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Originally published January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2008 at 11:03 AM

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Taste of the Town

Oodles of noodles — and one fateful parking spot

So, there I was, wheeling down 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill last week, heading back to the office, when what did I see? Srrrreeeeechhhh! A parking space, directly across...

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Food for Thought with Nancy Leson

Food For Thought airs every Wednesday on KPLU's Morning Edition at 5:35 and 7:35 a.m, and again on KPLU's Weekend Edition Saturday, at 8:35 a.m. Listen to "Oyster orgy," her latest commentary. Or subscribe to podcasts.

So, there I was, wheeling down 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill last week, heading back to the office, when what did I see? Srrrreeeeechhhh! A parking space, directly across from Boom Noodle (1121 E. Pike St., Seattle, 206-701-91330, www.boomnoodle.com). If you've ever prayed for parking karma on the Pike/Pine corridor, you'd know, as I did, that some higher being had spoken: Clearly, it was time for a bowl of ramen.

When last I wrote about the coming of this Japanese noodle house — courtesy of the Blue C Sushi boys — they'd just sent Boom's executive chef, Jonathan Hunt, on a ramen-eating tour of Japan. In June, Hunt e-mailed me from Kyoto about his reaction to his rendezvous with ramen, describing a scene I've longed to experience myself:

"Wow! What a place! My first night here, I arrived at midnight and went straight to [his friend] Yumi's favorite ramen shop. Ducking into the two-table, six-seat-counter noodle shop, we were greeted with considerable enthusiasm considering the hour, and proceeded to have what I could only describe as a perfect meal. Amazing sides of kim chee and shoyu ramen with cha su, bamboo and negi, along with pork and clam ramen. That broth hit me like a Tiger Woods three iron."

Someday, I hope to have the same mind-blowing experience. Meanwhile, back at Boom, a couple hours past the noonday rush, I was told to "sit anywhere" among the 120 seats in this sprawling space, then left to examine a menu made up of Japanese classics tweaked for the American palate. These include more than a dozen "small plates," things like miso-broiled rice cakes, ebi katsu and beef tataki ($3.50-$8.50), plus many variations on the noodle theme (ramen, somen and udon served hot, cold, in soups and as salads, $6.95-$11.50). Settling in at a long counter, my back to the kitchen, a steaming bowl before me, here's what I found:

Large rectangular tables make the central dining area look like a cross between a cafeteria and a conference hall. Tables for two line street-side windows adjacent the lounge area (yes, there's sake and shochu), where the chairs resemble metal shopping carts. Throughout, tables are set with clever logo-ware — just like at Blue C. And a wall painted Granny Smith green was decisively echoed in my buzz-inducing apple shiso julep ($3.50). Ginger-fueled, that fresh-extracted juice tasted more like a healthy way to start my day than a complement to soup noodles. (Next time, I'll take the waiter up on his suggestion, and order the flowering tea.)

With so many choices, the words "chicken confit" and "bay scallops" drew me to a bowl of shio ramen ($9.95), served with a notched soupspoon for resting on the bowl's slippery slope. After fishing out a sheath of crunchy nori with my chopsticks, I did the same with a bloom of wakame (seaweed), lengths of bamboo shoot and a slice of fish cake.

The ramen, imported from a noodle-maker in California, was cooked, appropriately, until my teeth felt a gentle tug. In those noodles nested caramelized bay scallops, but the chicken "confit" was nothing more than dull bits of dark meat. As for the broth? I encountered the pleasant mellow flavors of long-simmering chicken and pork, but unlike Hunt's encounter in Kyoto, there wasn't a swinging golf club in sight.

Among my Japanese-American friends who've rushed out to try Boom Noodle, there's been much discussion. I've heard raves about the omakase pickle plate ($3.50), the specialty cocktails and the vegetarian mushroom soba ($9.50); rants about the noise level when things get busy; and a deep discussion regarding okonomiyaki ("We make it with leftovers at home!" "Theirs is nowhere near as good as my mother's."). Taking in this corporate construct during its first weeks in business, it's clear that Blue C's owners are branching out in their effort to introduce the boundless joys of Japanese cuisine to a wider demographic.

Having already given us their take on conveyor-belt sushi in Fremont, they've since expanded that concept into the malls (University Village, Alderwood). Their latest boom (the name is a play on the expression "my boom" — used to describe one's current obsession) is noodles. My guess? We'll see more of that obsession in locations surrounded by acres of parking. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays, noon to 2 a.m. Saturdays, noon-midnight Sundays.

Conceptualize this

Now: Let's say you have absolutely no interest in highly conceptualized Japanese restaurants. And let's say you're looking to eat well, for cheap. You want a "real, authentic" experience. One where Japanese comfort food is the call of the day (Tofu over ice? Nice!), the daily lunch special is going to tide you over till tomorrow (for $7.95) and sushi is an evening-only thing. You want a sense of family, of familiarity and — just for fun — a place to karaoke come Friday night. You, my friend, are looking for my boom: Tsukushinbo (515 S. Main St., Seattle, 206-467-4004).

Here in the Chinatown International District, eight tables and a seven-seat sushi bar mean a full house; whole grilled squid ($7.50) is squid pro quo; and if you ask for "something I'm not likely to get elsewhere," as I did recently, you may end up facing down a generous portion of sticky okra, diced tofu and teensy bites of octopus: delicious! Hours: lunch 11:45 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 6-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

Elsewhere in the ID

Apparently, I'm the only serious noodle-slurper in town who hasn't sampled the goods at Samurai Noodle (606 Fifth Ave. S, Seattle, 206-624-9321), a popular ramen shop in Uwajimaya Village. I almost hit the place a few weeks back, but given my preference for Chinese noodles and its proximity to personal favorites like Hing Loon (628 S. Weller St., Seattle, 206-682-2828) and Canton Wonton House (608 S. Weller St., Seattle, 206-682-5080), you'll excuse me for having fallen down on the job. And now, with good word that Samurai is opening a second outpost at 4148 University Way sometime this summer (if all goes as planned), I've promised myself to check out the original, soon.

Turning Japanese?

They really think so

Since 1998, Seattle entrepreneur Takumi Ono has been bringing local culture to native Japanese via her Web site www.junglecity.com. The site, she says, "is for local Japanese and Japanese travelers coming to Seattle and the Northwest." But for those (like me) who've tried to access it for information and conversation regarding Japanese food, it's been a tough go: There's no English translation.

Which is why Ono — along with business partners Bruce Rutledge (publisher at Chin Music Press) and Taichi Kitamura (owner/chef of Fremont sushi bars Chiso and Chiso Kappo) — has turned the tables and launched a new Web site, www.JapanInfusion.com, offering their personal insight into Japanese culture, touching on everything from music and literature to food and family to art and architecture, via articles, interviews and essays.

Kitamura's fans will be interested to read his "Fish Stories," the musings of "a fly-fishing sushi chef (who) reflects on Japanese cuisine, environment, the restaurant business and his view of America from behind the sushi counter." When he's not writing about fish, he's slicing and serving it at Chiso (www.chisoseattle.com). This week's hot-selling seafood: hairy crab from Hokkaido; winter-run wild yellowtail from the high seas of Sado; and, from local waters: freshest uni, geoduck and oysters.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. More columns are available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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