In retrospect, I wonder if events like the one I attended on Saturday night are even designed to attract people who like to eat. Ostensibly, that would appear to be the goal. San Francisco’s lively, Twitter-happy community of dedicated chow-chasers loves to anoint an emerging trend with a splashy party. When you arrive at a pop-up restaurant 35 minutes before service is supposed to begin, and there’s already a crowd milling around the outdoor patio, and a cheery host tells you to expect an hour-long wait — you hope that the meal is the draw. When the food doesn’t measure up to your expectations — admittedly pretty high under the circumstances — you wonder if the kitchen isn’t playing catch-up to marketing — the sort of fashionable frenzy only a well-oiled social networking machine can generate.
On Saturday, we arrived at Coffee Bar on Mariposa near Florida for a preview of Hapa Ramen‘s hotly anticipated Ferry Building Farmer’s Market stand. It was around 5:30 p.m., and by 6:00 p.m., the line had stretched down the ramp, through the patio thick with ramen-starved humanity, out past the gate to the sidewalk, and on down the street, well past our field of vision. I put in my name. The host guessed we’d be seated by 6:45 at the earliest, so we ordered up a round of drinks. They went quickly, so we had a few more. Alcohol was taking hold around the darkening patio and the interior. People looked unsteady, pink-faced, and increasingly irritable. Tampopo flickered on a screen above the dining room; some people were studying it, swaying blankly to the DJ’s hip-hop soundtrack. Bloggers tucked away cameras and notebooks and cozied up to beers. A loud woman heading up a party of twelve kept hounding the host, playing every angle. The bathroom line swelled until it seemed nearly as long as the one snaking outside. There was little else to do besides drink at this point. The event was basically a party featuring beer and wine (at restaurant prices) with the guarantee — more accurately, the whiff of a promise — of a sizable snack appearing somewhere down the line. So, drink we did. By 9:15 p.m., my girlfriend and I had consumed three 22 oz. bottles of Sapporo, a 12 oz. bottle of Trumer Pils, and nearly a bottle of tasty rose — the latter of which a friend helped down. I impulsively dashed out into the night in search of snacks to tide me over. The cafe’s pastry case near the bar had long since been emptied, and only a few errant currants and crumbs remained. I walked to the Starbucks on the corner, but the barristas were sweeping up. I contemplated running down to 16th Street and the glowing red sign of Safeway. Without taking cost into consideration, I wondered if I could order, receive, suck down, and pay for a lobster bisque and some oysters at Circolo before my name was called. I wandered back towards the party to consult my girlfriend when, upon lurching through the doorway, I saw her waving from the top of the stairs. My name was, in fact, being called. I looked at my cell phone. It was 9:30 p.m.
Tampopo started for the third time not long after we sat down. I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the egg yolk scene, even with our food arriving. Someone probably had a great bowl of ramen on Saturday night, but I didn’t. The noodles I slurped were pretty good, but the broth they swam in tasted timid, under-flavored. The broth in my girlfriend’s bowl ($13) was cool; our friend’s proved slightly warmer, though still just a few ticks past room temperature. Mine, it was hot enough, just right temperature-wise. As I spooned it up, I glanced around in case a guerrilla Goldilocks, chagrined by the wait, was swinging in to snatch it. I bemoaned the pork shortage in my bowl, and coveted the surplus in one perched on a nearby table. The fried chicken floating on top of the soup was delicious. Immediately upon inhaling it, I fantasized about a whole plate piled with crusty brown slugs. Apart from a sweet, earthy melange of maitake, tofu, and mirin ($7), the appetizers were unexciting and — in the case of a rough, peppery arugula, radish, and pea salad priced at $12 — too expensive.
The Internet might have brought folks out to Coffee Bar on Saturday night, but once they were there — laughing, swirling wine, boring holes into the hosts’ brows with desperate hungry eyes — they communicated directly, face-to-face, with only minimal interference from technology. I myself — in such settings typically about as gregarious as a cactus — actually met people while I was waiting. Before I left on my snack-quest, I met a couple who — famished — had actually ducked out to eat half a dinner’s worth of small plates at another nearby restaurant before returning. I met people in the bathroom line. A few were passionate about ramen. As he fidgeted behind me, still waiting to be called, one guy gestured in the direction of Tampopo’s beaming face and the steaming bowl in her hands. With no encouragement, he blurted out, looking a little misty:
“They can’t show this and serve shitty ramen; they’re making a statement here.”
I met one of my girlfriend’s co-workers. His name was called an hour-and-a-half before ours. When I saw his bowl arrive, I called up to him for a quick assessment. He leaned down and passed me his cell phone. Fittingly, he’d discretely typed out a Tweet-length review: something to the effect of “doughy noodles, okay broth, tough meat.” Much later, when I was guzzling my own bowl, a stranger approached with a small crew.
“Is it worth it?” he asked. “How long is your wait?” I responded. “An hour-and-a-half.” “No,” I said, already thinking of the tacos I planned to enjoy on the walk home. Over at the next table, a couple squabbled. They’d been seated for half an hour, and were still awaiting food. He wanted to wait; she was annoyed. They left in a huff. I hope they reconciled, preferably with a few tacos to mediate.
Importantly though, I don’t want to indict Hapa Ramen for the unsatisfying situation. I don’t go to events like this very often — in part because I know the food is frequently subject to inconsistencies sometimes even beyond the chef’s control. This experience solidified that suspicion. The operation was simply overwhelmed. On Sunday morning, I read on Hapa Ramen’s Twitter feed that 500 people had been served. That is astounding. Ramen isn’t something you can just dish up either; it requires a lot of moving parts. In this case, the fried chicken, the slow-poached egg, the (ideally) hot broth, the noodles with the right lightness and consistency — they all had to come together at the right time. Anything tumbling out of order skews the overall effect. A chef can pull noodles, but he can’t control the Internet, and part of me guesses that the massive turnout will generate more interest — even if more than a few bowls of ramen failed to pass muster — precisely because getting served was such an ordeal. No ramen is worth a four-hour wait, though this particular rendition might have been much better in a less tumultuous setting — perhaps tastier, and certainly scrutinized with less intensity after, say, a wait of merely 15 minutes. The wait was not just about space in the restaurant; it also reflected the strain under which the kitchen was cooking, and the fact the cooks had to have been deeper in the weeds than Mary-Louise Parker. Maybe if you go to events like this a lot, you have to not mind not eating. Maybe you just have to will yourself embrace the chaos and have good humor — refusing to succumb to the notion you’re eating at a real restaurant. Make no other plans you can’t easily bail on. Be prepared to improvise. Bring a candy bar, and maybe another to share.