The Northern Hemisphere summer is over, but since New York weather has been doing its best impression of hot, swampy Washington D.C., I’ve been yearning for cool, refreshing fare at night. I’ve been craving soba: a tangle of cold buckwheat noodles on a tan bamboo mat, a ramekin of tsuyu, a neat pile of scallions and wasabi. That’s it. One can eat them hot in a bowl of soup, but their delicate springiness shines best when freshly cut and served chilled. They’re so light, you don’t slurp them as much as you breathe them in.
As luck would have it, there’s a soba spot called Soba Azuma just around the block from me, on the border of Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown West. The West Side boasts an almost infinite supply of very good noodle shacks, but dedicated soba restaurants are few and far between anywhere in the city. While New Yorkers have flocked to fatty tonkotsu parlors with fervor, and as assorted ramen-ya sprout up like wildflowers, local diners have never really gone as nuts for this older and more austere style of Japanese noodles.
While ramen in its current incarnation is a reasonably new phenomenon, soba is said to have been popularized in Japan’s Edo period, beginning in the 1600s. The recipe is simple, involving just two or three ingredients: Buckwheat flour, usually wheat flour — to reduce the brittleness of the noodles — and water. Cooks cut them into long strands, flash boil them, then serve them.
Azuma is a fine place to get acquainted with the form, particularly as New York awaits the opening of Sarashina Horii. That Tokyo-based institution, founded in 1789, will soon start serving its prized white noodles, forged from the core of buckwheat seeds, in Flatiron. The late Anthony Bourdain was among its fans, calling the soba “perfectly chewy.”
This West Side soba hangout, naturally, is younger. It opened in 2016 next to Donburiya, the acclaimed rice bowl spot, and underneath Yakitori Totto, famed for its grilled chicken skewers. Azuma’s chief draw isn’t that it represents the apex of soba, but rather that it offers some of the best noodle values in the city.
On a recent evening an Azuma staffer asks what size I’d like for cold soba, and I reflexively say “small.”
“Small is really small,” the waiter replied, adding that “medium and large are the same price.” Azuma, as it turns out, doesn’t charge extra for bigger portions; it’s like a fantasy movie theater where the family-size popcorn costs as much as the child-size. Any order of plain cold soba runs $9, with the noodles starting at 100 grams and going up to 300. For reference, a 200 gram order at Sobaya in the East Village would run $14.50.
My medium portion arrives in about five minutes, with the khaki-colored noodles lying on that signature bamboo mat, known as a zaru. On the side is that cup of tsuyu — soy mixed with dashi and mirin for slurping. Connoisseurs like to use use words like earthy or nutty to describe great soba; I’d say the flavor here is more neutral and clean. The noodles aren’t as snappy as at, say, Sobaya, but they’re still nearly as firm as al dente spaghetti, albeit bouncier and chewier. The sauce imparts the soba with notes of sugar from the mirin, salt from the soy, and pronounced umami and smokiness from the dashi.
Two tempura shrimp, a $6 supplement, exhibit both crispness and sweetness. Even with that add-on, Azuma ranks as one of the few sub-$20 meals — after tax and tip — at a sit-down spot in Midtown. Throw in a cold pint of Sapporo and you’re still at under thirty bucks. The menu here is long; there’s curried rice, assorted sashimi, sauteed squid, and almost too many other dishes to list. But make no mistake; soba is the main event. I’m calling the solid noodles at Azuma a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).