Review: KO in San Francisco

This new restaurant is a knockout ramen experience

A friend and I were heading to a San Francisco concert and wanted dinner nearby the venue. A perfect 5-star Yelp rating led us to KO, which just opened a few weeks ago. Did we ever luck out!

Like many ramen spots, it’s small and noisy, but the vibe is energetic and manager Eric’s friendly, informative service makes you feel right at home.

Complimentary edamame is always a nice touch, but the accompanying sauce was so good, my companion and I joked we could eat it all day. The chicken gyoza, unimpressive in appearance, offered a surprise. The first bite hinted at blandness, but subsequent bites revealed a subtle, complex flavor that won us over completely. The wrappers were light and crisp. They disappeared quickly.

Delightful gyoza and oh! that edamame sauce!

I ordered the KO Signature Ramen. It was one of, if not the, largest bowls I’ve ever had. Size wasn’t the only impressive aspect: the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly was the star, with three thick, finger-sized slices. Chashu was also present, but slightly overshadowed by the pork belly. Two braised pork ribs rounded out the protein options. While tasty and tender, they couldn’t match the pork belly’s glory.

KO Signature ramen with chashu, ribs and pork belly.

The thin noodles provided a wonderful textural contrast to the rich, creamy broth. Unlike some ramen broths I’ve had, this one wasn’t overpowering. I savored every bite without feeling weighed down, finishing the entire bowl (maybe a bit too much!).

The pork belly stole the show!

My companion opted for the vegan bowl with green noodles, featuring broccoli and cauliflower. Though warned it was milder than the other ramens, he enjoyed it; and the single bite I tried was quite flavorful.

KO Ramen has skyrocketed to the top of my ramen favorites list. Scanning the menu and browsing pictures and reviews online makes me yearn to try more dishes, including the sushi. I rarely venture to SF’s Mission district, but considering the exceptional quality of the food, a return trip is a no-brainer for me.

Weeks after our visit, KO still has an impressive 4.7 rating on Yelp. Both my companion and I felt fortunate to have experienced KO in its early days, before long wait times become a reality. The combination of delicious food, friendly service, and a lively atmosphere makes KO a must-try for any ramen enthusiast. While the location might pose a challenge for some, the experience is definitely worth it.

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                   4.5    stars 

Service:                                4   stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:      3.5  stars

RATINGS LEGEND:  

1 star:   weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

Review: Tonchin “Tokyo Tonkotsu Ramen” (New York City)

Michelin-honored West 36th Street ramen spot hits most of the right notes, adding comfortable seating and nice vibe.

As you can imagine, there are many ramen offerings in Manhattan. Having previously tasted Ippudo, Momofuku, Ivan Ramen and Kame (all very good!), I was hoping for another hit. I found it at Tonchin, a Japan-sourced restaurant which describes its offerings as “Tokyo Tonkotsu Ramen.” It’s street appearance is nondescript, but walk inside and you’re greeted by a friendly hostess and three Michelin plaques (Michelin Bib Gourmand). 

Tonchin on West 36th Street. Industrial chic exterior.

Tonchin has three prior Michelin Bib Gourmand designations.

The interior is sparse, elegant and well-appointed. With no reservation at a weekday lunchtime, I sat at the bar. I immediately notice the padding on the barstool and the comfy seating at tables and booths – always a plus.

Comfortable, cozy interior.

I decided against their classic tonkotsu and ordered the smoked dashi ramen, with a base tonkotsu broth plus clams, menma, egg, smoked fish oil (with garlic), radish sprouts, tobiko and seaweed. 

I also ordered the Tsukune bun as appetizer. It had a ground chicken and pork patty, sesame seeds, karashi coleslaw, romaine and teriyaki sauce.

Outstanding Tsukune bun!

Wow! This was the best single course of a meal I had in my entire week in New York. The meat was flavorful and rich. The coleslaw had minimal dressing that complemented the meat in both taste and texture. The sauce was also restrained – delightful, and not overpowering. Perfectly constructed and delicious, it was an elegant appetizer.

This really set me up for the ramen, which arrived shortly. The appearance of the bowl was fine, and I was impressed by the tobiko. Never had fish eggs in my ramen before. The fish oil was prominent amidst the tonkotsu broth. I wondered if it might be too much, but I found the flavor of the broth-oil combo to work well together. At first, each element was a distinct flavor, but as my meal progressed and the two flavors blended, that’s when the umami synergy became apparent. 

Smoked dash ramen with clams, tobiko and fish oil

The clams were plentiful, making the accompanying discard bowl mandatory. The tobiko added a nice visual and a small crunch on a few of the spoonfuls, but not much else. The in-house noodles were fine, perfectly al dente; but given the excellence of the other elements, I wished they had a more distinct flavor (Ivan Ramen’s rye-blend noodles came to mind). The egg was well executed. Menma, crunchy. All in all, a very satisfying ramen bowl.

Tonchin’s menu also included tsukemen and a few other appetizers that piqued my interest. Their menu also includes many cocktails, sake selections, salads and a few non-ramen entrees. I initially wondered if they were trying to accomplish too much at the expense of the ramen, but this is clearly not the case. To survive in the competitive and crowded midtown NYC food scene one must suit the market’s needs and I think Tonchin does an admirable job.

Tonchin also has restaurants in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, as well as Japan. I will definitely revisit Tonchin on my next New York trip. Highly recommended.

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating:

Food:                                  4.0 stars 

Service:                              4.25 stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:        4.25 stars

*RATINGS LEGEND*

1 star:    weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

Is “Good Enough” Ever Good Enough?

Elements of a ramen bowl, at Ooink in Seattle.

A recent transplant to the Seattle area expresses his disappointment – so far – with the local ramen scene.

A year into my move to the Seattle area and I’m still unsatisfied, and frankly, a little disappointed. I had high expectations given the many ramen restaurants here and, like San Francisco, a thriving Asian population.

I’ve been to Yelp’s five top-rated ramen spots in town. While one of them gets high marks, with the rest I found myself using words like “serviceable,” “not bad,” and the unfortunate “good enough.”

When the term “good enough” is used, it generally implies that something meets the minimum requirements or standards, but it may not be the best or most ideal solution. It suggests adequacy rather than excellence. … a temporary solution until something better can be achieved. -says ChatGPT (abridged)

That last line is where I’m at – waiting for something better. Given my research, I’m hoping it will be Midnite Ramen, a food truck (and soon-to-be fixed location) with a lot of great buzz. But first, a quick scan of my experiences so far.

• Ramen Danbo (Capitol Hill): I’ll refer you to my earlier review from a few years back, which spoke of salty broth and limited depth of flavor among other points. Admittedly, I need to give this acclaimed chain another try. 

Tonkotsu Shoyu ramen at Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya.

• Kizuki Ramen & Isakaya (Capitol Hill): A mixed bag here, with some impressive elements and others that fell flat. The broth was a tonkotsu shoyu blend and was nice. As I’ve experienced before, it was not complex. It had a single flavor profile, but a nice one. The noodles were the star of the bowl: chewy and al dente with a distinctive flavor. The chashu felt like an afterthought; it was rubbery and not very flavorful. The egg was near perfect, and slightly runny. Menma was limp and overly cooked. The overall presentation looked like the bowl was prepared in a rush.

The “Americanized” karage chicken bun at Kizuki.

I had the karage chicken bun as an appetizer. It was OK, but seemed Americanized, as the sauce tasted like a topping for a fast food burger. Service was good and the restaurant interior is nicely modern.

Tsukemen bowl at Menya Musashi.

• Menya Musashi Tsukemen & Ramen (Capitol Hill): I was looking forward to a great tsukemen experience here. It was just fine. Broth had nice flavor. Noodles were OK, but no distinctiveness, key for a dish where the noodles are served chilled and bare. Chashu was good. All in all, it was an adequate bowl. Am I being too critical by comparing this to my experience at Tokyo’s legendary Rokurinsha and Taishoken? I will give props to the service which was super friendly and helpful. Plus the indoor-outdoor options make it a great fair-weather meal spot. It’s worth another try.

Porky goodness with garlic oil at Ooink

• Ooink (Harvard Ave): As you might deduce, at Ooink the pork is king. I really enjoyed their tonkotsu broth. It is deeply flavorful and rich. I ordered the Kotteri ramen which includes garlic oil. It was just enough of a blend to let the porky goodness shine through. Oddly, the chashu was disappointing. The slices were large and chunky, but I found mine to be lacking in richness and tenderness. Noodles were OK. Vibe is friendly but a little cramped.

My current overall favorite: Arashi Ramen.

• Arashi Ramen (Ballard): For me, this was the best of the bunch…for now at least. I’ll refer you to my previous review.

I’m not including the ramen shop where the chashu literally looked and tasted like a bland turkey slice. It has since closed.

I’ll close by saying that on a recent trip back “home” to Northern California I had some ramen at Menya Shono in San Rafael. The richness and execution of that bowl reinforced my perspective on what Seattle’s ramen lacks. I sincerely hope I get to change my mind after my next Seattle experience.

Momofuku Instant Noodles – The Best Instant?

Chef-marketer David Chang chooses wisely by outsourcing his instant noodles. 

One of my favorite U.S. ramen bowls was at the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Chef David Chang knows what he’s doing and the kitchen team executes with skill. A marketer as much as restauranteur, it made sense that Chang would hop on the instant ramen renaissance of the last decade.

Chang offers three instant Momofuku Noodles: Soy & Scallions, Spicy Soy, and Tingly Chili. I’ve tried both the Soy & Scallions and Spicy Soy. Each package, at a retail price of between $14 and $17, includes five individual packet portions. 

Rather than make his own instant noodles, modeled after the flavorful barley noodles at his restaurant (too expensive to mimic?), Chang uses noodles from A-SHA, a Taiwan-based food company. Unlike deep-fried, how most instant noodles are produced, A-SHA’s are air-dried over 18 hours. Noodles are made of wheat flour, water and salt.

Chang’s site says the noodles are “different from instant ramen” and have 25 percent fewer calories and more protein. Of note: the word “ramen” is nowhere to be seen on the product packaging. I appreciate the simplicity of just doing the noodles..

Momofuku air-dried noodles.

I’ve been unimpressed with the noodles in several of the elaborate instant ramen, so Momofuku instant noodles were a pleasant surprise. The noodles are flat and wavy. I’d call them medium width. They have a satisfying mouth feel, a good texture and a distinct flavor of their own. The many reviews on the Momofuku site seem to agree with my favorable opinion.

Does air drying allow the natural flavor of the wheat to come through, where deep frying might mask it? Does it mature that flavor in the same way air drying does with prosciutto ham? Hard to tell, but it had me wondering. 

A-SHA air-dried noodles: a slightly larger width noodle, available in multiple sizes.

One of my main criticisms of any ramen dish is when the noodles lack a distinct flavor or personality. The best restaurant ramen I’ve had threads that needle successfully. Many restaurants, unfortunately, do not. I’ve come to expect less from instant ramen, so it’s notable when someone gets it right.  I’m not comparing Momofuku Instant to the best restaurant noodles. I am saying these are the best instant noodles I’ve had.  

Given the care Chang put into finding better noodles, I wished he had put more attention into the accompanying sauce packets. I found both the Soy & Scallion and Spicy Soy sauces were pretty basic. I expected more of a premium product. 

Tip: If you want to save a few dollars, rather than buy Momofuku instant, just order A-SHA packages, which has several noodle types available on Amazon and elsewhere. My taste test confirmed that the noodles are identical. When you order A-SHA, you can specify thin, medium, wide or extra wide noodles. Even the flavor pack of dried onions is the same. The sauces were similar.

I’ve found that a topping of sauteed chopped sausage and vegetables, along with the flavor packs, makes for a nice bowl of noodles at home. Enjoy.

https://shop.momofuku.com/pages/v4-5-reasons-why

https://ashadrynoodle.com

Arashi Ramen, Seattle

My first foray into the crowded Seattle ramen scene.

I just moved to the Seattle area, where there’s no shortage of ramen places. My first bowl was at the highly-rated Arashi Ramen in the Ballard neighborhood.  

The restaurant is a hole-in-the-wall eclectic spot with seating for about 25 people. Interesting Japanese posters and some unusual kitsch lends a casual, friendly feel. The menu has a good variety of ramen, most based on tonkotsu broth, a few rice bowls and some appetizers. They also seem to have a very respectable selection of Japanese beers and sake. 

Arashi Ramen is a cozy, friendly spot in a funky neighborhood.

I ordered the black garlic ramen and my usual starter of gyoza. 

The gyoza were excellent. The wrapper was delicate with a nice crisp char. The pork and chicken filling was flavorful and well-spiced; I’d even term it refined. Light yet rich, I could’ve eaten a dozen. 

The gyoza and dipping sauce were superb.

The black garlic ramen arrived and I immediately noticed the broth, which was light and almost clear. Not your typical rich and creamy tonkotsu-based broth. I had to ask if indeed it was tonkotsu and the waitperson confirmed this.

Upon first taste, I was pleased to find the broth was delicious and well balanced  The garlic oil added a richness, but wasn’t overdone as has been my experience with some past garlic ramen. Overall the broth was enjoyable; not complex but well executed. 

The black garlic ramen at Arashi.

The noodles were thin, al dente with a slight chew. They had a nice flavor. Nothing standout, but nice. The good amount of bean sprouts added a welcome crunch. The egg was fine, though slightly over-cooked. 

The chashu was tasty but fell apart as my chopsticks grabbed it. I would have liked more integrity there. But it was tasty with just enough fat. Unfortunate it got overwhelmed. 

The service was quick and friendly. Prices were reasonable. The street location is slightly grungy and isn’t in a well-trafficked area, so clearly this is a destination ramen spot. Arashi has another location in Tukwila, Washington.

Arashi makes a really good bowl of ramen.  I left satisfied and would definitely return to try other bowls. 

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                  3.75 stars 

Service:                               4.00 stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:       3.25 stars

RATINGS LEGEND:  

1 star:   weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

5AM Ramen: YouTube Review

These concise, informative and enjoyable videos are my standard for staying current with Japan’s ramen scene.

I like Ramen Adventures and the occasional ramen post from Strictly Dumpling, but I’ve landed on what I think is the optimal YouTube destination for the latest reviews, info and perspectives on the ramen scene in Japan: 5AM Ramen. I’m surprised I hadn’t found it sooner.

5AM Ramen, along with its standalone website, is hosted by Frank Striegl, a young man with a passion for ramen. He eats hundreds of bowls a year! Beyond his obsession, it’s his communication style I most appreciate. 

Frank Striegl takes you deep inside Japan’s ramen culture.

Frank imparts a lot of useful information in a short timeframe, and in a conversational style. As a former TV newswriter, I know this is an art more than craft. No wasted time, too-long shots (to save editing later) or the filler chit-chat endemic to many YouTubers.

Pieces are well shot and edited, providing tasting commentary covering the flavor profiles and other characteristics in which I’m most interested; they are professionally done, but never appear too slick or stuffy. I’ve learned a lot from watching Frank’s videos, picking up nuances and taking notes for my next Japan trip. 

At the start of each segment he reminds us he grew up in Tokyo, with a quick childhood photo adding a personal touch. While most of his pieces are in that megalopolis, he does a good deal of traveling, giving you an on-the-ground experience of regional Japan ramen specialties. I really enjoyed his recent piece on ramen spots in the Hokkaido city of Asahikawa, apparently Japan’s coldest big city.

I had a quick e-chat with Frank who told me that with Japan officially open, he’s been busy and slower to release new videos, but says “there’s plenty of ramen content on the way –  in Tokyo but also in places like Fukuoka, Shizuoka, and Kyoto.” No need to wait though, as his existing content is considerable.

In addition to his YouTube videos, Frank’s website is loaded with content, including many photos.

As I started watching 5AM Ramen, I discovered Frank also has an international e-commerce business selling instant ramen typically only available in Japan. He also does in-Tokyo ramen tours. Normally a commercial enterprise connected to information content might raise some concern. But at that point I was so respectful of Frank’s videos, I found myself actually interested in placing an order.

This channel is worthy of clicking the YouTube subscribe button! I recommend you take a look.

QR Code Menus: Efficiency, but at what cost?

A now-familiar site at ramen restaurants.

One diner’s perspective on this COVID-accelerated trend.

Efficiency is a hallmark of the Japanese way. So it’s no surprise QR code menus have become popular at ramen and other Asian restaurants, accelerated by the low-touch requirements of the COVID era. This raises a question, however: for whom is it efficient?

What started as a fun alternative for me quickly became tiresome and a detriment to my dining experience. Apparently many others agree: a TimeOut-Twitter Poll of New York diners showed only 30 percent love QR code menus, while 70 percent say “bring back paper menus!”

I’m tech savvy, but my first experience with QR code ordering and payment, at the fabulous Menya Shono in San Rafael, California, was frustrating. It took me a while to get accustomed to the software and menu hierarchy. Once I did, I still hit the wrong back button which erased my selections. My two Ramen club buddies ordered separately, but that staggered the delivery of our meals. 

Ordering another item mid-meal requires an entirely new payment. We’d figured out the system’s limits by our third visit, ordered all on one phone, and the food arrived together. Still, the ability to pay with two or more credit cards isn’t available.

Luckily the ramen-focused menu at Menya Shono is limited and easy to navigate, far from the vast multi-dish selection at Shinya Shokudo in Seattle. Navigating this menu on a 6-inch screen is challenging. My wife actually gave up and asked me to do the ordering. Luckily our waitress confirmed our order in person before relaying it to the kitchen (food was good, BTW).

Like anything technology-related, the software and user interface (UI) are key. Get them wrong and the intended benefit quickly fades. This is where the QR code process often breaks down for me.

My most elegant QR code experience was at Ippudo in Berkeley, California, where you scan the online menu but order from your waitperson, paying them directly at the end of your meal. Unless the menu is huge, this seems to be the best approach. Doing all three required actions on the phone – read, select and pay – can turn the fun and anticipatory element of dining into a bit of a chore.

Hopefully paper menus won’t become a luxury, but If QR code menus are here to stay, my suggestions are: get the software right, limit the function to menu reading, but leave ordering and paying to your waitperson. 

Isn’t this a better approach? (from Nagi in Palo Alto, CA)

To answer my original question: QR code menus are efficient for restaurant owners, and in this now post-COVID timeframe I empathize with restaurants trying to get back to normal business. For many diners however, it’s not efficient and comes at a cost.

I don’t expect a fine-dining experience at a ramen restaurant, but I hope the human element of dining doesn’t get further diminished. Even at the simplest of places, I want the pleasure of being served. And don’t we already spend too much time on our phones anyway?

Disappointment and Surprise in the Pacific Northwest: Part 2

I’d given up on really good ramen on this trip, until a gem on Whidbey Island made my week – and my wife’s too!

Leza and I had been to Whidbey Island before, a lovely place off the coast of Washington state. Dining options were limited in the town of Langley as many restaurants hadn’t come back from COVID restrictions. Then I came across Ultra House, a ramen spot a few minutes walk from our hotel. A noodle house seemed out of place in this neighborhood, but the reviews were great. Having been burned by my prior well-reviewed spot, I was cautious.

Ramen spot – in an unlikely island setting.

There was a short wait at lunchtime on a weekday, but luckily we managed an outdoor table – a plus as the delta variant was taking hold. A cheerful waitress greeted us, setting down some complimentary edamame as an “apology” for the long (it wasn’t) wait. 

Six condiments for your personalized experience.

A few items caught my eye: a wooden basket with six condiments and, blessedly, an actual printed menu (I’m getting bored with the QR code menus; a rant is coming soon). For my wife, who’s not (yet) a ramen aficionado, this menu was a welcome addition: clear and informative, well laid out, with a legend for the more common ramen ingredients.

Ahhh! An actual clearly printed menu!

We ordered gyoza, which we would share. I ordered – surprise! – the tonkotsu with garlic oil on the side.

When the gyoza arrived, the contrast to my Seattle ramen experience was clear: the dumplings were carefully placed on the dish, alongside a string of yuzu paste and a side dish of Ultra’s custom gyoza sauce (soy, sake, chili). They were excellent: light wrapper and rich filling, with a charred crust. The yuzu and special sauce were nice touches, more than a standard soy/vinegar dip.

Gyoza with Denis’ custom dipping sauce and yuzu paste.

The ramen arrived and I noticed the attention to color, contrast and placement of ingredients. The slice of spiraled fish cake (naruto) was a bit old school and welcome. The broth was very good, slightly creamy with some complexity and good mouth feel. The layering of ingredients for the broth, as shown in this promotional video, speaks to the care they take in the product. As I added the black garlic oil to the broth, it came alive even more. 

Ultra’s signature Tonkotsu with garlic oil on the side.

Noodles were yellow and rich, served at just the right firmness. Chashu was tasty. The egg was a weak element; fresh, but overdone and didn’t appear to be cooked in a soy blend. The vegetables were perfect and crunchy. All in all, a really good, well-prepared bowl of ramen. 

Ultra has an extensive beer selection including regional Japanese craft beers I’d never seen before. The sake list also looked impressive. Chairs outside were bare metal but comfortable. Chairs inside were mostly those ubiquitous metal stools (no backing) found in many street food vendors in Asia. 

Owner and chef Denis Zimmermann.

Atmosphere and fun details: I had a chance to chat very briefly with owner and chef Denis Zimmermann, born and raised in Japan. His passion to bring an authentic Japanese experience to his restaurant is evident in the many fun touches throughout the place: a wide selection of Japanese candies, packaged snacks, toys and mementos from his years in Japan. Kitschy, but in line with what David sometimes calls “wacky Japanese culture.” I loved it. For more background on Denis’ vision, do check out that video

Fun Japanese products and atmosphere.

Another Surprise! An unexpected bonus was seeing my wife “get it” about my ramen obsession. She’s heard me talk about it for years, but as she’s mostly gluten-free, Leza was never interested in joining the Club. With her first taste of the broth I could see the lights go on. “Wow, that’s good!” Then a taste of the menma and shitake; “I really like these veggies.” As she slurped some noodles, I could see her enthusiasm build. 

Another ramen lover is born!

Normally I never share a bowl of ramen, but hey – she’s my wife! But it was a joy to see her enjoy something I love so much. Her final comment, as I added a bit more garlic oil: “This gets better as you reach the bottom of the bowl!” Oh, to be understood!

We both left Ultra pretty high on the experience: good ramen, colorful atmosphere, warm, friendly service and the superb attention to detail missing on my last outing.  If you’re ever on Whidbey Island, it’s the only ramen game on the island – but it’s a good one.

https://ultrahouse.us

https://www.yelp.com/biz/ultra-house-langley


Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                  3.50 stars

Service:                               4.25 stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:      4.00 stars

RATINGS LEGEND:  

1 star:   weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

Disappointment and Surprise in the Pacific Northwest: Part 1

In a visit to a highly-rated chain, I’m reminded how every detail of the ramen experience matters.

The bowl was placed in front of me, and I knew. Could I really tell just by looking? I sent a quick photo (with no comments) to fellow Clubber David, and even he knew: this ramen wasn’t going to be special. And so began my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. I was at Ramen Danbo in Seattle which had the most highly-rated Yelp reviews in its category.

The clues started with my gyoza appetizer. Sitting at the counter, I noticed the chef preparing an order and haphazardly dropping them on a plate. I hope this order isn’t mine! Well, it was. Entirely absent was the Japanese attention to elegant plating. 

This is exactly how the gyoza was presented to me.

I took my first bite and was pleased the gyoza tasted far better than the presentation. The wrapper was light and slightly chewy with a nice charred base; the pork filling was very good. 

Then my ramen arrived. I’d ordered the Classic tonkotsu. Something seemed flat. The visual distinctiveness of the individual toppings I appreciate in great ramen wasn’t there. The chashu seemed submerged in the broth, not gently resting on top. It was a pretty boring looking bowl. 

Ramen Danbo says it serves “Fukuoka-style tonkotsu ramen” and this bowl looked much like the classic tonkotsu from the famed Ichiran, also from Fukuoka. So Danbo’s ramen holds to form, at least in the basic preparation. While Ichiran serves a good bowl of ramen (see my Tokyo review), my expectations were sky high and I left there disappointed. That same pattern was to repeat in Seattle.

This looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

Danbo’s broth was fine, but a bit salty and with little depth. The noodles were nice, served firm. The chashu was OK but a bit soggy. The egg was perfectly cooked. I’d call it a just barely OK bowl of ramen, but with a little more attention it could have been much better. 

Service was perfunctory and spotty. Decor was modern and spartan. Chairs were wood and basic. Menu was via QR code. The cleanliness at the counter wasn’t at the highest levels. I had the overall feeling that things were being missed and standards ignored. Bathroom was just OK. Of course, the physical space of a ramen restaurant can often be lackluster. But if the ramen is great, those considerations seem to disappear. At Danbo Seattle, many of these elements just reinforced my experience of the bowl. 

I arrived at 5pm on a Saturday and managed a seat at the counter. The place was packed with a line outside by 5:45, so this place is popular and well-regarded. With lines out the door, is it easier to slack off and lose track of your standards? Danbo’s ramen photos from Yelp and Google appeared far more delicious than what was served to me. Perhaps I came on a bad day? Might it have been the post-pandemic staffing problems many restaurants are experiencing? 

A small queue was forming at 5:45pm on a Saturday.

I’m not saying a plain appearing dish always indicates a lesser experience, and you may disagree that the photo above looks “plain.” The tonkotsu at Ippudo in Osaka and New York had a pretty simple appearance but the flavors had complexity and the ingredients were at a much higher level. What I ultimately concluded was that a certain lack of care and finesse was apparent at Ramen Danbo. 

Ramen Danbo has over 20 locations in Japan and outlets in Vancouver and New York in addition to Seattle. Since these observations are based on only one visit, I’ll give Danbo another try, but with a different set of expectations.

Luckily this was not my only ramen adventure in the Pacific Northwest. I was about to be surprised by a small shop where the care and attention to detail shined. Stay tuned for Part 2.

https://ramendanbo.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                  2.25 stars

Service:                               2.75 stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:       2.75 stars

RATINGS LEGEND:  

1 star:   weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

Review: Ippudo Ramen – Berkeley, California

This visit had me wondering if Ippudo US is wavering into mediocrity.

Ippudo now has over 125 restaurants worldwide. I’ve eaten at its New York west side spot (wonderful), at Osaka Umeda (great – see my review) and now twice at its Berkeley location. I’ve always been satisfied with its Hakata style tonkotsu ramen – always good to very good.

My Osaka review suggested that at Ippudo, “tonkotsu simplicity shines.” That has been its claim to fame. For any restaurant chain, achieving consistency with your signature dish can be challenging. Ippudo has succeeded in this regard, but my recent bowl at Berkeley had me wonder otherwise. 

Ippudo Berkeley has a full menu with six styles of ramen plus seasonal tsukemen, and a full complement of appetizers, sakes, desserts and beer. I ordered the Akamaru Modern, which claims to have a bolder tonkotsu, with an egg as the only extra. Untypically, I didn’t order the gyoza.

Ippudo’s Akamaru Modern “bold” tonkotsu ramen.

The bowl looked wonderful, as expected. I noticed the floating garlic oil, and managed to spoon around it to taste the “bolder” tonkotsu broth alone. While delicious – the standard Ippudo tonkotsu I’ve known – I can’t say it was bolder. Was the addition of garlic oil the bold part? 

I don’t expect Ippudo to have the thickest broth, and this bowl was no surprise. Which takes me to the noodles. They were fine; slightly chewy, but didn’t have a flavor profile of their own. For me, the difference between good and great ramen often comes down to the quality or distinctiveness of the noodles. I’d have to describe their flavor as neutral.  

The next misstep was the pork chashu. It was thinly sliced, but with my first bite I noticed the interior was slightly dry. Good flavor, but it’s rare to find a thin chashu slice in broth that’s dry. All the other elements were fresh and of high quality, combining for a well-balanced set of ingredients. 

A dry piece of chashu.

At Ippudo Osaka, the presence of multiple fresh condiments was a big part of my experience. Here in Berkeley, there were none to be found. I thought this was a by-product of the pandemic, but a look at older Yelp photos shows no on-table condiments. My waitress said several (soy sauce, sesame seeds and chili) were available if requested. 

Seating against the wall is nicely padded, though the standard chairs are bare-bones metal with flat seats. They didn’t look comfortable, and a far cry from the well-padded chairs at both New York and Osaka. The menu is available on QR code scan, but you order though the waitperson. 

Menu is via QR code scan, but thankfully you order through your waitperson.

I liked the detail of getting a separate small plate upon which to rest my spoon. Service was excellent and attentive. My waitress conveyed caring and helpfulness even through her mask.

Pretty quiet at 6:00pm on a weekday, but would start to fill up in a half-hour.

The restaurant was spotless with multiple pandemic clean-ups throughout my time there. The unisex bathroom was also spotless. I arrived at 6:00pm on a weekday and the place was nearly empty. By the time I left at 6:45, it was about one-third full. 

I don’t want to be hard on Ippudo, as I’ve had several great experiences. As such, I’ve come to expect more. But the dry chashu, lack of broth boldness and nondescript noodles had me wonder if their search for consistency has them stuck in a groove – particularly in settling for what’s popular with American palates. I should note that this location is a few blocks from UC Berkeley, so it caters to a college audience. I won’t generalize that this audience is less, or more, discriminating.

I will return to Ippudo, but with a more critical eye, and also pay attention to the location. My expectations have shifted.

Ippudo US website: https://ippudo-us.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:


Food:                                  3.00 stars 
Service:                              4.00 stars 
Atmosphere/Comfort:     3.75 stars