A little over two years ago, after a random internet search for new sushi restaurant openings in San Diego, I found myself braving Friday evening rush hour traffic to get to the farthest corner of the known universe, Oceanside, all because of a name… The Wrench and the Rodent Seabasstropub. It was like a dare. “Come eat at the Rat place if you’re bold enough!” it cried. It was either going to be great food or I was gonna meet some interesting people. Challenge accepted.
That evening was a life changer. It turns out both of my pre-supposed premises were true – there was (and is) great sushi, just traditional enough to be called sushi, unique enough to be considered trendsetting and groundbreaking enough to be heretofore undiscovered. And, it was being served up by a group of the most genuine, eclectic, animated and devoted chefs and restaurant people I’ve ever met.
Since then, what started as a hole-in-the-wall, under the radar, popup sushi joint inside a slightly larger hole-in-the-wall taco joint has taken the County by storm. There are very few corridors or water coolers in San Diego where Wrench and Rodent won’t get at least a nod of recognition if they come up in conversation…and they come up a lot. In fact, a review I wrote at the time, shortly after they opened with no fanfare and a heavy dependence on the loyal following of patrons they had garnered through many years in the industry, stated, “(They) are maybe the coolest people you’ll ever meet. The fact that they are pouring every bit of their souls into making sure that the food and experience you receive at this 6 week old soon-to-be-impossible-to-get-into-haven-of-the-freshest-fish-ever is almost too much to handle.” I know. I think it’s a gift. My wife swears it’s a curse. Either way, I was right. Again.
Now, it’s time to welcome to the family their new younger sibling – The Whet Noodle. Does the name have that same edgy “FU” quality to it that Wrench and Rodent has? Honestly, no. But it is a double entendre that oozes with innuendo. How do I do this without getting too graphic or phallic? Okay, I’ve got it. Let’s just go with Whet – as in sharpen, hone, stimulate and excite. So, if you have a “wet” (as in limp and drippy) noodle (in that not overly graphic phallic sense), perhaps eating here will “whet” your noodle. Don’t worry, you don’t have to understand it. I barely do…
Anyway, a couple of evenings ago, I was invited in for a menu development night. The interior is still under construction with co-owner/contractor hottie Jess staining walls while Chef Davin works up the new magic recipes in the kitchen.
I brought Dee, of course, who always manages to pick up on the subtleties in the seasoning that I tend to miss because I’m busy stuffing my piehole, and we were joined by Chef Stephen Reyna of the Privateer, located just a block or so down the street. The purpose of the visit was to taste some of the main menu items and provide feedback for further tweaking.
As the food was being prepared, I was able to check out the happenings behind the scenes. What did I learn? Well, while the broth is the most important part of any ramen dish and its most closely guarded secret, it is also the easiest when it comes to service. It can be made in advance and sit on the stove all day simmering and gaining deeper flavor. Meanwhile, all of the ingredients that make up the ramen bowl must hit the grill or the flat top in precise order and be timed to the second for doneness, lest it become a burnt, gooey, mushy or otherwise unpleasant mashup that will certainly ruin even the best of broths.
Note here the perfect stillness of the fresh ingredients on the flattop as Chef Davin kicks it into warp speed to flip, maneuver, coerce and otherwise tend each component of what would turn out to be some of the best ramen to have crossed these lips in quite some time.
As we dove into the first offering, elbows flying, heads bobbing and lips smacking, it quickly became clear that this ramen has many of the same inherent qualities about it as the sushi from Wrench and Rodent has. In other words, if this was an SAT phrasing, it would be something like, traditional sushi is to Wrench and Rodent as traditional ramen is to Whet Noodle. The ramen here has all the basic components of a traditional plating – broth, noodles, vegetables, meat and eggs (there is a gluten free/vegan option – keep reading) and a deep, satisfying savoriness. Yet, there are twists of flavor and texture combined with an artistic touch of unorthodoxy that will lead you off the old school path and leave you with a deep conviction that this is exactly the ramen that your Oceanside born and raised, adopted Japanese grandmother would have made…if you had one.
The first offering of the night was a Duck shoyu based broth with smoked duck, charred Napa cabbage, and a variety of other veggies, fresh and pickled. The noodles are a house recipe and everything in the dishes you will receive here is sourced locally. This broth had a deep, rich flavor that you would normally associate with a duck base, but without the sticky oiliness that often accompanies. Somehow, the essence of the fat is infused into the broth to create a smooth richness that finds its own direction into your belly. There was a light sweetness as well, uncommon in ramen broth generally, but not unpleasant in this one. With the smoky and savory ingredients, the sweetness seemed as though it were there simply to get ahead of any potential flavor monotony.
The real stars of the dish were the charred Napa cabbage (this should be available as a stand alone side salad with a light aioli or vinaegrette dressing), the deeply infused, ohh, soo smokey duck and the fried egg. In fact, of the three top ingredients, I’m calling the fried egg the hands down winner of the group. It was textural genius, with a just crisp doneness around the edges of the white and a perfect soft yolk that infused itself into the broth when cracked to lend another layer of flavor and creaminess not previously known to the ramen universe. I loved it so much I recommended to Chef that he forgo the traditional soft boiled egg and go strictly with this. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but, dayuuum, if he leaves this fried egg option on the menu – get it. It’s a difference maker.
Next in the hot seat was a hot and sour miso broth with grilled shrimp. This broth will be the base of the vegan offerings, and for those wanting a gluten free version, remember to ask for the GF noodles. Man, this broth was good. It had a bit of sweetness, which surprisingly also doubled as the “sour” in the dish. I wanted to say there was a Tamarind overtone. In fact, I did say it while staring Chef straight in the eyes to see if I nailed it. He never flinched. He gave me a quizzical look and said, “Interesting.” The citrusy, slightly sour, pungent sweetness of the broth is nicely balanced and offset by a mild, but prevalent spiciness. If you’re one of those people who can’t handle a little black pepper on your food, this probably isn’t for you. However, for those that can handle a mild spice backed by a ton of flavor, it’s hard to go wrong with this one. The shrimp had a pinch of salt and pepper applied while on the grill so that its natural seafood essence stood out, encouraging the broth to envelope and enhance the flavor almost like a dip or a jus. Once again, the charred Napa was a welcome component and the fresh heirloom carrots added a great crunch to the dish. This broth will work with innumberable meat and vegetable combinations.
This one. This one. It’s a smoky carnitas Tonkotsu broth with, you guessed it, smoked carnitas. But, wait… there’s more! A little slice of lamb belly buried beneath the other treasures is like the foie gras of the dish – a tender, fatty, melt in your mouth little nugget that has you closing your eyes so you don’t have to look at the accusing glare your wife is giving you for eating the whole thing. Wait, that might have been when I ate the entire perfectly soft boiled half egg. Anyway, this may be the closest to a “traditional” broth you will find here, yet, it still has a unique depth of flavor and character that is at one level hard to define, but, at another level, well, who cares? It was great and it was mine.
Here’s the Rundown:
Food/Pricing/Service: Expect an easy to navigate, concise menu. There will be these three, maybe four by the time they open, basic combinations, with the ability to add-on items as desired. There will be at least one Soba offering as well. Each of the creations we tried was exotic while approachable, different while familiar and edgy while casual.
Average price per serving – $8 or so. Add-ons will be affordable, in the .50c – $1 range. Patrons will order at the counter and then take their number to a table where their orders will be brought out. Beer and wine will also be available.
Where and When: 1815 S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside. Don’t look for big signs or banners – that’s not how they roll here. Seriously, you will find the place. The initial search is part of the allure. Once you find it, you’ll never forget it and you’ll be in on the secret, which is – this is some of the best food available. Period.
As of the publishing of this article, a firm, official opening date has not been set. However, knowing what I know about these guys, I never really expected one anyways. There will be no huge, invitation only, soft opening where the glitterati of the industry get to be first in line. This is more of a socialist endeavor – great local food by great local people for great local people.
So, here’s what I can tell you – Sometime after Christmas, keep an eye out for an unlocked door and an unheralded opening sans trumpets, banners and hoopla. But, don’t wait too long. Something tells me that this will quickly become an impossible-to-get-into-haven-of-noodle-loving-paradise…oh, never mind. Just go. Cheers, my friends!
The Whet Noodle
1815. S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA