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HaVL’s shrimpcake noodles in pork broth.

A drizzly, cool Monday morning. After traveling for the past three weeks, Jeff was home, briefly, before heading on the road again. And I, having been laid off about 8 weeks ago, was starting to feel itchy and unsettled. Anxiety and self-doubt were creeping in, especially with my recent solitude.

Jeff took the day off — a day of rest and laundry before leaving again the next morning. I suggested checking a to-do off my unemployment bucket list: Have a late breakfast/early lunch at HaVL on SE 82nd.

HaVL made my to-do list after the noodles repeatedly appeared in the Instagram feed of a trusted foodie-friend. When I quizzed her about the must-try dish she said: “They only have 2 soups daily and usually sell out by 11 or noon. Get there early and go every day of the week until you’ve tried all 14! All of them are unbelievable. Secret tip: you can call early and reserve soup for later if you can’t make it early. They’ll just take your name and save them for you.” (Note: They’re closed on Tuesdays, so there are only 12 soups. “Only.”)

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Crabflake noodles with straw mushrooms and quail eggs.

We arrived around 11am and the small space still had a few tables available. I expect it was an anomaly given that all the tables were full only shortly after we arrived. The vibrant green walls brightened the small space, even on a dark day, and the staff quietly hustled around taking orders and delivering wrapped bánh mì sandwiches, steaming bowls and smaller plates of add-ons: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lime.

On Monday, the soups were crabflake and shrimpcake. We got one of each, naturally. Shrimpcake soup had a lighter, but deeply flavored, pork broth and skinnier rice noodles. The crabflake soup had a velvety, thickened pork broth and fat, slippery rice noodles.

My friend was right — both were unbelievable. A couple extra spoonfuls of fiery chiles, and our bellies were warmed to greet the rest of the week. “Go to HaVL” was crossed off my unemployment bucket list, only to be replaced with, “Go again. Soon.”

Kotteri Ramen noodles.

Kotteri Ramen noodles.

The air in the narrow restaurant was close. It was a hot and humid mid-September day in Paris, so stepping into this tiny spot did not bring relief. But no matter. We were there for one thing, and no amount of discomfort undid our craving.

Was it a little odd that one of the first meals in the City of Light was going to be a piping hot bowl of ramen? Probably, but we didn’t care. We came to the heart of France to walk, explore, eat and enjoy all facets of the culture. So on this day, the promise of delicious, comforting soup fit our mission.

Kotteri Ramen is a hole-in-the wall in the old Opera House district. Unremarkable from the outside, it’s easy to miss, save for the line of people waiting outside. We arrived well after the lunch rush, and only waited a few minutes before snagging two stools at the counter looking into the kitchen.

Refreshment.

Refreshment.

The other side of the glass.

The other side of the glass.

The small kitchen is open with a tall barrier of Plexiglas providing separation. Next to the front window, stacks of large, flat wooden boxes held nests of fresh ramen noodles portioned for boiling in individual cylinders. The noodle man tended to large pots of water and a digital timer chirped sporadically. Behind the noodle man, the soup guy tended to three huge vats of broth, one with bobbing rolls of pork meat tethered with twine to the side for easy fishing. Beyond them, a gyoza station, where chefs were frying and steaming dumplings in rectangular metal boxes. Everyone in the kitchen was dressed in rubber waders and gum boots.

J and I placed our orders — pork ramen for him and ramen du beurre for me. (We were, after all, in France.) To drink, cold Kirin Ichiban beers in tall cans.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen du beurre.

Ramen assembly was pure theater: Order up, the noodle keeper would plunge ramen-filled cylinders into the boiling water, punching seconds into the digital timer. Meanwhile, the soup guy arranged bowls on the counter in front of us, on the other side of the Plexiglas. When the timer chirped, noodle guy removed dripping cylinders from the bath. Swinging his arms from shoulder height downward in swift motions toward the floor, he drained noodles, flinging water everywhere. Plop they went into the bowls where the soup guy took over, lading miso or pork broth soup over the heap. He then added thick slices of pork, chopped scallions and bean sprouts. A big square of butter was placed atop the ramen de beurre, melting into the hot noodles and broth, and the two bowls were handed over the Plexiglas divide to us, the recipients.

We slurped. Beautifully concentrated pork broth was long simmered for deep color and flavor. With the chewy fresh ramen noodles and the unctuous richness of the butter, this was some of the best ramen we’ve eaten. I made eye-contact with the noodle guy and expressed appreciation with a nod and smile. He gestured back with a happy thumbs up.

Full, hot and slightly uncomfortable, we ambled out into the Paris sunshine.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Thirty years ago, or even 20, if asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I would have surprised no one with my answer: “Noodles.” Little has changed. However, if you had told me that for my 45th, my wish for the perfect birthday dinner would also have included corn dogs in a sultry cocktail lounge setting, I would have suggested you have your noodle checked.

But living in Portland does unexpected things to a food lover’s perspective and cravings, and on a soggy end-of-March Friday, I could not wait to get over to NE Killingsworth and 30th for my fix.

As we did the first time we visited Expatriate, J and I took a seat at the window facing Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast, the site of other memorable feasts.

Expatriate is a collaboration between Pomeroy and husband Kyle Linden Webster, lauded former bartender at St. Jack. (Also the site of other memorable meals. Sensing a trend here?)

On paper, this lounge, with its Asian-inflected bar-snack menu, already has a pedigree, but Webster and Pomeroy’s devotion to balanced flavors and hospitality makes it special. Indeed, Webster has a gift for making people feel welcome. When he stops by to check on patrons, it’s not a typical obligatory manager drive-by. Instead, he looks you in the eye and, despite being clearly busy, he lingers to chat. I’ve seen him run out to the sidewalk to talk with and offer suggestions to people who had come inside but couldn’t find a seat.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

We started with cocktails, the No. 8 for me and the Precariat for J, sipping while we perused the menu, trying to narrow it down to an order that would not overwhelm our intimate corner of the window counter. On this visit, we skipped the deliciously simple onion and butter sandwich, an ode to James Beard on crustless white bread. Last time we were here, a fortuitous kitchen mixup brought us two orders, so we felt OK passing it over this time.

Not pass-up-able, however, were the aforementioned corn dogs, like the corn dogs of your childhood, stick and all, but made so much better with delicately sweet Chinese sausage in place of the standard hot dog. They are served with a potent sinus-cleansing mustard.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Following that was dungeness crab Rangoon: crispy wontons filled with local crab meat and cream cheese. New to us this time around was the most craveable salad: caramelized brussels sprouts, butternut squash cubes, Napa cabbage and ground lamb, every bite a delicious crunchy balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory. And from the “Hungrier” part of the menu, we ordered the tempura cod sandwich and, of course, the noodles: a generous bowl of coconut-scented broth and noodles with fried duck confit, topped with a beautifully soft-boiled egg.

By the time we had finished, the crowd had filled in behind us, and it was time to relinquish our coveted seats to some other lucky couple. We walked home feeling lucky to have so many delicious options in our neighborhood and grateful for another year.

 

Minizo ramen

Happiness on a stick.

Minizo. Thanks for meeting me tonight. I know I shouldn’t … we shouldn’t. But the attraction is too great. It shouldn’t feel right — hot soup and steaming dumplings on a sun-baked August evening — but when that twilight breeze brushes my legs, well I can’t explain it. It just is right. It can’t be helped.

Stumpings

Tri-colored beauties.

You know I find you irresistible: your fresh handmade noodles boiled to order; the pinch of sprouts in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the hot bath of broth; that soft-boiled egg, melting into the soup; the thinly sliced pork. Yes, I noticed it all. How could I not? All this cool confidence and yet you’re playful enough to display the plastic Godzilla on the counter. I’m feeling faint. Is it getting hotter? Or is it just me?

Stumplings, right next door, does not make this affair any easier. If I’m waiting, waiting for handmade noodles cooked to order, how can I resist handmade steamed dumplings? Yes, I am weak, but I am not ashamed. I am in love. It can’t be helped.

Tomato sandwich

J + R + T = Love.

Some couples have their song. (“This is our song! We danced to it at our wedding.”)

Some couples have a place. (“We are going back to Cabo in the spring. It’s where we met!!”)

Jeff and I, we have a sandwich.

Ok, to be fair, it’s a sandwich and a side. So it’s really a meal. Our meal is the tomato sandwich and “dry” ramen.

Of course I’d had BLTs before, and everyone knows how I feel about ramen, but this combination is special. Early in our relationship, Jeff introduced me to this glorious partnership, which he and his brother had perfected during their college years. The sandwich requires juicy, sweet, still-warm-from-the-sun, vine-ripened tomatoes, which are so plentiful in Salt Lake. It’s not worth making if you don’t have this component (and I’ve griped about the lack of decent tomatoes since leaving Utah).

The focus on the tomato makes this sandwich different from a BLT, where bacon steals the show. This is a T sandwich all the way, and the other ingredients are supporting cast: Two pieces of toasted wheat bread, one topped with a leaf or two of lettuce (I like either iceberg or butter lettuce). The other piece of bread has a slather of mayo and Dijon mustard. Call in the tomato. It should be plump, sweet and juicy, not like the anemic grainy flavorless imposters you find in the supermarket. At home we grew Early Girls and Beefsteak, and both made lovely sandwiches. Lay two, three or four thick slices on the lettuce. Grind a little black pepper over the tomato and put a couple not-too-thick slices of cheddar on top. The other piece of bread sits on top of the cheese. (You’ll notice the cheese and the lettuce insulate the bread from all the juices from the tomato. Ingenious, I know.)

While one of us assembled sandwiches, the other started a little pot of water on the stove for the ramen, which is drained and dressed with a dash of rice wine vinegar, a drizzle of soy sauce, several good shakes of Tabasco, half the flavor packet and five or six grinds of pepper.

Sandwich and ramen

Beautiful.

Sandwich on the plate. Ramen on the plate. Nothing could be more beautiful.

During the summer in Salt Lake when the tomatoes were bountiful, Jeff and I would eat tomato sandwiches for lunch at least a couple times a week. We even considered serving it at our wedding, only half-jokingly, before we decided that Log Haven likely would not tolerate Top Ramen in their kitchen.

Every once is a great while we come across the rare tomato that is sandwich-worthy, like the ones Jeff found last week. We pounced and went through the delicious summer ritual of so many years ago. Hunched over our plates, tomato juice dripping down our chins, we thanked our lucky stars that we don’t have a song or a place. We have a sandwich.

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.

Noodles for breakfast.

Delicious noodles for breakfast.

I had a pretty typical childhood. I loved swimming in the summer; my friends and I pretended we were “Charlie’s Angels,” packing heat and fighting crime in our Salt Lake City neighborhood; I adored kittens — more than once my sister and I dressed up the family cat in old baby clothes. And I ate Top Ramen regularly for breakfast. OK, maybe not completely typical.

Of course, on the weekends, I enjoyed traditional breakfasts: pancakes, French toast, oatmeal with a little brown sugar. But around the age of 12 and on through high school, my breakfast of choice during the week was ramen.

I must have learned this breakfast behavior from my dad, Levi Mike, who never ate “normal” breakfast food. Instead he would make soups and stews, vats of collard greens, Mexican menudo, the leftovers of which would be his morning sustenance. So my penchant for ramen was not terribly unusual. Every morning, I’d start a saucepan with a finger of water and cut the top of the flavor packet, leaving a graveyard of silver trimmings in the drawer where the scissors lived. In less than three minutes, I had a savory, salty, warming pan of noodle soup. Rather than dirty a bowl, I would eat the soup right out of the cookpot, and to get to the “meat” of the meal faster, I would slurp the liquid with a giant mixing spoon. (J and I still have that spoon and use it often, though it’s been retired as silverware.) Once the broth was out of the way, all that remained were the delicious, slippery, curly noodles. I would savor them lovingly, making them last as long as possible. After one unfortunate morning when my mother asked for “a bite” and ate HALF THE NOODLES on one forkful, I became fiercely protective, guarding my noodles with the ferocity of a junkyard dog.

Though I don’t often eat ramen for breakfast anymore, every once in a while I wake up with a craving. I’ve graduated to bowls, and I now use a regular soup spoon. But don’t ask for a bite, even on your birthday. Call me selfish, but for 20 cents or so you can have your very own bowl of noodles for breakfast, in under three minutes. I’ll start the water for you.