Meet the husband and wife team perfecting ramen out of their Daly City kitchen
Clint Tan remembers his first noodle-induced epiphany. It was a bowl of indelible tsukemen in Tokyo that did him in. The experience of the chewy, thick, al-dente noodles, dipped in a pungent, super-concentrated broth imprinted itself on his memory.
“It was sort of mind-blowing,” he said, thinking to himself, “If this can be ramen, what else can ramen be?”
It wasn’t a single bowl of ramen, but rather hundreds the San Francisco native ate over the course of a personal sabbatical in Japan that led Clint to eventually start a ramen pop-up with his wife, Yoko, out of their home in Daly City.
Dubbed Noodle in a Haystack, their cooking has quietly taken Bay Area ramen heads by storm. Their pop-ups, which take place a few times every month and are limited to about 11 people, have long wait lists. A recent midnight ticket release sold out within an hour.
While the couple is entirely self-made — they educated themselves about making ramen through eating, deep Reddit research and trial and error in their modest home kitchen — Noodle in a Haystack is not your average pop-up. They make seven kinds of ramen, all in a lighter, refined style that Clint fell in love with in Tokyo. They make their own chili paste from 14 different ingredients and spend two days salt-curing and roasting snapper for a dashi base. In this regard, Clint and Yoko are creative, ambitious — and maybe a little fanatical in their quest to create the perfect ramen.
“Everything we make, we make it for the sake of making it,” Clint said.
Clint was born and raised in the avenues of San Francisco: the Richmond, Sunset and near Lake Merced. Food was not central in his family, but he recalls childhood mornings spent watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on PBS while waiting for cartoons to start.
Toward the end of college, Clint spent a fateful three weeks backpacking around Japan by himself. He returned to the Bay Area, graduated and started working at a software company, but he felt restless. Something was missing.
“Japan was calling me,” he said.
At 28 years old, he quit his job and returned to Japan on a three-month tourist visa. He didn’t know anyone there or speak the language. It wasn’t until the day his visa expired that he finally got a job at a financial services company, where he would meet his future wife and cooking partner. (They connected over food, Clint said.)
First sushi, then ramen became his after-work obsession, bordering on addiction, he said. He’d eat ramen two, three, four times a week — “as much as was physically possible,” he said. For six years, Clint explored Tokyo’s districts through ramen, seeking out the next best bowl and immersing himself in an unparalleled culinary culture. He was particularly drawn to lighter broths like shio and shoyu.
Clint was an ardent eater but rarely a cook. It wasn’t until Clint and Yoko had their first child and decided to move back to the Bay Area to be closer to his family in 2014 that they started making ramen themselves out of necessity. No ramen in the Bay Area even came close to what he had become accustomed to eating in Japan. There was decent sushi, but at an unaffordable price point.
“That gap really hit us hard. I was really, really depressed for a few months,” Clint said. “We did the only thing that would actually satisfy us and take away some of that pain and we just started cooking at home for ourselves.”
He also coped by starting a blog to share photos and detailed memories of his favorite ramen shops in Japan. He called the blog “Noodle in a Haystack,” because finding quality ramen in the Bay Area felt like finding a needle in a haystack.
Neither Clint or Yoko has any professional culinary experience or training. They learned through “reverse engineering,” Clint said. He found resources in a ramen sub-reddit, the largest English-speaking ramen community he was aware of at the time. The moderator, who had studied abroad in Hokkaido and was fluent in Japanese, would purchase “legitimate” ramen cookbooks and translate them for the reddit members.
“It took about a year to make something that actually tasted like Japan,” Clint said.
Meanwhile, Clint was interviewing for corporate jobs but struggling to find the right fit. Any job he was excited about didn’t pay enough to allow them to survive in the Bay Area. So, he kept cooking.
“There was lot of uncertainty at that time,” Clint said. “Ramen was the only thing that was certain.”
With encouragement from friends and family, the couple eventually held their first pop-up in 2015 through Feastly, an online platform for chefs to host dinners and events. The dinner sold out, and the chicken paitan ramen they had labored over for days was a hit.
As their popularity grew in the Bay Area, they returned to Japan last year to compete in the World Ramen Grand Prix, first launched internally by the company that runs ramen chain Hakata-Ippudo for employees, then opened up internationally to any ramen chefs, both amateurs and professionals. Their yuzu-shio ramen got them to the final 16 out of hundreds of competitors. After, one of the head judges, Clint said, penned a blog post complimenting his favorite ramen, made by the “couple from San Francisco.”
“At that point it really hit us that we need to take this seriously instead of taking it as a hobby,” Clint said.
Ramen and beyond
On a recent afternoon in Daly City, I removed my shoes and entered the couple’s homey living room for a lunch-time pop-up ($54 per person). Toto, an affable toy poodle they brought back from Japan, is the pop-up’s unofficial greeter. Eleven guests—some first timers and some return diners —sat together at a communal table for a meal that could hold its own at most Bay Area restaurants.
First course: a deviled ramen egg, hatched from a mistake. Clint and Yoko cure the ramen eggs for three to five days before soft boiling them to perfect jammy consistency. Once, they forgot to set the timer and were left with a batch of hard-boiled eggs. They serve the eggs cut in half, with pickled daikon radish tucked underneath yolk whipped with smoked fish powder from Kyoto and pickling juice from the daikon. On top are salmon roe they cured themselves and chicken “chicharron,” which have been cooked in their own fat for several hours until they’re dehydrated and crispy. Clint instructed us to eat the egg in one bite to taste the different flavors and textures.
Second course: sticky, addictive potatoes that are starched in potato starch, pan fried in chashu fat and tossed with a homemade teriyaki vinaigrette. The result are soft potatoes with a candy-like coating, dusted with nori powder and crushed cracked pepper.
Third course: a Japanese Szechuan-inspired chicken salad. The chicken is gently poached in ginger, scallion and cilantro; served with garlic, chives and blanched bean sprouts; and dressed with a homemade sesame sauce. On top is garlic oil, garlic chips, their own Szechuan chili paste; and Japanese Sancho pepper, the young Szechuan peppercorn. (Sancho is “more aromatic, less spicy, almost citrusy,” than the mature peppercorn, Clint explained.)
Fourth course: For lack of a better name, Japanese avocado toast. They top slices of nori with small mounds of Haas avocado, lime, smoked daikon pickles from Japan and cold-pressed chili olive oil from Monterey.
Palate cleanser: Before the ramen arrives, the couple served tsukemono, which literally translates to “pickled things.” Here, it’s a plate of yuzu daikon radish and brassicas that they pickled in kelp and salt, finished with more of the Monterey chili oil.
The ramen: Every pop-up features a different ramen, from paitan and shio to duck shoyu. During my visit, it was the triple miso ramen, constructed over hours with intense attention to layers of flavor. The chicken bone broth develops over 15 hours before meeting dashi, aka-miso tare and garlic-infused chicken schmaltz.
While Clint carefully poured the broth into red ramen bowls, whisking as he poured, Yoko delicately dropped in the noodles. It’s topped with pork shoulder chashu, ramen egg, kara-miso paste, spicy minced chicken and sesame.
Save room for dessert: Dessert is not an afterthought here. For this pop-up, they served dorayaki — soy, mirin and honey pancakes that are sponge-like and subtly sweet, typically filled with sweet red bean paste. Clint and Yoko topped theirs with lemon-infused whipped cream, strawberry compote and Matcha granola from Japan.
Perfecting the pop-up
There’s a Japanese word for those who are single-mindedly devoted to their craft: shokunin. Japanese woodworker Tasio Odate defined it as “not only having technical skills, but also … an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.”
At Noodle in a Haystack, in a family’s living room in Daly City, you feel like you’re in the presence of a shokunin. Clint and Yoko spend all of their waking hours thinking about ramen, perfecting recipes and prepping for the next pop-up, worrying about the ever-growing wait lists as word spreads. Everything they put on the plate and in the bowl is purposeful, made from scratch and constantly evolving.
They’re outgrowing their kitchen (despite owning three refrigerators and two freezers) and dream of opening a ramen shop in one of the neighborhoods where Clint grew up. But he’s reluctant to compromise the intimate, chef-driven nature of the pop-ups, akin to the one-man shops of Japan where he fell in love with ramen.
“We just think that it tastes the best in that sort of format,” he said.
For more information on Noodle in a Haystack and to sign up for future pop-ups, go to noodleinhaystack.com.
Follow Noodle in a Haystack on Instagram @NoodleinHaystack
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