Soba noodles are Tokyo’s original fast food, simple to cook and just as easy to eat. Even at their most basic, they are honest, filling and nutritious. At their best they have a remarkable delicacy and depth of flavor.
In times past, all soba was te-uchi, rolled out and cut by hand. These days most sobaya (soba shops) use factory-made noodles produced in industrial quantities. But connoisseurs — and there are many of them — travel far and wide to taste and compare the output of notable restaurants that follow the traditional ways.
They come in many different guises, some elegant or austere; others family-run and easy-going; yet others late-night izakaya-style taverns serving a wide range of side dishes and drinks to go with them. Whether you prefer your noodles cold — served on a bamboo tray with a separate dip (seiro soba) — or hot and in a nourishing broth (kake soba), there are few districts that do not boast at least one good sobaya. Here are five worth crossing town for.
Kanda Matsuya is a legend among Tokyo restaurants. Founded in the late 19th century, its beautiful timber premises are almost 100 years old — but that doesn’t mean it’s a museum. Drop in at any hour and you’re likely to find it buzzing with customers sitting elbow-to-elbow at the traditional low-slung tables.
The noodles, all handmade in a small chamber in the middle of the dining room, are served without fuss or ceremony. If you feel like lingering, order a flagon of warm sake and a few side dishes to nibble on while taking in the atmosphere. There’s nowhere better in Tokyo to get a taste of the city’s time-honored soba culture.
Kanda-Sudacho 1-13, Chiyoda-ku 101-0041; 03-3251-1556; kanda-matsuya.jp
Edo Soba Hosokawa
Takashi Hosokawa has been preparing soba by hand in the traditional way for over 30 years. His reputation as one of Tokyo’s foremost noodle meisters was firmly in place even before he won a Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant in Ryogoku, near the sumo stadium.
Alongside his delicate, flavorful noodles, he also has a short menu of first-rate side dishes. One of his specialties is kamo-nanban, slices of Challans duck breast served with grilled negi leeks. His tempura is superb, too, especially the sansai (edible wild plants) in spring and mushrooms in the fall.
Hosokawa doesn’t take reservations. You just get in line and wait until a place frees up inside his small but stylish dining room — and hope that he doesn’t run out of noodles before you get there.
Kamezawa 1-6-5, Sumida-ku 130-0014; 03-3626-1225; edosoba-hosokawa.jp
At Kyorakutei the main draw is the soba — all te-uchi, of course, and top quality too — but what will lure you back time and again is the adventurous range of side dishes. The sashimi is excellent and ditto the namero (coarsely ground fish “tartare”). So too the tempura, especially the summer chiayu, tender baby sweetfish that are eaten whole.
Grilled dishes to look out for include anago (conger). And there’s always good sake on hand. After a few leisurely glasses, you might even wonder if Kyorakutei is actually a top-draw izakaya that serves soba, rather than the other way around.
Kagurazakakan 1F, Kagurazaka 3-6, Shinjuku-ku 162-0825; 03-3269-3233; kyourakutei.com
What makes the difference between good soba and great soba? The quality of the buckwheat. Top sobaya grind theirs freshly for each batch they make. But the folks at Tamawarai take it a step further by actually going out to Tochigi Prefecture to grow and harvest some of the grain they use.
The same level of attention is lavished on serving the delicate noodles and the short menu of appetizers. Don’t miss the homemade tofu with creamy yuba (soymilk skin) or the yakimiso, an umami-rich patty of fresh buckwheat grain mixed with negi and miso grilled to a golden brown.
Both go perfectly with the sake you may need to revive yourself on arrival: Tamawarai does not take reservations; the lines outside can be over an hour long, and have only grown since the shop was awarded a Michelin star.
Jingumae 5-23-3, Shibuya-ku 150-0001; 03-5485-0025
Osoba no Kouga
Modest in size (just 17 seats) and unobtrusive in location, Osoba no Kouga has no need to draw attention to itself. After almost 13 years it has built up a solid reputation among soba enthusiasts who know its noodles are the best in the Nishiazabu area.
One of Kouga’s signature dishes is uni soba, its fine, hand-cut noodles topped with a generous amount of premium sea urchin from Hokkaido. But it’s only on the menu when the Toyosu market can supply the highest quality.
Ditto with the rest of the dishes. Look for seasonal items, such as matsutake pine mushrooms in autumn and sansai in spring. A couple of times a year, Kouga even offers a light ramen bowl as a change-up for its loyal customers.
Nishiazabu 2-14-5, Minato-ku 106-0031; 03-3797-6860; osobanokouga.com
By day, Aoyama Kawakamian (Minamiaoyama 3-14-1, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5411-7171; bit.ly/kawakamian-en) is a quiet sobaya with a touch of sophistication; at night it morphs into a buzzy diner where you can settle in for the evening with sake, wine and plenty to nibble on before the soba arrives.
Some head to Jindaiji for its ancient Buddhist temple, others for the surrounding greenery. But it’s the nearby soba restaurants that make the pilgrimage worthwhile. Matsuba Chaya (Jindaiji Motomachi 5-11-3, Chofu, Tokyo 182-0017; 042-485-2337; bit.ly/matsubachaya) is the best of them, thanks to its honest noodles and al fresco seating.
Perched high above the crowds at the Meiji Jingu Shrine end of Omotesando, Matsubara-an Keiyaki (Harajuku Quest 4F, Jingumae 1-13-14, Shibuya-ku 150-0001; 03-3478-7444; matsubara-an.com) is a branch of a noted restaurant in genteel Kamakura. Besides the handmade noodles, there are good value set meals that mix traditional washoku with Western flourishes.
Tucked away just a few minutes’ walk from the hurly-burly of Shibuya, Kamiyama (Kamiyamacho 10-8, Shibuya-ku 150-0047; 03-3460-0088; soba-kamiyama.com) is a haven of calm. The noodles are equally refined, though at lunchtime the set meals come with filling rice and side dishes.
Hearty country-style noodles and side dishes are the draw at Itasoba Kaoriya (Ebisu 4-3-10, Shibuya-ku 150-0013; 03-3449-8498; bit.ly/itasoba-kaoriya), a perennially popular sobaya in the shadow of Ebisu Station. The look is faux rustic and much of the seating is communal at long tables. Maybe not the finest sobaya in the area, but definitely the most fun.
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