I wanted more from the ABC. The best thing about it was the thinly sliced apples, which gave the sandwich additional texture and a subtly sweet contrast in flavor. The bacon, unfortunately, was a bit dry and rubbery. I would’ve loved if it were more crunchy. And I longed for a cheese with a tad more flavor. The jack cheese just couldn’t hold its own.

Regardless, their sandwiches are still worth going back for, especially if you’ve got a hankering for a good grilled cheese. It’s fresh, perfectly toasty and gooey, affordable at $4-$6 a pop, and easier than making it yourself. “Who would want to shred and blend three different cheeses for one grilled cheese at home? We also provide the novelty and the convenience,” says Lam.

For now, you can find them at Off the Grid on alternating Mondays at Civic Center Plaza and on alternating Tuesdays at UN Plaza, along with possible regular stops in San Mateo and Brisbane. Lam wants to have a firm presence in San Francisco, though, despite the food truck permit drama that seems to happen frequently these days.

“We’re going to continue to pursue all our permits for various locations in San Francisco. And Alex and I would love to expand our menu at some point. For now, it’s just the one truck. My Dad owned a restaurant and I don’t know if I really want to own a brick and mortar restaurant. This one truck takes every ounce of my energy!”

Toasty Melts
Off the Grid Mondays and Tuesdays & other various locations pending
www.toastymelts.com
@ToastyMelts
Facebook.com/ToastyMelts

*Cross-posted on Bay Area Bites.