I like to think of myself as being opened-minded about food. Anything odd or strange simply means it is currently unfamiliar, just waiting to be tried and appreciated. By and large I feel aversions to particular foods are a state-of mind and perception counts largely towards what we think foods will taste like. When I come across a food that I can’t stomach, it well and truly surprises me. I like to think I have a stomach of steel and very little can turn it. I never would have thought an innocent Japanese vegetable would be my stomach’s downfall.
The stretch of 9th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenue is occasionally referred to as ‘Little Tokyo’. Interspersed between the beautiful and mysterious brownstones covered with wild and growing vines are restaurants and store fronts with Japanese names. In Japanese characters, the names sit stoically written on wooden boards, others on fabric dividers that flap violently on the rainy, windy night we visit Soba Ya. It’s a truly unique area in an already unique city, and it’s pretty hard to eat badly on this block.
A crowded entrance of people is misleading as to the wait time; after no more than 2 minutes we’re beckoned and lead to our table. Staff are almost all authentically Japanese as are most of the customers. The inside is traditional Japanese, clean wooden booths separated by a low wooden divider while white opaque panels are backlit with warm light.
The first half of the menu is taken up by a number of snacks and small plates. I could happily spend at least 3 or 4 visits eating my way through this section, ordering something new each time without ever touching the noodle or ‘don’ options. With the exception of one hot broth item, all the options can be switched between soba or udon noodles. The soba noodles are made fresh. Proof is in the little windowed booth near the entrance where a solemn man stretches and rolls out sheets of buckwheat before concisely and rapidly slicing them into noodles.
I opt for the cold ‘Tem Zaru’ with soba; shrimp, shiso and shishito tempura. A laquered tray arrives with four dishes. The dipping broth is salty, not overly so, while the tempura is expertly and mouth-burningly fresh. The shrimp are lovely and meaty while still being sweet, but the shiso leaf sadly lost most of its unique bright flavour in the frying process. The tangle of soba noodles are pleasantly firm to the tooth with a nice chew to them. As I was nearing the end of the noodles, the waiter brought a red wooden teapot, explaining this new broth was to mix with the dipping sauce for drinking. Mixed together, there was a slight chicken flavour, and altogether taste was pure umami.
Longing for a replacement to his beloved Koya, Duncan opts for hot udon with shrimp tempura. Disappointingly the tempura arrive bobbing in the hot broth, losing their crunch by the second. Only a slight disappointment though; Duncan declared Soba Ya to be better than Koya.
On a second visit, the weather is blindingly hot and unpleasant. The cold soba uni with grated mountain yam catches my eye. I wish it hadn’t. Having mixed up grated daikon with grated mountain yam in my head, what arrived wasn’t what I had expected. The grated mountain yam was the same shiny white colour as grated daikon, but texture? Grated mountain yam is slimy. Imagine raw egg white with stings that pull, but having no real flavour to it. Blurgh. Even after pouring the cold broth over the creamy uni and soba noodles, the yam could still be seen with every lift of my chopsticks. I know I’m not selling it, but I was so surprised (am still am) at my revulsion to this innocent ingredient. I scoop up all the noodles and uni, but have to leave behind the broth tainted with yam that my uneducated palate refuses to comply with. Duncan fares better with the hot udon version of the shrimp, shiso and shishito tempura.
Ignoring my run in with the grate yam, Soba-ya is brilliant at authentic Japanese soba. The flavours are clean and simple and service is polite but not intrusive. Soba-ya feels a little bit special in amongst the other restaurants on 9th. At around $15 per bowl, it’s a lovely place for a quick bowl of food that almost feels cleansing that won’t break the bank even with its authenticity.