If you like food and sex (that pretty much covers everyone, right?) and you haven't seen the movie Tampopo, you must rent it immediately-you can find it at Kensington Video, Citizen Video and perhaps your local Blockbuster. One of my top-10 films, Tampopo is set in Japan, where, like many countries, food and culture are inextricably linked. It pays homage to Western films but has a decidedly Eastern flavor. Instead of "spaghetti western," think "noodle western." Satirically hilarious, passionate and playful, this semi-explicit, yet amazingly sincere, film comprises a series of interwoven food-centric vignettes that will simultaneously tug at your heart and prompt all sorts of lusty cravings. A particularly inventive sketch features a gangster, his moll, some live shrimp and a raw egg yolk, which, combined, create the hottest food scene outside of 9 1/2 Weeks. Trust me: it's pretty jaw-dropping.
But it's the central narrative of the movie, and its most charming one, that keeps it on my frequent-viewing list. The main storyline features the saga of movie's titular namesake, Tampopo, a widowed mother who owns a struggling noodle shop. She meets rough but tender Goro, a cowboy-hat-wearing, truck-driving Japanese John Wayne, and together they set off on a quest for the perfect ramen noodle recipe. Every aspect of the dish, from what blend of ingredients to simmer into a broth to the texture and integrity of the noodles, is investigated, debated and discussed to a reverential degree. Tampopo, Goro and their troupe of noodle advisors resort to espionage and even a bit of dumpster-diving to learn the secrets of the perfect ramen. There is a serious art to noodle-soup making and this film both parodies and honors food-obsessed folks like me who are fanatical about finding the ultimate rendition of a dish, even if it's just a humble bowl of noodle soup.
I usually time my Tampopo-watching close to meal time because I inevitably end up craving a bowl of ramen. The instant stuff won't do; I want the version featured in the movie-firm but yielding noodles in a rich and almost milky tonkotsu broth, the result of long-stewing pork bones mixed with chicken and vegetables. Luckily there's a place in San Diego to fulfill my very own ramen quest. Tajima Japanese Restaurant on Convoy Street (and its new second location down the road in Kearny Mesa) serves ramen that gives me a taste of what the characters in Tampopo were seeking, even if it's not exactly on par with the holy grail of noodle soups in the film. Their chashu ramen, with its velvety pork broth is my favorite, although Tajima also serves ramen in miso or soy sauce-based broths. In chashu ramen, a tangle of noodles is topped with slices of pork, pickled bamboo shoot, seaweed and bean sprouts. Served in a deep earthenware bowl, the steaming-hot noodles are fun to slurp in between spoonfuls of flavorful soup. Tajima Restaurant is so nuts about ramen that at 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, they switch to an all-ramen menu that's available until 3 a.m.
While I love a great bowl of ramen, there are other noodle soups that are equally satisfying. Convoy Noodle House is a frequent stop for Vietnamese pho with its fragrant star anise-scented beef broth, silky rice noodles and thin slices of meat. Add in the bean sprouts and basil that arrive alongside as garnish and it's an aromatic meal-in-a-bowl. Saffron Noodle & Saté's Thai tomm yam noodle soup with chicken is the most delicious cure for colds and hangovers. The savory chicken soup with rice noodles, tender white-meat chicken and Asian greens is topped with a sinus-clearing paste made of chilies, lemongrass, ginger and other restorative ingredients.
I'm glad for San Diego's recent slight temperature drop because it means that there are many months of noodle-soup-eating weather ahead. Even though there are really only two basic components to a noodle soup, there's something kind of beautiful and bizarre when I think about the dedication it can inspire, with some cultures elevating it to an art form. Ramen noodles are so revered in Japan that some noodle shops will even customize noodle texture to your liking: soft, regular or firm. There are even two museums in Japan devoted to ramen. But, really, when you break it down, noodle soup is just straight-up good eating-how can you argue with comfort in a bowl?
Tajima I is at 4681 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa, 858-576-7244. Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.to 11 p.m.; Saturday noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Tajima serves its ramen-only menu Thursday through Saturday 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Tajima II is at 4411 Mercury St. in Kearny Mesa, 858-278-5367. Open Monday through Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Ramen-only menu same as Tajima I.
Convoy Noodle House is at 4647 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa, 858-277-0133. Open Wednesday through Monday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Tuesday.
Saffron Noodles and Saté is at 3737 India St. in Mission Hills, 619-574-7737. Open Monday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.