If there’s one thing my friends know about me, it’s that I LOVE noodles. And not just any noodles, but Asian noodle dishes. Most especially, Japanese noodle dishes (ahem, RAMEN!!!). And way back in 2005, when I first traveled to Europe during my study abroad program in London, I fell in love with two noodle joints that have an allure any broke student could appreciate: The Japanese Canteen and Wagamama. Even though these two restaurants are popular chains in the UK and throughout the world, they have found a little place in my heart, tucked away in some of my fondest memories.
I remember strolling gingerly through the Marleybone neighborhood in London near my dorm at the International Student’s House, and stumbling upon The Japanese Canteen during one afternoon of intense window-shopping and daydreaming. Amidst the fancy boutiques and quaint residences, the bustling canteen had a steady stream of customers, which I took as evidence that either their food was tasty, affordable, or both. To my delight, the answer was both, hands down. I can still remember the flavorful prawn (what our friends in the UK call shrimp) gyoza, with a crisp and delicate outer shell that held steaming hot, juicy shrimp, water chestnuts, and scallions inside a doughy pillow. These lovely gyoza, or Japanese dumplings, when paired with a plain box of Udon noodles topped with sesame seeds, make a match made in heaven. I ate a meal I believed was fit for a King, dnd it became a common meal for a frugal college kid living in Europe for the first time.
When I visited London for the second time this past spring, almost exactly one decade after my foreign study program, I knew I had to have a familiar friend for lunch. On one of my first days back in the city this past March, I stepped into a Japanese Canteen and seemed to float all the way to the cashier to order. I came away a few minutes later with a scalding hot bowl of duck ramen, complete with thin, skinless slices of roasted duck, fresh veg, and bean sprouts, and some vegetable gyoza. I snapped a few pictures to remind myself of the delectable aromas, and took one last deep breath before digging in. The little bottle of soy sauce they serve with the gyoza was almost too cute to use; full of the perfect portion to pour and save for later if necessary. I fit as much of my meal into my 4’9″ frame as I could, navigating the deeply seasoned broth with both chopsticks and a spoon. I paced each bite, alternating calculated amounts of hot soup with the gentle crunch of the delicate dumpling shell filled with crisp-tender carrots, cabbage, and ginger.
After much joyous slurping and munching, I waddled on my merry way.
Now, Wagamama is another story. Back when I was a foreign study student, I was once again out window-shopping and daydreaming of my future life as a London resident, passing by handsome, fashionable people as I made my way down the streest, also wishing I had enough disposable cash to look like I, too lived in a magazine. Eventually, it became dark out, and late enough for my dorm dining hall to have closed. I luckily found the restaurant for the first time while in a hungry panic; it was still open and around the corner from the Selfridge’s I was fantasizing in. I saw that the menu had an impressive variety of noodles, and I was sold.
It was the very first time this little Black girl had ever tasted Pad Thai. There was a Thai restaurant near my campus back in the Hanover, NH, but the campus food was so fresh and delicious that I never felt the need to try it. My delicious Wagamama Pad Thai was bursting with teppan-fried rice noodles, in a sweet amai sauce with chicken and shrimp, fried tofu, egg, basil leaves, curry oil, beansprouts, red onions, scallions, leeks, and garnished with peanuts and lime. Fresh cilantro and Thai chillies give the dish a spicy finish.
The new experience was such an exciting one for my developing palate that I returned to the restaurant again and again to try other dishes such as their take on chicken curry, ramen, and yaki soba. I pined for the noodles even after graduating college, often searching for a Wagamama that was stateside. Many of the Thai restaurants I tried afterwards, including the one on my campus in the States, sadly disappointed me. But because of Wagamama, I knew how I wanted my Pad Thai to taste. I was thrilled to learn of a location near Boston when I was studying at Berklee College of Music during their Five Week Summer Program in 2008. Even though they didn’t have their famous Pad Thai at that particular location at the time, I made it a point to visit and fill up on noodle nostalgia.
This past spring, Pad Thai at Wagamama was my final meal before heading to the airport to come home. It was a brilliant choice, and a grand finale to such a fantastic trip.