Fast food was once defined by its rigid sameness, a trait that delivered both efficiency in preparation and expected results for the consumer. But over the years, diners demanded choices, so that everything from grab-and-go burgers, burritos and pizzas now are prepared with customer input.
The same ethos applies at Noodle Uchi, a new casual eatery specializing in ramen along Oakland’s South Craig Street. The restaurant offers just eight “pre-set” noodle bowls; the dozens of other combinations are up to you. (Noodle Uchi is run by the folks at the nearby Sushi Fuku, which offers a similar you-pick set-up.)
Similar to popular burrito chains, at Noodle Uchi, one moves down the counter, picking various options, while an employee assembles the bowl.
Decide first whether it will be a cold noodle salad, hot noodle soup or a rice bowl. Even here, there are multiple options for brown or white rice, and four varieties of noodles. If you’re heading for soup, choose from four broths — miso pork, miso, tonkotsu (pork bone) or shoyu (soy sauce). Add a protein: chashu chicken, pork, salmon, barbequed eel, baked tofu or tempura-ed chicken, pork or shrimp.
Then come the add-ins, including a selection of hot and cold sauces. Among the assorted toppings are green onions, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, bonito flakes, fresh spinach, edamame and corn. For a few cents more, top off with seasoned boiled egg, crispy onions and bamboo shoots.
The process can be a little overwhelming, so those less familiar with mix-and-match Asian fare can opt for one of the eight fixed menu items. There’s tonkotsu ramen soup, with pork and boiled egg, or the teriyaki salmon rice bowl. Hard to go wrong with hybridized Tokyo chicken ramen salad, which offers a bit of everything: grilled chicken breast, cold noodles, fresh greens and lively toppings such as ginger, sesame seeds and edamame.
Rounding out the menu is a small selection of sides, such as miso soup, kimchi, seaweed salad and takoyaki (fried octopus balls).