Unless you live in Wallingford, you may not think of it as a destination for Japanese food. Ten years ago, you could get sushi and tempura at Musashi's and Kozue. But in the last few years, Wallingford has emerged as a particularly good place to find Japanese specialties, including handmade soba noodles and regional styles of ramen.
At Miyabi 45th, chef and co-owner Mutsuko Soma begins every day with the labor-intensive process of making buckwheat soba noodles. She hand-sifts flour, slowly adds water, and mixes it with her fingers. She then kneads, rolls, and cuts the dough by hand. It takes her 35 minutes to make just 15 servings of soba.
"Fresh soba noodles are nothing like the dried sticks available in market packages," the Seattle Times' Rebekah Denn wrote of Soma's noodles last fall. "Their perfection is almost machine-like, but no mechanical tool could modulate the medium of dough the way human hands do."
Indeed, Soma's noodles are something else entirely: grainy and chewy, but also soft, jiggly, and almost creamy. They maintain a slipperiness I've never experienced before and were a particular pleasure to roll around on my tongue.
Miyabi's soba comes in many forms: both hot and cold, in broth, with dipping sauce, and in salads. I ordered mine hot, in a spicy curry broth filled with soft onions and sweet peppers, and topped with slices of panko-breaded pork cutlet ($14). I took my time getting to the bottom of the bowl.
A few blocks away is Yoroshiku, which opened in 2012 and specializes in Hokkaido-style ramen. The cold weather of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, is said to have necessitated a heartier soup, so here the broth is fortified with miso, giving it a deep, earthy flavor.
It was pouring rain the day I visited Yoroshiku, and as I slurped my way through a bowl of spicy miso ramen ($13), I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be eating. Every spoonful of broth—salty, nutty, and just a little bit funky—was also fiery, but in a smoldering kind of way, building as I worked my way through the dish. Rich, buttery slices of chashu (braised pork belly) offset the heat, as did sweet yellow-corn kernels and a scattering of crunchy sesame seeds.
A few blocks west of Miyabi and Yoroshiku is Issian, an outpost of a Japanese chain that has been around since 2008. The restaurant serves kushiyaki—skewers of chicken thighs, shishito peppers, pork belly, and other items—cooked over a grill. The chicken gizzards—chewy and crunchy, with wonderfully caramelized bits and a salty-sweet glaze—are especially satisfying to eat, particularly when washed down with a cold beer.
The ishiyaki—meat, seafood, and vegetables cooked over a traditional hot stone grill—was even more thrilling. While grilling over charcoal or a gas grill imparts char and smoke into the food, grilling on stone deepens the food's flavor, showcasing what's already there.
The hot stone allows the mild but distinctly fishy taste of capelin ($5.60)—oily little smelt whose bellies are filled with hundreds of tiny, briny roe that create a pleasant pop! when you bite through them—to shine. With beef tongue ($8.50), high in fat and sliced paper thin, the clean grilling allowed me to focus more on the meat's texture, which was almost unfathomably soft. You can counteract the ultra-richness by topping the slices with a squeeze of lemon and some of the finely chopped scallion that accompanies them. Enoki mushrooms ($4.80), whose delicate flavor typically fades into the background of whatever dish they're served in, tasted exciting and new: sweet, almost fruity.
Miyabi 45th's Mutsuko Soma says she isn't sure why there are so many Japanese restaurants in Wallingford, but that affordable rent, ample street parking, and the abundance of families and students may be factors. "Wallingford may not be a popular neighborhood yet, but it will be," she says.
Issian's owner, Yuta Sugimoto, says that having so many Japanese restaurants in close proximity to one another benefits the businesses and the neighborhood as a whole.
"It's actually good for all of us," he says. "When people want Chinese food, they go to Chinatown. Now the same is true for Wallingford and Japanese food."
In fact, Sugimoto believed so strongly in Wallingford as a destination for Japanese food that he opened another restaurant, Ramen Man, next door to Issian in 2013. Ramen Man serves a distinct style of ramen that originated in the Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. It's made with straight, rather than wavy, noodles and additions such as garlic chips and garlic oil.
And instead of the clear, pork-based tonkotsu broth that most American diners are familiar with, Ramen Man uses a soup base, called tori-paitan, that's milky-white and collagen-rich, made from chicken bones and feet. Sugimoto says there are actually many different varieties of ramen.
"It's okay for some people not to like one style, and for others to like another," Sugimoto says. "Every restaurant has different style of ramen. In Japan, that's just the way."
And, also, in Wallingford.