Ramen is by far the sexiest of the Japanese noodles and for good reason. How can anyone resist perfectly chewy noodles enveloped in a rich and fatty broth? Open a new ramen place these days and it seems like you’ll get enough hype to last years.
With all this interest in ramen, it’s easy to forget about the other types of noodles traditional to Japanese cuisine, in particular soba, thin buckwheat noodles. It’s soba, not ramen, that has been the local staple, especially in Tokyo, for the last few hundred years. Ramen only really became popular in the 20th century thanks to Chinese and wartime influences coupled with the invention of instant ramen.
Soba encapsulates Japanese attitudes to food better than ramen does. After all, there is no crutch of rich savoury animal bone broth to lean on. The delicate noodles must stand up for themselves in a careful balance of noodle and sauce.
The simplest, and for soba purists the only way, to eat soba is to dip freshly made noodles into cold soba tsuyu, a sauce made from dashi, sweetened soy sauce and mirin, for a few seconds before eating. The sauce can also be poured on top of the noodles and toppings in hot or cold form. Often hot water, known soba-yu, will be poured into the finished bowl of soba to create a delicious soup from the tsuyu remnants.
Another reason to love soba is for the health benefits! Buckwheat is rich in vitamins and contains all eight essential amino acids, making this one of the healthiest grains known. It’s also gluten-free although care must be exercised to check that soba noodles that are 100% buckwheat flour as cheap versions often incorporate wheat flour.
Making soba, like many other art forms in Japanese cuisine, requires a unimaginable attention to detail to perfect a seemingly routine task. The balance of buckwheat flour and water is so precarious that every little change in temperature and humidity affect the final noodle texture. Getting that part right leaves you with the tall task of cutting the noodles by hand into tiny and uniformly thin strips with a specialized knife. Needless to say, it’s a craft that requires years of devotion to master.
I’ve been sitting on the Cocoron review for a while because it’s hard to review a place after only trying one item. Luckily, a visit to Soba-ya a few weeks ago gives me the chance to run a head-to-head NYC soba battle!
Contestant 1: Cocoron
Cocoron functions a lot like a traditional “fast-food” Japanese noodle joint with most of the seating at the bar where all the action happens! Recently they opened up a second location in Nolita to complement their tiny Lower East Side location. Cocoron means “heartwarming” in Japanese, and there’s a big focus on showing that something healthy like soba can be delicious as well!
The menu is very small with only a small selection of soba dishes and a few sides. There are three main categories of soba: hot, cold and dipping. Toppings for the soba bowls range from the traditional, like oroshi (grated mountain yam) and natto (fermented soybeans), to modern/fusion (kimchi!).
Prices are pretty reasonable and $10 will get you a solid bowl of soba. By focusing on getting a select few versions of soba right, they do really well to replicate the soba experience, complete with the fast turnover and the small causal ambiance that I enjoy at a Japanese noodle joint.
This is my favourite soba place in the city! I’ve been here several times and each time the execution is simple yet divine. The attention to detail that goes into executing the craft of soba is definitely noticeable and makes this a cut above all other soba places.
I highly recommended this to anyone seeking a memorable and delicious soba experience! This kind of tasty authenticity with a less common Japanese noodle like soba is hard to find outside of Japan so Cocoron is definitely a foodie-worthy destination!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Buta Shabu Cold Soba – 5/6 (Excellent), $10.50/$11.50 (L)
- Cold handmade soba noodles with thinly sliced shabu pork and tsuyu, served with wasabi, grated daikon and scallions
This was so simple yet absolutely beautiful!
The star of the show was the wonderfully crafted soba noodles. They were chewy and had the perfect combination of al dente texture and distinct buckwheat flavour that was far better than your standard store-bought soba. My guess is that this was juwari soba, which is made from 100% buckwheat flour rather than mixed with regular wheat.
The cold tsuyu (soba sauce) was wonderfully balanced with the just the right amounts of dashi stock, sweetened soy sauce and mirin. None of these components jumped out at me, yet they were delicate enough to blend together seamlessly while still allowing me to identify each element.
Mixing in the wasabi and grated daikon is a must! The freshly grated wasabi added some liveliness without the discomforting pungency of fake horseradish-based wasabi while the daikon soaked in the tsuyu to wonderful effect.
The buta shabu was just as simply prepared as the soba it was seated on. The thinly sliced pork was tender although rather lacking in flavour as is the style for shabu shabu (a form of Japanese hot pot). Soba isn’t typically served with meat, but even the meat was prepared in a way that reflected the simplicity and healthiness of the noodles.
Everything about this felt “cold” and refreshing, especially in the traditional Chinese sense of yin and yang. This would be the perfect cool-down meal for a hot summer day!
After I was three-quarters of my way through the bowl, my server presented me with some hot water for the last step, soba-yu. After finishing the noodles, hot water is poured into the bowl which turns the remaining broth into a delicious bowl of warm soup.
I could taste a decent amount buckwheat flavour in the soup as it’s said that fresh handmade noodles will slowly break up when soaked, even in cold water. The heat also brought out some more acidity from the mirin which wasn’t there before along with a stronger wasabi taste. Lastly the umami from the dashi of the tsuyu became more pronounced and made this soup a delight just like the cold soba before.
Competitor 2: Soba-ya
Soba-ya is yet another soba institution in the city that’s almost always filled! Instead of the casual soba bar ambiance that Cocoron goes for, Soba-ya feels more like your typical overseas Japanese restaurant. Traditional decor and wood panels line this restaurant which is large and comforting.
The menu is probably only half dedicated to soba with a secondary focus on tempura and other raw/cooked Japanese dishes on the menu as well. That being said, everyone here knows what the star of the show is. The soba making station is placed right in front of the restaurant so that everyone waiting gets to marvel at the fine art that is soba making!
Soba-ya is pricier than Cocoron for soba, but the restaurant is much more suited to group gatherings of any size and hanging out over a meal.
Soba is prepared in the traditional way here with only fresh handmade noodles served, although the noodles here are not 100% buckwheat but include some wheat flour as well.
Just like I did at Cocoron, I had a cold soba with the tsuyu poured on top. After finishing it off I was given hot water to finish my meal with the hot soba-yu soup.
Personally I felt that Soba-ya wasn’t up to the standard set by the soba I had at Cocoron. It didn’t lack in authenticity, but taste-wise the noodles didn’t shine as much and the tsuyu was a little off balance.
It still does a decent job with soba and I can’t evaluate any of their other offerings which seem to be just as popular as their soba. In general though I prefer shops that focus on getting one thing perfect and based on soba alone Cocoron was the winner.
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Yamakake Cold Soba – 3.5/6 (Good – Very Good), $19 (M, 100g soba). $22 (L, 150g)
- Cold soba with soba tsuyu, soy-cured tuna, tororo, wasabi and green onions
Yamakake is one of the most traditional topping combinations for soba! The two key ingredients are tuna marinated in soy sauce and tororo, grated mountain yam.
I didn’t like the soba noodles here as much as the ones I had at Cocoron. While it was clear good quality buckwheat (imported from Nagano as per their website) was used, the buckwheat taste wasn’t nearly as strong because of the wheat flour used in the dough.
It’s not necessarily an issue of authenticity, as both the pure buckwheat and mixed versions of soba are found in Japan, but I prefer the 100% buckwheat version because of the more pronounced nutty buckwheat taste. Using only buckwheat flour makes the product more expensive as well, but it’s a cost that’s well worth it for the extra flavour.
I also found that while the chewiness of the soba started out perfectly, by the end of the bowl the noodles had softened up a little. I’m not sure if that’s because I was eating too slow or an issue with the soba preparation, but I didn’t have that problem at Cocoron.
Tororo is a very common topping on soba for its refreshing qualities but for the uninitiated it can be hard to take! To enjoy its cool fresh taste you have to get past the texture: slimy, icky and detergent-like. I happen to love it though! The tororo here was less slimy than normal and it also felt like the mountain yam used had been sitting around for a while and wasn’t quite fresh. It still did the job taste-wise though.
The soy-cured tuna was simple yet solid. There was a light brushing on the tuna which was from sashimi-grade fish cut into big chunks as is traditional. The tuna was quite meaty but that’s expected in this context because the more fattier cuts of fish are intended to be served as sashimi rather than in other means.
Another key to making the perfect soba is getting the right balance of flavours in the tsuyu and here I felt that this fell a little bit short. The sauce was a little sour for some reason and that overpowered the delicate balance of umami from dashi and salt from soy sauce. It wasn’t off by much, but even a little imbalance matters when you want a sauce to showcase the delicate flavour of soba noodles.
The wasabi and green onions did their job of adding some fragrance and spice to the dish, although I was a little disappointed to find that the wasabi used wasn’t fresh but rather the more common horseradish variant. The nori added a nice crunch that I didn’t get at Cocoron though.
Overall this was solid and it hit most of the points I was looking for in terms of authenticity. However, I had a few beefs with the execution and considering the price for the portion size, Soba-ya wouldn’t be my first choice for soba in New York City.
Soba is a wonderful Japanese noodle that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves! Cocoron and Soba-ya are great places to enjoy these noodles in an authentic environment although I preferred the value and quality at Cocoron.
Date visited: Mar. 30, 2013 (Soba-ya), Nov. 17, 2012 (Cocoron)
Price range: $10 – $20