These are the best of times for noodle lovers. For generations, noodles were taken for granted as a belly-filling starch and conduit for sauce, butter or broth, but earning little praise. Mom’s spaghetti, no matter how delicious, was dismissed as basic weeknight comfort food.
Now, the humble noodle is finally getting some respect in America. Take ramen, for example. Sure, Top Ramen instant noodles may have been there for us when times were tight.
But the Japanese have always had a higher opinion of the noodle, for good reason. It’s a completely different thing when ramen noodles are made by hand, served in a rich, meaty, laboriously-concocted broth, with all kinds of other delicious things thrown in. In one survey, the Japanese people chose ramen as the greatest Japanese invention in history. (The second greatest? Karaoke). Now, Americans are finding this out — and you can get a credible rendition of real ramen at several places in Pittsburgh.
Almost every culinary tradition has a noodle (or 10) to choose from — everything from haluski to squid ink. Here are some of Pittsburgh’s best spots for noodles of all kinds:
Go for the food, stay for the show — a theatrical display of noodles being made fresh on the spot. Noodle chefs are kneading, twirling, swinging them through the air, smacking them against the counter. Everything tastes fresh and light. Everyday Noodles features dishes all over the (Chinese) map, from Taiwanese-style sesame cold noodles and spicy dan dan noodles (with an especially peanutty twist) to steaming bowls of noodle soup perfect for a rainy day.
The specialty here is Thai street food. Of course, the appeal of street food is in its simple, unfussy, portable directness. Yet, Thai food is inherently complex — a maze of surprising, yet perfectly interlocking, flavors: sweet, sour, spicy and salty. For a small menu, Noodlehead covers a lot of ground. Noodle dishes are offered at just two prices, $6 and $9. The portions are more street food-size (read: just right), so don’t assume you’ll need a to-go container. A steaming, medium-sized bowl of Sukothai ($6) is a great place to start, and not often found on local Thai restaurant menus. Submerged within a spicy, peanut-filled lime broth are thin rice noodles and pork loin, with a hard-boiled egg and a few crunchy fried noodles on top.
Out of Umami’s vast menu of Japanese street food, there are a couple of excellent noodle dishes. Try the Yaki Udon, a bowl of thick wheat noodles, stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, beets, onsen egg and crispy chilies. There’s also the hearty classic Tonkotsu Ramen, with pork ribs, bamboo shoots, scallions, nori, nitamago and lots of garlic. Don’t forget the Zaru Soba, which adds grilled salmon, sesame, nori and tart, citrusy ponzu sauce to thin buckwheat soba noodles.
Of all the approximately 10,000 Italian-American restaurants in Pittsburgh, it’s a ridiculous task to pick the one with the best pasta noodles. Please do add your favorites in the comments section below. And no, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich is not here most of the time. But her affection for Northern Italian dishes shines through on the plate. Of particular interest to us is their custom of bringing three giant bowls of noodles to the table, and letting you choose which looks most appetizing. It’s a terrific idea, and probably only works for high-volume restaurants — which Lidia’s still is, even after a decade.
City Fresh Pasta
Formerly Ohio City Pasta — named after a neighborhood in Cleveland, a moniker that was probably wise to drop — this pasta mecca used to be located inside the late, lamented Pittsburgh Public Market. A new physical store just opened in Squirrel Hill, but there’s also a City Fresh Pasta location inside Nova Place on the North Side. They’ll cut the pasta into your required shape on the spot: pappardelle, fettuccine, spaghetti, angel hair, etc. Flavors include black pepper basil, garlic and chive, lemon pepper, pumpkin sage, squid ink, saffron, jalapeno, fennel oregano and cinnamon, among others. And they’re already on the menu at a dozen or so local restaurants.
Ki Ramen serves handmade ramen in a Japanese izakaya-style restaurant. This plays out as really good pub food, cold beer and labor-intensive handmade Shoyu, Shio and Miso Ramen. Watch out for the Curry Ramen, with house-made noodles soaking in coconut tamarind miso curry, or the Ki Signature Meat Ramen, with brisket, pig ears, bean sprouts, scallions and a “butter bomb.” A vegetarian version substitutes a miso broth, seitan, cabbage, beet kimchi, onsen egg, scallions and crispy wontons.