A Carlisle favorite settles in to downtown Lancaster
It’s rare that I find a new restaurant where I want to try pretty much everything on the menu, but Issei Noodle on North Queen Street has managed to fit the bill. And that was before I met the owners and got to hear them talk about their food.
André Pham and Donna Hranica are the young owners and operators of the Lancaster extension of Pham’s family’s original Issei Noodle in Carlisle, which opened in 2007.
“I’ve been working for them since I was a kid,” says Pham. Issei, which is the Japanese term for a first generation Japanese-American, makes reference to Pham’s mother, whose recipes are at the heart of most of the restaurant’s menu. Pham himself learned his skills from her.
The Issei in Lancaster first opened a takeout window in November 2013, with the long-awaited sit-down restaurant debuting in May. Pham and Hranica stay true to the family business, but add their own twists and personality. The Issei in Carlisle, says Pham, is a small mom-and-pop shop with an open kitchen. Lancaster’s Issei couldn’t be set up quite the same way due to space constraints, but you still pay up front at the counter where you can get a good look at the open kitchen and talk to everyone.
“We want people to know where their food comes from,” Pham says, “When I get a minute, I love talking to my customers.”
Pham and Hranica were drawn to Lancaster partly by opportunity and partly because of the energy of the town; they currently live downtown and got engaged in Lancaster.
“I’ve seen the growth of Lancaster, and how it’s an up-and-coming city,” Pham says, “There’s a lot of hip people, young people, a lot of art, a lot of music.”
Pham and Hranica hope to bring some of that art, music and liveliness to Issei in the coming months, but they are starting slower, focusing on the essentials first.
For a first business venture, Issei is quite impressive – and not just for the food. The decor is natural, cohesive and beautiful, with golds, browns and wood accents. Pham’s father, whom the couple praised for his knack with interior design, helped with design decisions. Pham’s mother provided two charming dried blowfish that greet diners when they enter.
After the decor we come to the big menu, with its 35-plus entrees and 15 appetizers, including a silken tofu seaweed salad with great texture and zing and sea chips.
“We are a Japanese restaurant first; we take pride in our Japanese cuisine,” says Hranica. “Lots of the dishes – whether they be Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese – probably have some sort of Japanese spin on them.”
That said, Issei Noodle lives up to its name and beyond. “We wanted to bring something to Lancaster that was a little different. We bring a variety of noodles from the Pacific Rim,” explains Pham. They offer ramen, vermicelli and pho, but also serve rice dishes.
“We have so many different varieties of dishes from different countries because my family is Japanese and Vietnamese,” Pham says. Hranica is Filipino-Italian. Plus, the Pham family have visited Thailand and studied the cuisine there.
Since the Phams are all about family, I brought mine with me when I dined at Issei. My father went for a Thai dish, the pad see ew, which was on special. The specials are always $10 for an entrée and some sort of add-on or side. It’s a good way to try new menu items on a budget. The wide rice noodle dish was very flavorful and contained a good mix of veggies, egg and beef.
“We tried to compile our menu with lots of complicated flavors for people to try and understand, and then really simple flavors for people who are just dipping their toes into Asian cuisine,” says Hranica.
We always have trouble finding a good vegetarian selection for my mother, but she had plenty to choose from here before even considering that Issei can make many dishes to accommodate vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and other special diets. She ordered the vegetarian don-buri, a rice bowl dish. “It was lovely,” she said. “The tofu was properly crisped, the rice was full of texture, and the house sauce was delicious and not spicy.”
Intimidated by all these unfamiliar dish names? Don’t be. The menu explains in detail what each dish contains, and Hranica even developed a quick table-top guide explaining some basic noodles and dish types.
“I think a big part of enjoying your experience when you go out to an ethnic restaurant is being comfortable and knowing what you’re ordering,” says Hranica. “So whether you’re an Asian food lover or this is your first time, I want to be sure that you know exactly what you’re getting. And I want to teach you about things that you didn’t know about.”
My chashu ramen was one such learning experience. It had yummy bamboo shoots and egg, perfectly tender pork and delicious noodles and broth. It’s right there in Issei’s slogan: peace, love and ramen.
“Pho is everywhere, but ramen needs a breakthrough. When people think of ramen they just think of instant ramen; but when they come in, it’s on a whole other level,” says Pham.
One dish we didn’t know to try when we came (but that we will definitely try next time) is the spicy tan-tan ramen – or anything with Issei’s signature tan-tan in it. Tan-tan is ground pork with a sweet and spicy seasoning. “We take pride in our tan-tan,” says Hranica.
There’s not yet a dessert menu, but you can ask for dessert and see what they have. One solid option you’re able to get is a delectable coffee gelatin, which is better than any coffee ice cream I’ve ever had. The recipe comes from Pham’s mother (the family previously operated a coffee shop), and it consists of a layer of coffee gelatin with hazelnut cream and whipped cream on top, served in a delicate stemmed glass. Issei plans to expand their dessert menu, so be on the lookout for homemade green tea, Thai tea and black sesame and dark chocolate ice creams.
As for drinks, Issei has all the essentials: green tea, iced tea, coffees and bubble tea, which I couldn’t resist. Mine had a nice creamy texture and plenty of tapioca pearls. “We’ve heard that our bubbles are the best,” says Pham. Hranica makes the bubbles every morning and often has a tea herself during the day.
It’s always good to know how much the owners of a place enjoy the fruits (or bubbles) of their own labor. It makes you feel like it’s a real kitchen; a real home and family.
“I like to train all our servers to treat the business space as our home. The service style is called omotenashi,” explains Hranica. It means that the host brings themselves to a level below the guest and treats the guest very highly. “It’s Japanese hospitality; above and beyond,” says Pham.
And dining at Issei does feel that way – very special – which certainly enhanced our dinner experience there. “As the family grows, we plan to grow the menu and grow the business as best we can, and to represent everything that Issei embodies – which is just family,” Hranica says.
• 44 North Queen Street, Lancaster; 449-6800
• Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.