June 7, 2012
We all have those comfort dishes that are close to our heart, and transport us back to childhood when biting into whatever it may be. For me, a bowl of chicken udon from Gombei always makes me tear up with nostalgia.
Originally a little diner-style eatery in San Jose’s Japantown, Gombei has been a Bay Area institution since the 80s. Always bustling during lunch, the Akabori’s would walk in and were warmly welcomed by the staff. It was considered a treat to come here, so my brother and I were always on our best behavior.
Gombei served hiyayakko (cold tofu) and ohitashi (blanched spinach) swimming in a dashi soy sauce, and they always had specials like kaki fry (fried oysters) and sashimi teishoku (sashimi set). It was a real mom-and-pop joint, where everyone knew your name. We even knew the name of the bussers. (These days, you can’t even call them “bussers”. Ha).
At Gombei, I ordered the chicken udon. It would arrive steaming, and always the same way on a tray, with the bowl sitting on a bamboo mat. The savory sweet broth and run-of-the-mill udon noodles were topped with a oyako-don style mesh of egg, chicken and scallions. Perhaps it was here that I learned that there were different variations of making the same dish. Hideko never made udon this way! In my eyes, she couldn’t make it this way — this is what made Gombei’s udon so special, and worth coming back for.
When I walked into one of their newer locations recently, I was pleasantly surprised that the chicken udon was just as I had remembered it. I hadn’t been there in 10 years, but the dish is served exactly the same, and the recipe has not changed one bit. After one bite, I was indeed transported back to my childhood — sitting on those plastic swivel chairs on the counter, my dad catching up with the owner, and me, waiting patiently for my chicken udon.