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

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