For $20 you can do a lot. You could take a walk down Nostalgia Lane with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Set, “treat yo’self” with an Aroma Season USB Heating Eye mask, maybe test your luck with a month of Tinder Plus.
Or you can be transported to heaven and back and never be the same again.
Mensho Tokyo SF, an “American spin-off of Tokyo’s standout ramen brand,” recently introduced a “Tomato Miso Vegan Ramen,” and for a hearty $20 you can experience paradise in your mouth.
Located on Geary Street in San Francisco, at the border between the notorious Tenderloin and the affluent Nob Hill, Mensho seems typical of the new SF restaurant (and particularly, ramen) scene: lots of hype, long lines, sleek interiors.
The sign on the outside of the establishment advertises a surprisingly off-brand “New MeNu,” the “N” covering a typo in bold sharpie. It describes a more on-brand “soup made from california tomatoes & corn, kombu, green onions, ginger and soy milk tare; toppings include broccolini, smoked nuts, semi-dried cherry tomatoes, fried tofu chashu, fried garlic, house-made chili oil & freshly grated soy milk cheese.”
At opening time at 5 PM, the line is already inching its way down the block (back when it opened in 2016, and for months after, waits of 2 hours were common). Luckily, I am early and solo, so I only have to wait five minutes. Short waits: one of the best benefits of The Lonely Stomach’s Club.
Inside, the atmosphere is a mix of San Francisco hip and Tokyo efficiency: the cool, white walls feature a diagram of the chemical compound “Inosinic Acid,” assumedly a key component of umami, and the small space houses two lines of narrow, communal tables that probably seat 20 people in total max. A series of red banners line the far wall; one of them, in Japanese and English, announces “A Bowl for Tomorrow.”
Another solo eater is invited to sit across from me, but ditches as I’m sitting down and we make brief eye contact. Either he deemed me to be an unworthy date, or had last minute anxiety about eating alone, I’m assuming. More leg-room for me! Tokyo-style, I’m sitting shoulder to shoulder with my neighbors. On my right, two female friends: I learn about HSA’s, a real stand-up guy one met recently, and that Kaskade is coming to town soon. On my left, a couple that spends the majority of their meal in silence or on their phones. It seems like the quiet comfort or perhaps boredom of a long-long-long-term relationship, but who am I to judge? The guy isn’t wearing a ring.
The food comes. And I think I’m ready, but I’m not. This bowl of perfection is a surprising combination of nutty, creamy, and savory, with a touch of sweetness. The smoked nuts, broccolini, and fried tofu add a delightful variety of texture, and the soup has the richness of a normal meat-based ramen without the heavy consequences on heart and soul – no animals were harmed in the making of this production, and no bowels were subsequently taxed either. Win-win?
On my bike ride home, my tongue played piano riffs over my front teeth, trying to soak up the last remnants of a culinary opus. My burps held welcome surprises of miso and umami, and I literally exclaimed to myself under my breath, “Oh my God” and “Holy shit” more than once.
In the same way that I vowed not to wash my hands after touching hands for a brief, eternal moment with a campaigning Obama in 2008 in the overflow room of a high school gym, I promised not to brush my teeth, at least until 2020, so I could continue savoring this meal.
Suffice to say, it’s a damn good bowl of noodles. And a $20 well spent.
For me, there’s something about eating out alone that is both comforting and liberating. Maybe it’s the convenience: short waits, extra leg-room, no arguments about what place to go to. Or perhaps, it’s the anonymity. The freedom to stare at my phone and mindlessly play mobile games as I eat, to savor the food in front of me, each noodle and slurp of soup uninterrupted. Or maybe even scarf it down without even noting what I’m really eating. To eavesdrop on restaurant neighbors if I so choose. To be a little judgy, even if I tell myself I’m not. On the less good days, to feel sad that I’m all alone. On the better ones, to feel at peace with solitude, and thankful for the many blessings of life.
I have long been accustomed to eating meals alone. I grew up an only child, content to play Monopoly by myself, and lose myself in the worlds of books and video games. I imagined and idealized the full lives of full houses — rowdy evening meals, arguments with siblings, impromptu life talks –, and caught glimpses when visiting friends’ houses, but was accustomed to time by myself. I’ve cooked alone, traveled alone, gone to shows alone, even walked to the “end of the world” alone (that’s a story for another time).
Much of this, I’ve realized, is just a natural part of being an adult. Our lives shrink, even as they expand, and as life (and self-help articles) have taught me, being alone doesn’t mean being lonely.
But life has also taught me that warm platitudes don’t necessarily go down as easy as delicious, fucking tomato miso soup. They’re more like flossing or getting 10,000 steps a day, things we know to be good or healthy, but can’t always actualize. At least, that’s just me.
At weddings, I have often found myself the lone “single” at a table of happily domesticated couples. More than once, an old college church friend has asked me if I have gone back to church recently, and/or if I’m seeing anyone. No, and no. In calls with my mom, I’m privy to what feels like an increasingly common newsreel: “did you hear [insert person from middle school that I no longer contact nor think about] got engaged?” As friends find partners, and those partners become long-term partners, and they eventually move in together and after days, weeks or months of moving, settling in, and getting their collective shit together, and they finally have a housewarming, a series of feelings emerges somewhere in that space between my head and stomach: excitement for their new beginnings, a curious need for a house tour, and a slight pang of jealousy, or more innocently, longing, for a partner of my own. I swear: I do sincerely feel happiness for them all. But it’s normal to feel what you feel too, right?
Of course, I know, romantic love is only one type of love. But even though I am lucky to have found friendships, both enduring and beautifully transient, and am grateful for parents who have been loving and present, I have often felt alone. I tell myself I’m comfortable being alone, and take stubborn pride in trying to be self-sufficient, but I’ve often found myself lonely on my self-created island. I know I’m not actually alone, and I know I’m not alone in feeling these things, but yet, I feel the loneliness anyways.
Nothing is ever simple, except for maybe the simple joy of a delicious, fucking bowl of tomato miso ramen. Even that, as aforementioned, is a complex mishmash of flavor.
It was over another order of noodles, less than a season ago, that things began to change.
Her name was Sally. She was a recent transplant from Tennessee, and this was her first time eating Singaporean food. We’d just had a couple beers nearby and were sharing an order of roti and curry noodles in a nondescript basement. I don’t remember who else was there.
We’d met online, and as anyone who has been on an online date can attest, on average, they’re like being in a Ground Hog Day-esque purgatory where you’re applying for a job that will never come, and the evaluation metrics are ever-changing, and success largely hinges on whether or not you have a friend with a DSLR, and live in a city with colorful murals and access to nature so you can appear cultured and outdoorsy.
Don’t get me wrong, dates and meeting new people can be fun, but failed flings, millennial ghosts and endless swiping all add up to feel Sisyphean after a while. At least with a boulder, you can get cut calves. With the apps, all you get is hemorrhoids from sitting on the toilet too long.
Through text, Sally and I had promised each other generous portions of awkward small talk, but to be honest, we didn’t end up delivering. Everything just felt easy.
A few days later, a bike ride through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Our first kiss on the open-air balcony of the Sausalito Ferry, our view of the bay partially blocked by plexi-glass covered in bird shit. It was glorious. Two days later, hands clasped, we watched a group of middle-aged Japanese women bang on drums, and viewed the Harvest Moon together between very thorough narrations about telescope technology and space migratory patterns from earnest retirees of the local astronomy club. It was a surreal night and reminder of the type of diverse community and vibrancy that made me first fall in love with the Bay Area. Afterwards, despite her half-joking protest that it was codependent, we sat side by side at an Ethiopian restaurant. Between talk of our motivations in life, we guessed whether couples at other tables were dates or friends. By the end of the night, we had “our first inside joke.” Her words.
The next month felt like a whirlwind of her.
During dates: I came to know someone I respected and admired, and who connected with me in ways big and small. Someone who could make me feel “some type of way” with a simple affirming word or small touch. One day, she said, “Sometimes, you say something, and it’s exactly what I would have said. Do you ever feel that way?” I did.
I made notes about her, a way to savor the moment and also, as potential fuel for future love notes: her self-appointed “5 chins” that rippled like water away from a skipped rock when she smiled (often), the way she popped her lips making the sound of bubble gum when she was deep in thought, her questions dripping with sincerity and inquisitiveness.
Between dates: the songs I listened to were tinged with her; typically wary of “proper dating norms,” overtexting chief among them, I relished our conversations, which seemed to flow with a natural mix of seriousness and playfulness; one random weekday afternoon, I was eating alone at an unassuming Vietnamese restaurant, Cantonese power pop ballads playing to me and a crowd of two other solo eaters. Back to the wall, looking at the opposite blank wall, I couldn’t help but think of her, and I felt a warmth in that same space between my head and stomach, and it wasn’t from the soup. I was not alone.
According to the Enneagram test, a Myer-Briggs alternative, she was a Type 2 “Helper.” I took the test and was pretty resolutely a Type 9 “Peacemaker.”
In an entry about the compatibility between 2’s and 9’s, there is a line: “They can develop almost a psychic link with each other. This is a very mellow couple, whose emphasis on hospitality reminds people of how healing it is to be around loving, generous people.”
That could be us!
I was reminded of the online love calculators I would use in early high school. I had a crush on Alice Chen from age 13-15, and I don’t remember our exact “love percentage,” but it was promising enough to be in honor roll at most schools. We never actually became a couple, but the rush of a young, hopelessly naive crush? There’s nothing like it.
In that same Enneagram entry about Type 2 and 9’s, the creators of the system identify potential trouble spots for the pair. Both natural accommodators (yup), someone ultimately has to wear pants in the relationship, and in less healthy situations, this eventually leads to an unspoken stress and tension that leads to the eventual deterioration of the relationship.
We were by the edge of the water, a beautiful and clear day, the energy of a nearby farmer’s market and student art show surrounding us. All the benches were taken up, so we had found a spot between the bird-shit painted cement to nestle down on.
She wanted to date casually. “Is that OK with you?”
This wasn’t a total surprise to me. But her words hit me like a forty-ton semi.
Early on, she had let me know she wasn’t sure what she wanted yet. She was new to the city, after all, and it was something she hadn’t done before. Later, even as we both described ourselves as “0-60” type people, we decided going “40” might be better. Both “heady” people, our open thoughtfulness in the beginning had felt refreshingly empowering. “I love how we believe in each other.”
But on this particular day, for whatever reason, hearing her thoughts so explicitly, I felt knocked out.
The signs had always been there. She had in no way been dishonest. However, you can’t help but feel the way you feel, right?
And for me, in that moment, and through my daze for the rest of the day, what I heard was “you are not enough.” A refrain I had already told myself in some form, during stretches of unemployment, periods of unexplained malaise, and after the occasional wedding or housewarming.
In the past year, I have come to terms with my singleness, and more fundamentally, who I am as a person, in much more positive and self-loving ways. I told myself I wasn’t reliant on a new relationship to be happy, but my reaction that day and subsequently made me realize that there was certainly more work to do.
Is it silly it to mourn something that never was?
A couple months ago, I actually did finally give in and dish out the $20 rounded for Tinder Plus. I’ve never had success on it, but one night, possibly after a couple beers, and googling “how many people pay for tinder” (apparently, over 2.5 million), I decided why the hell not.
One week later, I met Sally (on a different app).
Two dates after that, I said goodbye to the apps.
After our talk, I reinstalled Tinder. I’m not proud of it, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
If I have to be truly honest, however, my mind is still on her, and on that bowl of Mensho ramen.
I know I probably won’t ever have that same experience, the first time I had Mensho’s Vegan Miso Ramen. I know there are many places to eat noodles, and I know that every bowl of noodles comes to an end. Even, and especially, a $20 transcendent bowl of Mensho ramen. But you know what? I’m gonna keep savoring those burps and whispering to myself, “holy shit, was that real?”