Monday, April 30, 2012

Totto in New York


My first ever trip to the East Coast, and I relied heavily on recommendations of friends. On the flight over, I discovered that the Japanese guidebook I had purchased was aimed squarely at a mid-20s female audience. I wasn't about to spend my week eating cupcakes and shopping for hair accessories.


Kampai! I'm thankful that my New York friends know the important things in life.


Beer and ramen. The beer is obviously imported, but what about the ramen?


Totto takes an odd approach, choosing to do a 鳥人丸鶏白湯ラーメン, a creamy chicken bone paitan, that would be considered rare even in Tokyo. Their sister shop in NY, Hide-Chan, does a creamy tonkotsu, so maybe that's the reason. And cross-town rival Ippudo is obviously doing the creamy soup thing. Take note, America, the top three shops in the battleground that is New York are all going for that ultra-richness that you can only get from boiling bones for days.


In a strange reversal of the norm, this time the toppings were mediocre and the soup was on point. The miso is unnecessary, opt for the spicy instead.


House-made rayu and that white soup, this is a bowl that was worth the hour long wait. Go for the extra hot version if you like your food spicy rather than bold.


The staff all shouted Japanese greetings, the wait was done on the street, and the bowl had a cute little graphic below the soup line. It's all coming together.


Check site for hours.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Nombe in San Francisco


What is local California ramen? Do you try and recreate something traditional from Japan, or do you opt for a different style using more accessible ingredients?


I sat down with Chef Noriyuki Sugie, aka Iron Nori, to hear his approach to making ramen in the Golden State.


Chef Nori, a classically trained French chef from Ibaraki, Japan, knows soup. And the best soup comes from the best ingredients, obviously. It's this simple logic that took his ramen away from the traditional pork and chicken stock, opting for beef. California has some of the best cows in the world, happy cows come from California and all that, so why not capitalize on that.


This is a superb lunch, though I'm sure the majority of ramen enthusiasts would be quick to comment. The topping choices, oxtail or cheek or tongue, are about as unique as the umami foam on top. The recommended oxtail is the clear winner, and our window-side seat drew some looks. One passerby even went so far as to ask me for the left-over bone, for his dog I presume. If you are averse to dealings with the Mission crowd, maybe a counter seat would be better.


The ramen, though only $10 a bowl at lunchtime, failed to draw a crowd on a weekday. This may be due to the shop itself, a cavernous old diner that is a little daunting to enter. Be brave, you won't be disappointed.


At night, Nombe turns into more of an 居酒屋(izakaya), with emphasis on the 酒(sake). Owner Gil Payne took a moment to show me the dictionary-sized sake list. Impressive to say the least. Frequent tasting and pairing events seem to be going on here regularly, do check that out if you have a chance. Even if you prefer your 酒 served hot and dropped into a cold beer, you might just learn something about Japan's national drink.


Check site for hours

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ramen Preview in ?????


What does the future have in store for California ramen?


Would you rather order a bowl of Miso Ramen, or a bowl of Sonoma County Organic Miso with a Medley of Organic Seasonal Dirty Girl Farms Vegetables and a Free Range Trish Elliot Ranch Egg . . . Ramen.


What's your take on ingredient worship? What if that obsessive attention to detail results in this:


What if these ingredients, sourced daily from local farms, results in a $20 bowl of ramen?


I like where this is going. I like where food culture in San Francisco is right now. Street food pop-ups are tweeting their next move by the dozens. Everyone is thinking locally. Chefs are trying new things, fun things, that are actually accessible to normal people. Artisan coffees and craft beers have replaced Folgers and Bud Light. Go ahead and make some Portlandia reference, or refer me to some poll about how much the West Coast is despised, I'm down with it.


And are these guys seriously going to distill some 昆布 gin?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ken Ken Ramen in San Francisco


When two of the faces behind Ken Ken Ramen visited me in Tokyo a few years ago, they were nothing more than a once a week popup running out of a Mexican restaurant on it's day off. Popup food is big in American cities these days, with the likes of food trucks and once-in-a-blue-moon chefs relying on twitter to drive their ventures. It's fun, but I can imagine the frustration people feel when they get that tweet and rush down to the spot, only to see a two hour line and a sign saying that the goal of their journey is out of food for the day.

This was a problem for Ken Ken in the past, and the first review returned from a Google search was a scathing one from someone who was turned away on multiple occasions. There was no mention of the actual food.


Jump ahead a bit, and they have established a permanent residence in the Mission.


With an excellent bar. This is another trend that ramen shops in America are jumping on. If your shops is expecting to have massive wait times, why not build a bar for those thirsty customers. Ken Ken's bar has Asahi on tap, a few choices of nihonshu, and boba tea from The Boba Guys. This is one concept that Japan could learn from. How about a cold beer while you wait? Or maybe some hot Japanese sake during the winter. Japan has no open alcohol container laws, and street-side drinking is almost encouraged here.


I sampled the miso ramen, as well as the shoyu ramen. Don't expect the bold, oily, heavy impact flavors that are all the rage in Tokyo these days. Instead, Ken Ken goes for a more approachable bowl, mixing just enough red and white miso with their pork broth to let the flavors come through.


It's good to have good eggs, something I never thought American ramen shops would figure out. The toppings here are all on par. Pork lovers should go for the double chashu. Veggie lovers should go for the vegan version . . . I guess. It looked pretty good, with a colorful piece of Japanese pumpkin on top.


The atmosphere of Ken Ken is a major draw. The place is noisy, hip, and happy. Communal seating works in this situation.


Ramen chef Hori-san is constantly evolving their product. It's a tough battle, fighting against the varying palates of the citizens of San Francisco. I remember taking these guys to Kikanbo, in Tokyo, a few years ago, and their reactions. No, not their reactions, but the anticipated reactions of their American customers: Too oily! Too hot! Not hot enough! I'm having an MSG induced seizure!


The balance is working, and the biggest complaint from a modern day Google search? Only open four days a week.

I brought my niece and her friend with me on my foray to Ken Ken. Yeah, I'm the rad uncle in the family. Opinions of mazui boba tea do not reflect the views of this site's writer. Opinions of oishi ramen do.


Check their site for hours

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

IKEMEN in Los Angeles


I was admittedly excited when I heard about "Sean" Nakamura's latest Los Angeles experiment. I say experiment, because this guy churns out ramen concepts faster than a kaedama of barikata noodles get's cooked. There is, of course, the main shop in Ebina, some collaborations with hip cafes closer to central Tokyo, some sort of $100 a person fine-dining-ramen-themed spot called essence (closed?), a ramen-on-wheels food truck (closed?) . . . and that's just in Japan. Some time ago, the ramen master started doing business in California, and the gastronomical experiment Ramen California (closed?) was opened. The latest (not yet closed) foray is a tsukemen place right in the middle of Hollywood.


Sorry, it's not tsukemen, it's dip ramen. Because you dip it.


In a trend that seems to have hit every successful ramen shop in America, the menu offers half a dozen or so appetizers. While the standard side dish to Japanese ramen has forever been gyoza in Japan, expect American ramen to be flanked by pork buns, takoyaki, and some fried chicken.


I asked about the most popular tsukemen, sorry, dip ramen on the menu, and the mayu-laced zebra narrowly beat out the tomato-topped Johnny Dip.



Why, oh why did the master of subtle flavors decide on tsukemen. Tsukemen is not just noodles separate from the soup. At least it shouldn't be. All the best tsukemen shops in Japan, the ones I drag friends to, the ones with hour long waits, the soup is an intense shock to the system. Insanely thick, reeking of flavors that are sitting on the fence between "just right" and "too much". But we were talking about IKEMEN, and I digress.


Don't get me wrong, there are subtle wafu flavors, accents of niboshi and umami meats; flavors that are well suited to a refined bowl of ramen. I think Nakamura's famed yuzu citrus accented shio ramen would have found a nice home in Los Angeles. But then again, the average person might just compare it to chicken soup and move on. Judging by the general reception that IKEMEN has received in the past few months, their formula is working well.

And if a respected food lover came to me and said, "IKEMEN is in the top three of Los Angeles," I wouldn't argue, it probably is. I'm just glad to live in Tokyo.


Check the website for hours.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Asahi Ramen in Los Angeles


I was a little unsure how to approach a ramen adventure in my old home of Los Angeles. The city has an established ramen scene, with pockets of Japanese enclaves dotting the area. But time was limited. I'd rather reconnect with old friends at a leisurely craft beer bar than a hectic ramen shop. Sure, the facebook page yielded a lot of recommendations, like Yamadaya and Sinsengumi, and I wish I had more time (and a car!).

The two that I was most interested in, newly opened IKEMEN and Tsujita LA, will be mentioned in due time.


So how did I end up at Asahi Ramen? Did I consult the internet? Yelp tends to like this place. Yelp also tends to judge ramen shops solely on wait time and whether they take credit cards. Thirty minute wait and cash only! Zero stars! Did I consult the real experts? Keizo from GO RAMEN! finds that just uttering the shop's name is a waste of oxygen. The Rameniac's review isn't any better; "dry, stiff chashu, pre-boiled non-marinated eggs, and a healthy sprinkling of ugh."

The simple reason was that my cousin wanted to take me here. How bad could it be?


This is how I left the bowl after one sip of soup and one slurp of noodles. My first bowl of ramen in America wasn't just a let-down, it was a shock to the system. The lack of taste, any taste, and words escape me. How do you review a bowl of piping-hot dishwater? At least it was hot.


Yes, critically renowned Tsujita LA is less than 100 meters away from here. You should probably go there.

Apparently, this place used to be good, but they flipped ownership a few times in recent years.



Wait, Tsujita LA? To be honest, I didn't really want to go there. I've heard nothing but positive reviews. Praise upon praise for the masterful noodles; noodles made just the way they are made at Tsujita's shop in Tokyo. And that's why I didn't go. Should I spend a precious meal just so I can confirm what everyone else already said? Not this time around. Also, I emailed Tsujita-san before the trip, asking if I could come in for an interview, but he never wrote me back.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Saimin at Ken's House of Pancakes in Hilo


I'll be honest, whenever I visit my Dad in Hilo, Hawaii, the last thing on my mind is noodles. Hawaii for me means picking a couple fruit off the tree, mixing up some fresh poke, and kicking back with Koa, the roadside-bought pit bull that runs things at our house there. Local Hawaiian comfort food, like loco-moco, kalua pork, and saimin need to wait a few days. It sounds strange coming from someone who drinks rendered pork broth on a regular basis, but I take a bit of time to adjust back to American style eating.


Ken's is a regular place for said American food. The menu is full of good eats, ono grinds in local speak, and no trip to Hilo would be complete without a breakfast here.

But this isn't Breakfast Adventures, it's Ramen Adventures. And in Hawaii, it's all about saimin.


The won ton topped saimin from Ken's.

Don't be fooled, just as Chinese lamein isn't ramen, neither is saimin. The general idea is soft noodles in a simple broth. Take this, and go crazy with the toppings. Fried egg, skewers of meats, even slabs of spam are all acceptable.


The soup, a subtle shrimp broth, reminds me of late-night bowls in Hong Kong. Other than that, I wasn't into this saimin at all. The noodles are, as wikipedia says they should be, all kinds of soft. Borderline soggy. Unacceptable by ramen standards; but we're not in ramen-land anymore, are we.

The won tons are filled with teriyaki chicken. Ah, teriyaki, because savory Asian cuisine isn't sweet enough for the American palate. The charsu pork topping was definately of Chinese descent. There were bits of fried egg, a fish cake, and a skewer of more teriyaki. At least there wasn't any spam.


Order the "sumo size" and they will signal your double-size meal's arrival with a clash of a gong. Good luck with that.


My advice? The keiki min (child-size version of the saimin) split among your party is a good place to start your saimin adventure.


Despite my off-putting first-time experience with saimin, I still love this diner. I genuinely miss American diner breakfast; omelets, hash browns, and bacon drenched in hot sauce. But this isn't Breakfast Adventures, so I'll move it on.


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