Clint and Yoko Tan weren’t sure what would come next in life. Their ultra popular pop-up Noodle in a Haystack came out of nowhere in 2015, for the Tans and for the Bay Area, as they figured out how to get their feet beneath them in San Francisco after leaving Japan. Now they’ve found their first brick and mortar at 4601 Geary Boulevard, and people have raised eyebrows over the $125 ramen tasting menu. That’s why Clint Tan says it’s the ramen itself, the ethos behind his lifestyle, that gets him out of bed in the morning. There is no end goal. Ramen, and bringing an intentional and beautiful meal to each customer, is the pursuit.
“The heart and soul of how we cook, our philosophy of how we want to eat, is sushi,” Tan says. The Michelin-starred Sugita in Tokyo is an old haunt of the Tans, and serves as inspiration for how they dish everything from their karaage to the A5 Wagyu abura soba. Owner-chef Takaaki Sugita told the Tans about how unpopular his shop was at first, and how staying dedicated to the food itself is what generated any attention at all. “I would ask Sugita when he takes a day off, and he was like, ‘I don’t. I don’t get sick.’” Tan says, “That kind of craft in Japan is a religion. It’s more than work. It’s a higher calling. It’s hard to describe in a Western context.”
Tan admits that his aspirations aren’t quite as intense — he wants some work-life balance to see his kid play basketball, for example — but this far along the journey he does draw strength from those memories and characters in his life. Tan’s pop-up, which he started with his wife, blew up after its debut. There was no high bar he hoped to achieve with the project; it was just missing the food and the approach to time spent at the table. He was taking as many interviews as he could to get back into tech at the time, but the friends he and his wife would cook for thought they should try a formal pop-up. “We didn’t have any crazy ambitions,” Tan says. “It was just something to do that reminded us of Japan.” Pop-up companies, like Feastly and Eatwith, were blown away with their demo and before they knew it they were running a little business. “We just hopped on the rollercoaster,” Tan says. “It gave us something to do for ‘the next step.’ We thought we’d do it until people stopped buying tickets.”
But when the husband and wife duo went to Osaka for a ramen competition, the Ramen Grand Prix where they ranked as finalists, they thought it might be worth taking more seriously. Opening a restaurant no longer seemed so crazy, though the difficulties of maintaining a business weren’t lost on him and his wife. “It was never about blowing up or becoming a brand,” Tan says. “We just focused on the people and the product, which was what we enjoyed. Not handing out as many bowls of ramen as we can, but cooking for people in intimate settings.”
When the pandemic hit, the rollercoaster seemed at an end. But it did make staying in the Bay, rather than trying to move back to Japan during such an uncertain time, and getting a brick and mortar all the more clear. Firing up the new shop amongst all the craziness of the last few years — not to mention the rising costs in the Bay — is why Tan isn’t sure the ramen will even end up as $125. It could end up costing more, and with fewer seats in the location. “We’re reevaluating that price point after all these delays,” Tan says. “That $125 might not even be enough. We want to give people that value, if that’s what we have to charge to survive here. Then we’ll cook up to that standard.”
He wants to get back to that feeling of cooking people food in his living room, and he’s confident that he and Yoko can provide that at any cost. They’re not sure they want to serve the full 12 seats every night, either, or if they’d like to opt for even smaller. The couple’s lives in Japan, eating and enjoying the small sushi shops that are inspirations for their approach to ramen, make it all the clearer what they want to do in San Francisco. “Everything is a little too big, and a little too loud and over the top in the United States. I can’t even hear my own voice,” Tan says. “As we’ve been experimenting with 12 [seats], even that feels a little too big. It’s weird — we care so much about it, that the tail end of the counter just feels like people are getting left out. We want to give just a taste of that experience we had in Japan.”
Update: May 20, 2022, 2:30 p.m.: This story has been updated with the name of Sugita owner, Takaaki Sugita.