Sunday, November 22, 2020

Okiboro House of Tsukemen in Los Angeles, California

Okiboru House of Tsukemen

In LA's Chinatown, a noodle shop made waves in 2019 by being the first to receive recognition by the Michelin Guide. This was California's first foray into the red book. As always, it was full of controversy (apparently the state's tourism board paid around $600,000 to get LA included) but to see ramen (or tsukemen) get any praise is a good thing.

Welcome! Despite living in Los Angeles for around five years back in the late 90s, I never made it to their Chinatown. Nowadays, they are famous for hipster coffee shops, great American smokehouse barbecue, and tsukemen. Go figure.

Noodles and broth are made in house. Thick, wheaty noodles. Rich, porky soup. This one was spot on. Sure, I would have preferred some sudachi citrus to the California lime, but that isn't really being fair. I enjoyed this bowl immensely. 

After almost two weeks away from Japan, this felt right at home. Tsukemen is an underdog in the American ramen world, which makes a shop like this even more special.

They also have a yuzu chintan tsukemen with a lighter broth for those who want to ride the #yuzu wave that seems to still be going on outside of Japan. I can't imagine it being better than this tsukemen though. You tell me!

Obligatory bao. I never order these, but the people I'm with always do. Bao Adventures isn't coming anytime soon unless it becomes a massive trend in Japan, which could very well happen. Bubble tea, after all, has swept this country (Japan) in the last couple of years.

FYI, I heard they closed but then I heard that wasn't true. I live in Tokyo, not California, so I really can't stay abreast of these things. But like all blogs, legit or amateur, you should check before you go. I hope the latter is true. This was a decent bowl!

Official site here.

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Thursday, November 19, 2020

L.A. Birria in Los Angeles, California

L.A. Birria

I'm always down to try something new and interesting, even if it can be considered a culinary crime. I'm not as bad as my Italian friends, who cry real tears at the sight of pineapple on pizza or cream added to carbonara, so who's to say ramen noodles in Mexican soup isn't bad?

I walked from downtown Los Angeles, just next to the Staple's Center, to L.A. Birria. It's a strange area. Skid Row, one of the worst places in town is now surrounded by trendy high rise apartments. I stayed with a friend in one of these new developments. From the 10th floor outdoor barbecue and pool deck (with attached training gym), you could see homeless people smoking apple jack down the road. An unnerved Asian man was swinging what looked like a knife. My friend called the dedicated hotline for this kind of situation.

Memories as I walk down the roads of LA. I spent five years here for university back in the late 90s. I definitely miss the influence of our southern neighbor on the food map. Mexican food, from traditional to progressive to Tex-Mex, it was all here.

What is birria? The soup version of birria originated in Jalisco state, Mexico. Traditionally made with lamb, meat is slow-cooked with herbs and spices until tender. Ancho and guajillo chiles are common. It is considered by many to be a celebration food, and in the past, I could only find it on weekends in my native city of Belmont, California. I used to drive down to some spot in San Mateo and get a bowl of birria or menudo almost every Sunday.

Josue Eduardo Anaya and Kevin Oajaca started L.A. Birria as a stand on the corner of Adams and Crenshaw. Serving birria de res as a filling for tacos, they quickly grew a following and were soon serving up over 1000 tacos a day. Just writing this makes me miss taco stand tacos so much. Roll in, eat a bunch of tacos, and move on. So easy. So affordable.

The stand worked. So much so that they were able to move into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Kind of. The Green Olive is a Mediterranean restaurant, and L.A. Birria occupies half the shop. The owners had worked at a "prominent Japanese restaurant empire" in the past and used their knowledge of ramen to make a new dish. Scouring the Internet, there isn't much info, apart from many, many Instagram posts of the stuff. It may have originated at Cocina Los V, another taco stand. It may just be instant noodles thrown into birria stew. It may use noodles sourced from Sun Noodle.

Regardless of the short history of this dish, I can't actually tell if it is popular. The Internet (again with the Internet) makes it seems that we need actual rankings of birria ramen in Los Angeles. The shop was almost empty except for a group of guys, one of whom looked a lot like A$AP Rocky. I overheard them say something about private jets, so it's possible.

Oh, you want my opinion on birria ramen? The soup was on point. I don't think noodles add anything to the equation. I would have preferred a tsukemen with some really thick noodles or even a mazesoba with some really thick noodles. The tacos looked amazing, but I was saving room for another bowl, and tacos de res (they become reddish in color from being fried in their own spicy lard) was too much for me to handle. 

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Sunday, November 15, 2020

粋 (IKI RAMEN in Los Angeles, California, USA)


February 2020. Word of the obscure bird flu in Asia was barely a talking point in the west. Ramen Adventures was busy planning an eventful 2020. A bi-coastal popup ramen event. Truffle hunting in France followed by making an original truffle ramen. Motorcycle touring around eastern Europe in search of the few ramen shops in that part of the world. I had some massive ramen tours lined up, had started writing for a travel magazine, and was almost ready to launch some new projects. It was going to be a good year.

It was a simple time. A friend invited me to join halfway down Baja California for whale watching. A nice start to the year.

Nice natural wine from Tecate, Mexico.

This is down in Guerrero Negro. The grey whales spend their summers up in Alaska and winters down here giving birth. I could write a lot about this, but I will keep it brief. This is still a ramen blog. Put Guerrero Negro on your radar though. Late winter and you can encounter baby whales alongside their mothers. It's truly excellent.

You know what else was excellent? Iki Ramen in Los Angeles!

I have more friends in Los Angeles than in any other American city, so I always try and stay a few days. And though I miss American food greatly, I gotta hit the recommended ramen shops.

Iki Ramen was impressive. Their menu is quite extensive, with around a dozen different ramen dishes alongside rice bowls and sushi rolls. In the past, this was a red flag for me, but it's time to realize that it's possible to make good ramen in a shop that isn't a senmonten, or specialty shop.

We tried the standard shio ramen, which comes with nice fatty chashu using Niman Ranch pork.

Also went with the uni mazemen. Flat noodles with sea urchin, seasoned ikura salmon roe, and some chopped nori seaweed. Their website says they put some aromatic truffle oil in as well, but luckily I couldn't taste it. This was a tasty mess, and I'd suggest if you come with a group get one of these to share on the side. They also offer make-at-home mazemen kits, of which I approve of. 

Iki has a rather impressive list of Japanese craft beer and sake on the menu. Though I don't like to drink with soup ramen, snacks and mazemen are good booze food.

This being America, the menu has vegetarian options as well.

Thanks for joining me Abby! We worked together back in Japan where she also did some voice acting work. Fast forward a few years and she's killing it stateside. Check the IMDb. So cool to see friends of mine succeed in their hustle. 

Thank you chef Hiroyuki Masato. He recognized me and sent over some extras I wouldn't have tried otherwise. The tai yuzu shio ramen is not something I would think to order outside of Japan, but here at Iki it was damn tasty. I don't eat sweets much these days, but the shio koji ice cream was a welcome cheat for me as well. Thank you for your hospitality. 

Official site here.

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Are Ramen Shops in Japan Closing Down because of COVID-19?

Are Japan's Ramen Shops Closing Down?

(Please note that the above shop, Chukasoba Sato, hasn't closed. I just visited them on their day off . . . twice)

Recently, in November 2020, there have been a few high profile news articles discussing how Japan's ramen industry was hit by COVID-19 (called shingata corona virus or 新型コロナウイルス). I was even asked to comment on the matter for one of them. Are Japan's ramen shops in peril? Have your plans of eating the best ramen in Japan become mere dreams?

Here are a few of those articles. A Bloomberg article mentions Kouraku Honpo (ラーメン王 後楽本舗). An article in the Guardian says that 34 ramen chains filed for bankruptcy. An article on includes this great graphic showing a spike in bankruptcies in 2020, with the January to September number almost eclipsing the previous year's record.

Japan never had an officially enforced lockdown in effect. While then-Prime Minister Abe called for caution, mayor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike set a closing time of 8:00 pm for bars and restaurants. This wasn't enforced, but most shops complied and a hungry person had to settle for the convenience store in the evening. This suggestion of closing times was raised to 10:00 pm and eventually removed.

Ramen shops do a lot of business in the evenings, so they were definitely hit. Many changed to a lunch-only system with social distancing guidelines in place. It was never six feet, but plastic sheets were hung and shops started supplying alcohol spray for customers to use.

I've met with a few shop owners recently and causally asked about it. The number I got most often was around 60%. At the height of the pandemic, ramen shops were doing 60% of their normal business. Overseas, their branches were doing in the neighborhood of 20%. Remember, Japan never had the kind of lockdown measures many other countries endured.

Scouring the Japanese internet for articles, I found a few. This one (on a camping car website?!?) shows shops that have closed around Japan. In Tokyo:

  • The Shimbashi branch of Koraku Honpo mentioned in the Bloomberg article. 
  • Ramen PePe (らーめん ぺぺ) #pepesad
  • Taiwan Mazesoba Akashiya (台湾まぜそば あかしや)
  • A branch of Menji Aburasoba (麺爺あぶら 早稲田店)
Another article in business site M&A Online mentioned Tonchin's Kabukicho branch closing (東京豚骨ラーメン 屯ちん). This shop is part of the FoodEx group. About half of their 11 brands are ramen shops. Korakuen Holdings (幸楽苑ホールディングス), which runs 456 shops around Japan, has closed 51 shops. JB Eleven, another restaurant holdings group, has closed six of its 92 stores.

Non-chain shops that closed during COVID-19 are Itadori (虎杖東京) and Nagahama General(長浜将軍).

Another article on 日テレ mentions big drops in Sapporo. Susukino is one of Japan's top entertainment districts, famous for late-night crowds in cramped spaces. It has also rivaled Tokyo for new cases of COVID-19 according to Japan's nightly news.

You want my hot take on it? I was interviewed on Bloomberg's Quicktake Geo segment about it. Check it out!

HERE (November 13th episode around the 12-minute mark)

Please ignore my bed in the background. Maybe it's time to invest in a proper live streaming setup.

Most of this news comes from business sites, so when a big holdings group that manages hundreds of shops and generates income for not only employees but also stockholders closes shops, it can make waves. A few new business models have emerged, like takeout and delivery ramen, though it feels like Japan is back to business as usual. Just please wear your mask when waiting in line!

Thursday, November 12, 2020

中華蕎麦きつね (Kitsune in Rokakoen, Tokyo)


Do you like kitsune udon (きつねうどん)? Do you like ramen (ラーメン)? Kitsune the ramen shop opened in January 2020 and takes a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Light shoyu ramen topped with tasty aburage fried tofu.

I've loved this style of udon since my early days in Japan. It may be culinary blasphemy, but the instant form of kitsune udon is probably my favorite type of instant noodles. This one in particular:

Why, though, is it called kitsune udon. Kitsune (きつね or 狐) means fox. Fox udon? One theory is that it is the Shinto messenger fox's favorite treat.

Call me a messenger fox.

The soup is more like an udon dashi than a heavy ramen soup. Umami-rich and refreshing.

The shop gained a bit of fame for their black inarizushi. Fried tofu skins stuffed with sushi rice. It gets the black color from bamboo charcoal. Tasty little snacks and they are also available for takeout.

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Sunday, November 8, 2020

麺処 しろくろ (Shirokuro in Kamitakaido, Tokyo)

麺処 しろくろ

Ramen tends to be mostly meat-based, with pork and chicken sliding into the soup regardless of whether that soup is considered meaty or more on the seafood side. Not an issue for me, but many people choose to live a pescatarian life. When a shop like Shirokuro comes around, it's good news for you fish lovers.

Good location, good ramen.

The two most popular choices are the shio and the shoyu. 浅利とムール貝の汐そば or 煮干醤油そば. Ah, obscure seafood kanji characters. Asari, Japanese littleneck clams, are usually written as アサリ. Here is it 浅利. Anyways, the shio ramen is made with clams and mussels.

FYI, the orange buttons are all topping choices. Stewed pork, sous vide pork or chicken, and the standard egg.

Very impressive for a standard bowl. Although the eight lonely salmon roe doesn't affect the flavor much, they add a nice visual and one tasty bite. The shellfish flavors are subtle and refreshing. Sure, shellfish ramen is a mini-trend that had its peak a few years back, but I'll take it any day.

The setsusoba is also made without any meat. Obviously, the pork and chicken toppings are, well, meat, but those come on the side and can be omitted. Setsusoba (節そば) means seasonal, and this one will change on occasion.

If you are interested in niboshi ramen, but not sure if those fishy flavors are for you, this might be a good one to start with.

Some of the various dried fish used in the soup is on display.

I recommend the shiosoba. It hit all the points of a refreshing shellfish bowl.

Located not far from Shibuya and Shinjuku.

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

ぜんや (Zenya in Niiza, Saitama)


Traveling to the outskirts of Tokyo and into Saitama Prefecture is a common trek for ramen hunters. Niiza Station isn't so convenient, but that doesn't stop throngs of people from lining up for hours every day. This is another shop open only for lunch with a closing time of when the soup runs out. Go early.

What makes salt ramen special? Of course, salt is important. Zenya uses Fukushio (福塩) imported from Fujian Province in China.

The soup is particularly nice at Zenya. The master ladles it directly from the simmering pot of ingredients. Usually, ramen soup is prepared in advance, strained, and heated up before serving. If you take a peek in the pot, you'll see chicken bones, pork meat, onions, and lots of carrots.

The master is a former government worker who left that line of work to make ramen. So many of these types, I love it. Just remember, if you're in a job you hate, you can always leave and make ramen.

It is good to note that this is one of Kanto's, if not Japan's, most highly ranked shio ramen shop, so consider it a good choice for a day out.

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