The new Soba Izakaya Minami doesn’t have just one laminated picture menu; it has four. There’s one for the soba, one for the udon, one for the izakaya dishes, and one for the dessert and drinks. It’s as if you’re watching Ant-Man, Captain America, Dr. Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy on four screens simultaneously: You’re trying to make sense of the plots and find what they have in common.
Why didn’t anyone consolidate it all to a single menu with multiple pages? Perhaps it’s to impress upon you that udon, soba and izakaya come from different culinary disciplines and origin stories. In Japan, it’s rare to see them all served in the same restaurant. You are more likely to find a New York pizzeria offering tacos than a Japanese soba specialist who also does udon.
For sure, the wait staff does not need to juggle more than one menu. They were already overwhelmed and undertrained. Orders were routinely missed, water glasses were never refilled, and on the evening of my visit, there was chaos with the sign-in sheet, which had names scribbled all over the margins and no discernible order of who was next.
One of the waitresses, who I thought was in charge, wasn’t helping. She randomly picked a name off the list, uttered it in a whisper only I could hear, then left to do something else when she got no response. Meanwhile, tables remained unoccupied and some late arrivals got seated before those who had been waiting for more than half an hour.
But if the front-of-the-house staff displayed a Keystone Cops lack of coordination, the kitchen showed the efficiency of the Marine Corp Color Guard. The food not only came out quickly, but was, in all cases, also served piping hot. This was essential for dishes such as the katsudon, which was a rice bowl topped with a breaded pork cutlet smothered in egg, onions and sauce—a dish that had time and moisture working against it the minute it was made. Somehow, the breading retained its crackle beneath the lashings of egg.
That katsudon, by the way, was actually a side dish in a cold soba combo set. There were about eight soba sets in all, each paired with rice dishes that range from a shrimp tempura to a beef bowl reminiscent of Yoshinoya. Since they’re priced from $12 to $15 and the rice bowl sides were already full meals by themselves, these sets are a bargain. But the chefs don’t stop there: They offer the option of tripling your soba serving at no extra charge.
You should, of course, take them up on it. The soba, made by a machine that extrudes them in Play-Doh-like strands, was wonderful—and you want as much of it as they’ll give you. Buckwheat flour, the predominant ingredient, has a nutty flavor that can only be fully appreciated when you eat it cold after dipping it in a specialized sauce made with precise proportions of soy, mirin and dashi. You can mix in wasabi and diced scallions to your liking, but you should take the first slurp with the sauce as it is. And with soba, slurping is not only encouraged, but also recommended. It’s said that inhaling a bit of air into your mouth brings out more of the buckwheat’s subtleties.
Soba Izakaya Minami also offered the soba in hot soups, topped in ways I’ve never seen before, including with sautéed duck and beef curry. If you decide to customize the bowl with your own toppings, you could spend days contemplating whether a poached egg would be a better add-on than the “famous shrimp & tempura kakiage” for just $2 more. The answer to this is “no.” Get the kakiage. Because it’s fried at the right temperature and for the exact right amount of time, this matrix of onion, carrot and other vegetables was perennially crispy and greaseless.
The izakaya menu was full of revelations such as the kakiage. There’s an eggplant agedashi that’s even better than the tofu version, with spears of the vegetable deep-fried to blister the skin and soften the flesh to the consistency of custard. Grilled squid in mentaiko butter had tenderness unusual for squid. Also, who knew that fish roe could work just as well as garlic to flavor butter? Or that a dish such as this could complement a meal with soba so perfectly?
Despite the service chaos and the competing menus, the restaurant actually does have a single overarching narrative: to be the avengers of Japanese comfort food. And if you allow me to stretch my Marvel analogy just a minute longer, the soba is definitely the Tony Stark, while the udon is the Steve Rogers.
Soba Izakaya Minami, 24391 Avenida de la Carlota, Ste. A, Laguna Hills, (949) 215-5375. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. Dishes, $2.95-$13.95. Beer and sake.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.