The Art of Oakland's Soba Ichi
Soba Ichi showcases rare, handmade Japanese noodles in a Zen West Oakland space.
Soba Ichi was brought to life by the team behind Berkeley’s uber-popular izakaya spot Ippuku.
The Bay Area is dotted with innumerable standout Japanese joints offering familiar favorites such as ramen, sushi, bento, yakitori, and matcha. But one dish has largely been left out of the mix: soba.
Made from buckwheat and water, soba noodles are prepared two ways: hot in a dashi broth, or cold with a dipping sauce. The dish—which is served at birthdays and weddings, on New Year’s, and even given as a going-away present—is as popular and beloved in Japan as pizza and hamburgers are in the United States.
“In Japan, soba shops are as common as convenience stores are here,” says chef Koichi Ishii of Soba Ichi, which opened in June. The restaurant is the first in the Bay Area—and one of the very few in the country—to serve authentic, house-made soba.
Located off an industrial block in the heart of West Oakland, Soba Ichi feels like a small family eatery in Kyoto, 5,000 miles away. A fountain trickles in a courtyard oasis, and the sleek interior (designed by Zen Buddhist priest and craftsman Paul Discoe) nods to the simple, clean lines valued in Japanese architecture. Several custom tables—made from cypress, elm, and black acacia—sit in an intimate dining room that features a redwood-paneled ceiling adorned with string lights.
It’s rare to find a restaurant serving traditional soba because making the noodle requires specialized tools and hard-to-source buckwheat seed. Ishii imported equipment from Japan and buys buckwheat from a farm in Washington that grows a Japanese variety called kitawase, then mills the flour in-house.
Plus, crafting soba is a skill that takes a long time to master. Ishii studied for three years in his hometown of Yamagata, in northern Japan, before returning to the United States. “I would say that it takes a year or so to make decent soba—but a lot longer to make great soba,” he says. “I’m still always learning.”
Every day, Ishii arrives at the restaurant early to start a detailed, 45-minute (per batch) noodle-making process. He usually produces four batches of soba a day: one that’s 100 percent buckwheat, and three that are 80 percent buckwheat and 20 percent wheat. (Even though each batch of noodles yields approximately 25 servings, the eatery has been known to sell out.)
In a small nook adjacent to the dining room, the chef begins by adding water to the milled buckwheat in a special kone bachi kneading bowl. He fervently yet serenely mixes the flour by hand until it comes together, first as small pellets and then, as if by magic, into a firm ball of dough. Observing Ishii at work is like watching a dance: Focused, calm, and graceful, he has clearly gone through these steps thousands of times before, but still seems alert to the needs and nuances of each particular batch of dough.
“California chefs are more like artists, creating [many] dishes, whereas Japanese chefs tend to learn one or two things and master it,” Ishii says. “I enjoy the repetitive nature of making soba; I still find it different every time.”
Once the ball of dough is formed, it’s time to roll it out—another intricate ritual that entails massaging the dough slowly, then folding it into 12 thin layers, which are cut with a special soba knife into perfect, 1.5-millimeter-wide noodles.
At Soba Ichi, patrons can order their soba hot or cold, on its own or paired with tempura, or accompanied by sliced duck or herring. The menu also features an izakaya section, with small plates like dashimaki (Japanese rolled omelet), mushidori (poached chicken with ume sauce), and dashiyakko (house-made tofu with Japanese salsa). Owner Shinichi Washino oversees the small but well-curated drink menu, which includes various local and Japanese beers, shochu, and sakes.
So far, Washino says, the community has been welcoming of the unique dining spot, and excited to learn about the art and taste of soba. “I would say that, for more than half of the people coming in, it’s their first experience,” he says. “It’s fun to explain it to them, and teach them how to enjoy it.”
2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, (510) 465-1969, sobaichioakland.com. Lunch Sat.–Sun., dinner Wed.–Sun.
Intimidated by cold soba served on a strainer? Here’s the proper way to eat your noodles.
1. Pour half of the dipping sauce into the provided, empty choko cup. Hold the choko cup in one hand and bring it close to your chin. Hold your chopsticks in the other hand.
2. Use your chopsticks to lightly and quickly dip a bite-size portion of noodles into the sauce. (Only dip one-half to two-thirds of the noodles—do not submerge them.)
3. Immediately put the noodles in your mouth and slurp up every last one. Slurping isn’t rude here; it’s encouraged as a way to experience the full flavor and aroma of the meal.
4. Add your preferred amount of green onions and wasabi to the dipping sauce, gradually incorporating more as you go.
5. Once you’ve finished the noodles, a server will bring you soba yu—the broth the soba was boiled in. Pour the broth into the remaining dipping sauce to enjoy it as a soup.