Despite living here in the South Bay, I still find myself wandering thither and yon when I'm craving ramen. Many of the popular and delicious places are quite small, so unless you get lucky, you're likely to get stuck waiting a while. When I'm hungry though, waiting is the last thing I want. Misoya, located at 3541 Homestead in Santa Clara, seems to be just the sort of place I was looking for.
It's easy to find- right off the Lawrence Expressway in a mid-size strip mall, a couple doors down from a branch of Gombei (I've reviewed the San Jose Gombei, linked at the end of this piece, and will pursue this one at some point as well). There's plenty of parking even when it's busy, so that's one worry off the list. And it might just be luck, but I haven't run into a wait for lunch or dinner yet either (though it was close once- my fiance and I nabbed the last two seats in the house).
Walking in through the intricately wood-paneled and distinctive entrance, what will first catch your eye is likely the sharp contrasts in the decor. The walls are the orange of autumn leaves, and the crisp black of the furniture and paneling makes for a striking but friendly environment. There's almost no advertising or wordsmithing inside, but the chopsticks at every seat read 味噌は日本人の宝物, or 'Miso is the treasure of the Japanese'.
That should tell you plenty about how serious they treat their product. The name itself, Miso-ya or 味噌屋 means 'One who works with Miso'. For example, 植木屋 or 'Ueki-ya', means 'One who works with planted trees' , or in short, 'gardener'. Another example would be 退治屋or Taiji-ya, an old word meaning 'exterminator'. When your identity is defined by your product or your service, you'd better be good, or you won't be around long.
The kitchen isn't quite open, but you can see the cooks hard at work, without the messy details. Service is cordial but somewhat minimalist. There's not a lot of menu to go around, and unless you're drinking, why expect servers to interrupt a good meal? There's music playing in the background, but it's not exactly for ambiance- seemed like either whatever was on the radio, or someone's music player in the back was hooked up to the in-house speakers.
The menu itself starts slow, with a somewhat cookie cutter list of appetizers. The Gyoza are thin-skinned and more scallion than meat, so I'd skip them. The chicken kara-age is heavily seasoned, a pleasant change from most fried chicken around here. At the core though, it's a ramen shop- when you turn to the ramen, the place shifts into high gear.
The three broth styles on offer are regional specialties within Japan- there's Kome (Hokkaido, in the far north), Shiro (Kyoto), and Mame (Nagoya), all quite distinct, and each delicious. Each of the three variations has a page of their own on the menu, listing three or four tasty takes on the primary broth profile. After those is a page full of add-ons, all reasonably priced.
The noodles are supple, the broths are blazing hot and intensely flavorful, and while it might be worth your while to add an item or two, you'll walk away content either way. In terms of condiments, all that's at the bar is togarashi (a Japanese chili and spice blend), but it's hardly even necessary I've never once been displeased with my meals, though I do wonder the why of a thing or two.
Several of the ramen bowls and some of the optional toppings are either breaded or battered and deep-fried. Why, then, are they dropped into the bowl to soak and grow soggy? It might look pretty in the bowl when it gets to the table, but five minutes in, it's mostly just a mess. Doesn't change the taste though- and every bite is worth it.
One other curiosity is the relative weakness of the spice paste they dollop into their 'spicy' ramen. I'm not one to complain, but when the spicy option doesn't make me break a sweat on a hot August evening, I'm not sure it really counts.
All in all, Misoya is a fantastic place to get your ramen fix. It's not hard to get to, not hard to find, and the odds are decent that there won't be a line.