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

Review: Menya Shono – San Rafael, California

World famous ramen comes to Marin County.

A world-class ramen chain comes to my ‘hood! And my quarantine from great ramen comes to an end.

An involuntary grin appeared as I tasted the broth of my first bowl of ramen in 15 months. Adding to my enjoyment was the location: Menya Shono, the newest restaurant in the acclaimed Mensho chain, and just a 15-minute drive from my suburban Marin County home. No longer would a drive to San Francisco be required to enjoy ramen at this level. 

Fellow RamenClubber David had already tried Menyo with his wife and both were very pleased (“best duck [chashu] I’ve ever eaten!”), so when he, Michael and I gathered for our first Club outing since the pandemic, we were primed and hopeful.

Menu is limited, but will expand. Will there be ramen burgers in our future?

The restaurant had been open for a few weeks, so the menu was limited (the rumored ramen burger was not to be found). There were three ramen choices: two Toripaitan with a chicken soup base and a vegan Tantanmen. Only two appetizers were available: fried enoki mushrooms, regular or spicy. We missed our usual gyoza, but went for the spicy enoki. It was light and tasty – well executed for such a delicate mushroom.

We each ordered the DX Toripaitan ($19 US). David was a bit disappointed he couldn’t revisit his duck chashu (“they ran out of pork last time!”) as it wasn’t available now. The good news is that the chef is experimenting with multiple offerings. I hope the duck makes a return visit.

DX Toripaitan: with a chicken soup base.

Then came the bowl. I was concerned because I typically like a tonkotsu soup base. But that first taste erased any skepticism. The chicken broth was rich, flavorful and creamy. If you told me it was tonkotsu I would have believed it (never had a chance to ask the waitress if there was indeed some pork broth included). The broth clung to the noodles appropriately. 

All the elements in the bowl were very good to excellent. The wheat noodles, sourced by Mensho, had a nice chewy texture; not the best I’ve ever had, but clearly they recognize noodles must have distinctiveness amidst the other ingredients. The pork chashu was rich and flavorful, with a nice crispy edge. The egg, split in two, was perfect. 

All Mensho restaurants source their own noodles.

The other ingredients were fresh and delicious. I’m usually not a big fan of greens in ramen, but the broccolini added a nice touch. The entire experience was consistent with what I remembered at Mensho Tokyo, the chain’s popular San Francisco location, though Michael liked this meal much better than in SF.

Service was good and friendly, though menu reading and ordering happen via QR code scans. Personally, I’m happy to read a menu on my phone, but I’d prefer to actually order from a person. With each of us ordering and paying on our respective phones, I can’t say this technology amplified my overall experience of dining.

As in other Mensho spots, education is part of the design.

There’s indoor and outdoor seating. The chairs and booths seemed fine, though not particularly comfortable. Unlike the San Francisco location, this suburban spot likely won’t have long lines out the door, so customers shouldn’t feel rushed during their meal. We relaxed at our table for quite a while after finishing.

The current Yelp review already has Menya Shono as the highest rated ramen spot in the county. And now it’s open for lunch most days! Consistent with the heritage of this chain, it is highly recommended.

Mensho website: http://www.menya-shono.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                  4.25 stars

Service:                               3.75 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort:      3.75 stars

How many of Japan’s ramen restaurants will survive?

Tonari Ramen Tanmen, in Maranouchi, Tokyo (photo taken in 2018), is still open.

Recent news reports show that small shops are hurting the most.

The Nippon.com headline was ominous: “Ramen Bankruptcies on the rise.” Like most restaurants, Japan’s vibrant ramen scene is hurting as the nation continues to grapple with coronavirus. Restaurant bankruptcies overall are expected to hit an all-time high.

I scanned the English-language Japan Times and a few Reuters articles to get a clear picture, and found that while the larger ramen chains are surviving, small shops are feeling the most pain – a familiar pattern for restaurants worldwide.

Compounding the problems caused by lack of tourists and sheltering of residents are social distancing requirements. Given the usual elbow-to-elbow seating at small ramen shops, distancing further limits the number of guests they can legally handle. Some spots are using Ichiran-like dividers to serve more customers safely.

Reuters profiled Shirohachi, a small noodle shop in Tokyo. Despite not taking a salary since April and receiving over $29,000 in aid, owner/chef Tashiro Haga recently closed his shop. The foot traffic upon which he depended simply isn’t there anymore. Other shop owners would rather close than raise prices.

While I enjoy ramen at Japan’s chains like Nagi, Ippudo and Taishoken, it’s the single, mom-and-pop locations that, for me, speak to the soul of ramen and often surprise me with their quality, attention to detail and friendliness. One such place is Menya Nukaji, a tiny spot run by a married couple located on a quiet street a short walk from the bustling Shibuya crossing.

The owners of Menya Nukaji in Shibuya. Also still open.

The place has fewer than ten seats, a limited menu, great craft beers and a friendly vibe. The tsukemen there was wonderful, in the same league as Taishoken. Scanning Google Maps, I was pleased to see that it remains open, as the latest review (five stars) was just a few days old.

The tsukeman ramen at Menya Nukaji.

Amidst the carnage, this was a small but optimistic sign. With the vaccine taking hold, the eventual return of tourists and more government aid, hopefully more small spots can make it through this crisis.

They are an important part of the life and culture of Japan, and of the neighborhoods they serve. As Hiroaki Nakazawa, a regular at Shirohachi for years, explained, “There’s only one place like this.”

Review: Ippudo Ramen – Osaka, Umeda

Tonkotsu simplicity shines at this well-known ramen chain.

In Ramen Club we tend to focus on a broth’s complexity and largely base our ratings on that characteristic. Moredeeper and surprise me have been my guiding principles. My bowl at Ippudo shifted my outlook solely based on the broth’s simplicity. 

Ippudo, known as Hakata Ippūdō or Ippudo Shiromaru Base in Japan, is a restaurant chain with locations worldwide (Paris, Sydney, London, Beijing, among others). Ippudo is known for its tonkotsu ramen, and has been described as “the most famous tonkotsu ramen shop in the country,”  though I can’t seem to source the origin of that description!

Friendly staff!

I visited Ippudo’s Umeda location in Osaka and was seated immediately at the counter. The vibe was friendly and the seats were well-padded for extra comfort (just like in NYC’s Ippudo). I started with their bite-size kyoza. Excellent! Perfect crispness on the skin, delicate wrapper and luscious filling.

A very comfortable counter seat, just like in Ippudo NYC.
Light, crispy delicious gyoza. Beer please!

I ordered the tonkotsu ramen. The presentation was simple and, at first glance, unimpressive. My first taste of the broth brought me back to my NYC Ippudo experience: simple, creamy, rich tonkotsu. Not complex, but delicious with good umami mouth feel. 

Tonkotsu ramen at Ippudo, Osaka

The noodles were thin, firm and flavorful. Chashu was very good. Onions and burdock root strips were what you’d expect. A no frills, perfect bowl of tonkotsu ramen. The number of condiments that were available caught my attention and I started experimenting to good effect toward the end of the bowl. 

I love those condiments!

Sidebar: My fellow Ramen Clubber, Michael, believes a bowl of ramen should be eaten and judged exactly as it came out of the kitchen. He thinks condiments are a crutch. I only partially agree. His is a European perspective that certainly applies to continental cuisine. The more I learn about Asian food, however, the more I realize that condiments can be an integral part of the meal, not a fix. 

Tonkotsu is arguably the most popular style of ramen, so I can understand why Ichiran and Ippudo, both of which hail from Fukuoka (the originator of tonkotsu) are so well-known. My prior review assessed Ichiran’s tonkotsu as respectable, but not great.  I’d give the clear edge to Ippudo, which takes this basic dish to a much higher level. 

Ippudo U.S. website: https://ippudo-us.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                               4.0 stars

Service:                           3.75 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort:     3.75 stars

Review: Ramen Gogyo – Kyoto, Japan

Ramen Gogyo is a few minutes walk from Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.

Powerful flavors abound in this elegant restaurant’s specialty: burnt miso ramen.

A first impression upon entering Gogyo is a mild blast of heat and flame coming from your left, as the chefs concoct the restaurant’s main attraction: burnt miso ramen. Using wok-like pans and open flames in the traditional Asian manner, they scorch the broth at very high heat with lard until it turns into a dark brown or black color.

Hot stuff going on at Gogyo’s. (photo from Yelp review)

My friend Kyla heard about this technique and commandeered several of us from our Ten Thousand Waves tour group. She knew the restaurant was popular so she made reservations. The way this place does reservations is pretty cool: you advance pay an extra 400¥ (less than $4) to hold the reservation, but when seated you get a special appetizer for the effort. I had the spicy chicken wings, which were good.

Want a reservation? Buy an appetizer. Only 400¥.

Kyoto Gogyo (there are five locations throughout Japan) is located a few minutes walk from the famous Nishiki Market. It’s a modern, beautifully designed restaurant with several large rooms, an outdoor section, a small rock garden and very comfortable seats. You can sit at the counter, though it might be a bit warm.

The bowl was set in front of me, and I’d never seen a broth quite like this. Inky black with many tiny dots of burnt miso flakes floating around. The first visual impression is that it will taste too oily, but that wasn’t the case for me (though some Google reviewers disagree). The broth is thin and liquidy, not thick at all, but very rich in flavor. The burnt miso has a charred, barbecue-like taste that packs a punch. Bold, but not excessive, in that the richness has a unique personality that speaks to a level of refinement. The chefs know what they’re doing.

Gogyo’s burnt miso ramen.

The noodles were thicker than the usual ramen noodles and had a nice depth to them. This broth would have overwhelmed a lesser noodle, but these stood up to the rich flavors. Extra noodles are free. The chasu was very good.

The bottom of my bowl. Yep, it’s burnt! But it’s delicious.

Gogyo was a culinary highlight of this particular Japan trip and I count it among the best ramen experiences I’ve had. It may be too rich for some, and I certainly wouldn’t have this as my everyday ramen. It’s special. If you’re in Kyoto, I highly recommend it.

Gogyo website: https://www.ramendining-gogyo.com/news (in Japanese) 

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                               4.5 stars

Service:                           4.0 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort:     5.0 stars

Mike’s Mighty Good “Craft Ramen” (Instant. Sorry!)

Mike's Mighty Good "Craft Ramen” package

Desperate times call for desperate eating measures (and please contribute to your local restaurant worker relief funds!).

Mensho, Iza and Hinodeya are only doing takeout. Nojo is closed. That’s a quick scan of a few ramen spots we like in San Francisco. While the inability to slurp ramen is the least of our concerns these days, I’m beginning to miss the experience. 

Takeout ramen is a tough sell for me, plus my wife and I are sheltering in place. So in an attempt to ease the longing, I’m trying a few of the new breed of instant ramen. Today it’s Mike’s Mighty Good, which tries to piggyback on the restaurant ramen craze by calling its product “craft ramen.”

Empty ramen shelves at Whole Foods. Got better .
Empty instant ramen shelves at Whole Foods. Got better the next week.

Finding some of Mike’s products wasn’t easy last week, at least at my local Whole Foods. Today, supplies were better. I tried the fried garlic chicken first, thinking some leftover dark meat chicken would suffice for the protein topping.

The product comes with two packets: broth powder and oil. Boil water, add noodles, mix in the packets – done. Since I hardly ever eat instant ramen, I have nothing to compare to Mike’s. I was hoping to find something notable about it, even with diminished expectations. Not really. 

What’s inside.

The broth was thin, spiked with some pepper. Noodles were OK, I suppose, and I was pleased they were organic. My chicken slices and some leftover cooked spinach kept this meal from being a bore. Next time I might try adding a 6-minute egg. As a newbie to instant ramen, I’m assuming those in the know add as many toppings and flavorings as possible.

No star rating, as instant ramen isn’t really what we do here. Next time I will try one of the instant ramens that come in those large plastic  bowls. Maybe I’ll find a reasonable substitute to ease my longing.

Mike's Ramen - finished product
Mike’s Mighty Good “Fried Garlic Chicken” Ramen – finished product in bowl.

Until things open up again, I urge you to find a local restaurant worker’s relief fund in your area, or a social fund specifically for your favorite ramen place. Here’s one for Oakland’s Ramen Shop.

Or maybe purchase a gift certificate you can use in better times. Restaurants are hurting right now and some will not survive the next few months. Please do what you can.

Review: Waraku – Japantown, San Francisco

Waraku-Interior
Waraku’s interior, courtesy of Yelp photo.

A good bowl of ramen in a comfortable, well-designed setting. Order the upgrade!

The first thing I noticed upon entering Waraku is the decor. This is a real restaurant, where the owner put some thought into its look and feel, distinct from the spartan or cool design of many U.S. ramen places, where slurp-and-run is the implied message to customers. There are wood beams and panels that create architectural interest and appear authentic. The waitress confirmed they originated from a building in Japan.

The place was full, but no line. We waited just a few minutes for a table on a weekday evening. Noise level: blessedly, not too loud. And so we settled into a cozy booth.

The menu leads with two tonkotsu ramen choices (regular and roasted garlic), and also offers shoyu, veggie, spicy tan-tan and tsukemen.

David and I went for the tonkotsu, and Michael, for the shoyu.  We all “upgraded” to the deluxe version with extra chashu and other ingredients.

Waraku menu.
Waraku’s menu.

Of course, we always start with gyoza. These were lackluster, primarily because the wrapper was thick and doughy – what you’d expect at a lesser Chinese restaurant. The filling was nice; well balanced and tasty, but could have been more flavorful.

Waraku gyoza.
Waraku’s gyoza.

Before I critique the ramen, I must note the condiments. In addition to the traditional chili oil and ubiquitous-in-Japan togarashi (blend of pepper flakes used like salt and pepper), there was a bowl of whole garlic cloves and a handy garlic crusher. I’ve seen raw pre-crushed garlic before, but never whole cloves.

Waraku condiments
Whole garlic cloves among the condiments!

The ramen arrived and the bowl certainly looked abundant with the upgrade to “deluxe.” I’d call the broth a standard tonkotsu: flavorful, a bit creamy, but – for me – in need of some condiments to boost the flavor. By itself, the broth wasn’t particularly complex. If you’ve had Ippudo’s tonkotsu broth before, Waraku’s will be familiar.

The noodles were good quality and sufficiently firm. The ingredients were fresh. The highlight of the bowl for me was the chashu and the braised pork belly (kakuni) that came with the upgrade. They were both tender and flavorful, with a nice char and just enough fat content.

Waraku tonkatsu ramen
Waraku tonkotsu ramen, upgraded to “deluxe.”

As I neared the bottom of the bowl, I started adding condiments (I passed on the whole garlic cloves), which elevated the broth. I’m still figuring out my relationship with ramen condiments; do I always use them? At the start? Towards the end? Is my assumption that “the bowl” should stand on its own?

Though our socks remained on during the meal (😉), I’d say this is a really good bowl of ramen with high quality ingredients. And extra points for the comfort, decor and good service.

All in all, we enjoyed our meal and our time at Waraku. We will definitely go back, though with Hinodeya just around the corner, we will more consistently choose the latter.

Michael’s take on Waraku:

I went with the shoyu ramen, and actually got extra noodles – thinking they might not have enough in the standard bowl, and because I was hungry.  I didn’t need them, as Waruku fills their bowls with just the right amount.  

I need to take a tangent here, as it’s critical to my review. There are countless ways to make ramen, but for me, what separates the truly great Japanese style ramen from others is their attention to ingredients, and the time they put into making their base broth.  

For the broth, bones are boiled for a very, very long time in water, with vegetables and spices.  There simply is no sidestepping this process – although many ramen shops do so by adding flavorings after a simpler broth has been prepared. When they do this, they sacrifice depth and breadth of flavor. Waraku’s ramen is flavored by adding sauces to each bowl as they prepare it. Some people love this style of ramen – just look at the long lines at Mensho Tokyo in San Francisco. So far, I’m not a huge fan.

All that said, Waraku’s ramen is good. The noodles were a good quality, but needed to be much more al dente. They were too soft by the end of the meal. The special pork pieces they added were absolutely delicious.

As for condiments and spices at the table, when I go out to eat, I don’t want to have to spend time adding things to my meal so that it tastes right. That’s the restaurant’s job.

I’d give the food closer to 3 stars, and only that many because the special pork was really good.   

Waraku website: http://www.warakuus.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                              3.25 stars

Service:                          4.0 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort:     4.0 stars

Review: Tsuta – Sugamo, Tokyo

Tsuta, Tokyo. A small shop on a quiet Sugamo street

A rare transcendent ramen experience at this tiny Michelin-starred restaurant.

So much has been written about Tsuta, the world’s first Michelin star ramen spot. It has been widely heralded in many credible media and on multiple TV programs. Its popularity has led to the inevitable opening of international locations (San Francisco review coming shortly). Could it possibly live up to the hype?

Tsuta was on my agenda on my 2018 Japan trip, but I hadn’t scheduled it. One sunny Tokyo day I found myself in the Sugamo neighborhood where Tsuta is located. I arrived late afternoon, luckily the right time of day to avoid a long line. I waited 40 minutes and was in.

Like most ramen spots in Japan, you choose and pay with a vending machine.
Tsuta has only nine seats, all at the counter.

Tsuta is a 9-seat, counter-only ramen spot. It has a modern interior with a high level of comfort, including padded stools with lower back support. I sat at the counter with high expectations, and immediately I was struck by a few things I’d never seen before at a ramen place. There was a placecard on the counter listing all ingredients and their geographic sources.

Ingredients and their source provided, in English and Japanese.

The other notable element was the silence. No one was talking. It wasn’t a formal atmosphere, but more a casual reverence for the meal we were about to consume. This only added to my sense of anticipation. There were no condiments on the counter; interesting, in that many of the better ramen places I’ve visited in Japan have multiple condiments available.

I ordered the ajitama char siu shoyu soba with kamo wonton as a side dish. When the bowl was placed before me, I knew I was in for something special. My first taste of the broth confirmed it. It had a complexity of umami that lingered on the palette. I’m not the biggest fan of truffles, but the black truffle oil added to the uniqueness of the umami flavors.

Ajitama char siu shoyu soba with kamo wonton.

The noodles were delicious; perfectly firm. I knew why the restaurant tagline is “Japanese Soba Noodles” – they had the rich flavor one expects from unadorned soba. The noodles are from multiple grain types and custom-made in a small room in the restaurant. The chashu was very thin, more like carpaccio. It arrived in the bowl pink, with the final cooking phase handled by the broth. It was very tasty with just the right amount of fat and char. Egg: perfect. Vegetables: perfect. The kamo wonton, which I dunked in the broth before eating, were simply luscious.

Noodles are produced on site.

Tsuta is clearly playing at a rarified level of ramen excellence, with chef owner Yuki Onishi living up to his “ambitious desire to create truly original flavours,” as noted in its website. Up until this day, I had two ramen experiences I considered transcendent, in that it changed my perception of what ramen could be. Tsuta was my third such experience. I left feeling elevated. I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the Sugamo neighborhood with a grin, knowing that this experience would be one of my most memorable in Japan.

Tsuta website: http://tsuta.com

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food: 5.00 stars

Service: 4.5 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 4.5 stars

Review: Ramen Nagi – Palo Alto, California

Expectations were high. Maybe too high for this really good ramen chain from Japan.

I was excited about my first visit to the new Ramen Nagi US location in Palo Alto. The Yelp reviews are stellar, and this company has a great reputation in Japan. So expectations were high.

I arrived 25 minutes before its noon opening on a sunny Saturday, and there were at least 20 people in line before me. Within minutes there were 15 people behind me. A staffer handed out their menu/preference sheet and explained how it all worked.

Customize your bowl – just like Ichiran.

At noon exactly, the doors opened. Very efficient and friendly staff. The restaurant is modern with comfortable seating – all with padded backs! Many ramen shops have hard, backless seating, so this was a welcome touch.

Modern atmosphere with comfortable seating – always a plus!

I sat at the counter and was immediately impressed by the variety of condiments. Six of them: very hot pepper mixed with greens, sweet bean sprouts, vinegar, a sesame seed grinder, and two pepper shakers with different degrees of heat. Also on the counter was a tissue dispenser, a common replacement for napkins in some Japan shops, and a self-service carafe of water. 

Several condiment options.

I started with the (pork) gyoza, as usual. They were excellent, all six of them presented in a light, crusty shell top (I was hungry and forgot to take a photo).

I ordered the Original King, their basic signature tonkotsu ramen, and ordered pork belly instead of chashu. The broth was very good, flavorful though not particularly complex. The noodles were fresh and firm, as ordered, though didn’t have much personality or distinct flavor. The pork belly was tasty and moist, though a bit dry in a few places. I was looking for a layer of fat in the pork belly, though there was none. No egg included in main bowl.

Original King Ramen with pork belly.

I found myself experimenting with the condiments to spike the flavors. (Are condiments to ramen, like mustard/ketchup are to burgers? For some reason, I’ve started my ramen journey thinking the bowl – as served – should stand alone. More on condiments in a future post.)

I enjoyed this ramen. It was really good. And it wasn’t special. I say this with some reservation. Because my expectations were so high, I was expecting special. Plus, in looking at some of the other bowls coming out of the kitchen – they looked quite elaborate (black squid ink and others) – I think I will give Nagi another try with my Ramen Clubbers before drawing a final conclusion. So consider this review #1. For now, Nagi is certainly recommended.

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:      3.75 stars

Service: 4 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 4.25 stars

Ramen Nagi USA website: https://ramennagiusa.com