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 tonkatsu 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

Tokyo Ramen Festivals This Month!

2018 Tokyo Ramen Show.

Next week two ramen festivals overlap in Tokyo. If you’re there, go for a taste of ramen styles throughout Japan.

The annual Tokyo Ramen Show begins this week, running October 24 through November 4 at Komazawa Olympic Park. This overlaps with the month-long Dai Tsukemen Haku competition to crown the best tsukemen ramen in the country, running through November 3. 

On my trip to Japan last fall I discovered, last-minute, that I’d be there for the Tokyo Ramen Show. What luck! The show is outdoors in an open-air promenade setting built for the 1964 Summer Olympics (some 2020 Olympic events will be held there). The show features 36 different ramen purveyors – 18 for the first six days, then the next set of 18 over the remaining 6 days. It’s free to get in, and only costs $8 USD for a ticket that entitles you to one bowl of ramen.

This is a stellar opportunity to taste some of the regional differences in ramen all in one place. The lobster ramen seemed compelling, as did the all-meatball bowl. But how to choose among 18 different booths!? Just like visiting a “ramen street” in a Japanese city, I used the standard technique: find the longest line and stand in it! It turned out to be a Sapporo-based restaurant (didn’t write down their name).

The dish I had was an “aged miso ramen.” The actual serving bowl was plastic – unfortunate, but I suppose necessary for this venue. The broth had red flakes and appeared very spicy hot. But, tasting it, there was only subtle heat that, for my taste, was just enough. The semi-clear miso-based broth was delicious with a rich flavor. The noodles were firm (thankfully common in Japan), and the pork slices – for which I had to pay extra – were thick and flavorful, though not particularly juicy. 

Aged Miso Ramen – Sapporo style.

All in all, it was a good, well-balanced, lightly spiced bowl of ramen. It certainly wasn’t one of the best I’ve had in Japan, but worth the visit to the festival, especially for the fun of it. I’m not calling this an actual review, but I suppose I’d put it in the range of 3 to 3-1/2 stars (out of 5).

Fun for the kids.

I didn’t make it to the Dai Tsukemen Haku competition, but I’ve seen it covered on YouTube and elsewhere. Take a look at this 2016 video from Ramen Adventures.

A lesson I learned is to plan ahead next time, as there’s no way you can sample so many bowls in a day. And everyone served standard bowls, not the half-bowls you see offered sometimes. So I’d come in the morning, have a bowl; then take a walk before my second bowl in the afternoon. Going with some friends and sharing tastes is a better idea.

Review: Kinton Ramen – Montréal, Québec, Canada

Kinton makes its focus known as soon as you enter!

Good ramen, great service and fun vibe in a modern, casual setting.

“With all that Montreal offers, you’re eating ramen?” You bet your chashu I am! As I explored Yelp, Kinton Ramen had the best reviews here, so I gave it a try last week. I visited the Avenue Union spot, which is their second Montreal location. It’s a modern, airy space with a large bronze pig on the far wall capturing your attention as you enter. 

The entire staff appears to be Japanese and a number of guests were also. You’re greeted by the chefs and wait staff as you enter, and thanked as you leave. Wait team was very friendly and helpful. The menu has seven different types of ramenand many appetizers. A few desserts too. A special menu featured their tsukemen. 

The Kinton ramen menu.

I ordered the gyoza and the pork shoyu ramen with the addition of an egg (egg not included in all bowls). The gyoza were deep fried to a medium-light crisp, giving the outer skin a nice crunch. The pork and vegetable filling, however, was pretty flat. The ingredients were fresh, but had little flavor. The spicy sauce drizzled on the gyoza was fine. 

Gyoza at Kinton.

The ramen bowl made a nice initial presentation and reminded me of the standard tonkatsu bowl offered at Ippudo or Mensho. The broth was a combo of tonkatsu and soy, leaning more toward tonkatsu, but not as creamy. It had good flavor. Very respectable.

The high point for me was the noodles, an element into which many places tend to put less effort (in my opinion). You get a choice between thick or thin; I got the former. They were perfectly cooked – slightly al dente, and had a nice flavor reminiscent of good egg noodles. Often the noodles aren’t a standout, but here they are. 

There were two pieces of chashu, a little fatty and with good flavor. I enjoyed the first piece. However the second slice was cut noticeably thicker than the first and had less fat content. This inconsistency, albeit small, had a discernible impact, making it chewy and much less delectable than the first. I suspect I was given an end piece. If it seems I am harping on a tiny point, it’s the small things that combine to make a good dish. In this case, this one small thing was a bit disappointing. The egg was well cooked in soy with a gooey center. I liked the nori sheets. There were no other items in the bowl. 

Modern exterior signage to match the modern interior.

Blessedly, the seating and tables were comfortable and the entire atmosphere was clean, modern and fresh. Several customers wanted photos taken with the wait staff, and they accommodated them with pre-prepared Kinton mini-posters and hand signs. Fun!

The overall food impression was good, well-prepared and respectable, with a few gaps that kept it out of the very good to excellent category. I wanted to like Kinton more due to the atmosphere and friendly vibe. Though I will admit, without having tried some their other bowls, I’m offering a limited impression. That said, I can safely say Kinton is worth a visit. 

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food: 3.25 stars

Service: 4 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 4 stars


Kinton website: http://www.kintonramen.com/canada/index.php

Review: Ramen Kikuhan – Osaka

I didn’t take an interior photo, so here’s their business card!

In my first full day in Osaka last October, I wanted to have a ramen experience that wasn’t a name brand or over-reviewed. 

So I came across Ramen Kikuhan in the Nakazakinishi neighborhood – close to the center city, but quiet, in an area of small streets traversed mainly by locals. 

It was a small 10-12 seat place with counter seating only. No English menu and the English skills of the staff were very limited. Google Translate to the rescue….not! It just added to the confusion. I ordered what I thought was the combination chicken and pork bone broth.

Spicy miso ramen with pork and chicken broth.

What I ended up with was spicy miso combined with both chicken and pork bone broth. Their special. The meatballs in the dish were a surprise: chicken and very tasty. The pork slices were delicious and more substantive than what you might normally expect. There was corn in the dish, which worked very well. There were sliced mushrooms and the eggs were absolutely perfect. The yoke gently slid out of the egg white as you lifted it with your spoon. 

The noodles were served al dente and they had substance and flavor all their own. Chewy and nutty. For me, this is a key characteristic of a great ramen. The broth was wonderful, though it was perhaps slightly more spicy/salty than I would normally like, but not too much. It was so thick it could be used with tsukemen.

Menu at Ramen Kikuhan.

The vibe of the place is small, neighborhoody and friendly. Comfortable, padded stools. I paid 850 yen, or just under 8 dollars, for a fabulous bowl of ramen. Definitely recommended. 

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food: 4.25 stars

Service: 4 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 4 stars

No website. 

Yelp  page: https://www.yelp.com/biz/1q6hHjOzwphv6JbZUwH0fQ?uid=67_nlpoaZjQHjPlcwTLRCQ&utm_source=ishare

Review: Ichiran – Ueno, Tokyo

Ichiran Tonkatsu Ramen in Tokyo’s Ueno location.

Well, I’m not sure what all the acclaim is about.

I’ve heard from so many sources that this is the best, or among the best, ramen (specializing in tonkatsu). While it was very good in some respects, it did not live up to the hype for me. Highlight was the broth, a very nice umami flavor and light in texture (not creamy). Noodles were good. Pork slices were soggy but had good flavor – but were still a weak element overall.

No egg included, but I got one as an extra. It was not soy-cooked and came separately (not in bowl) — with the shell on!! Really? I realize in my ramen travels that there are so many types of ramen, and that much of my commentary is informed by my preferences. That said, all in all, I’d call this a decent quality bowl, but – in my opinion – not at the level of Ippudo, Nagi, Mensho or Iza Ramen in San Francisco. I’ve certainly had better tonkatsu. I do like the preferences sheet you get to fill out.

Ichiran order preference sheet.
Ichiran boxed take-home ramen is available all over Japan. Around $18 US.

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food: 3.25 stars

Service: 3 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 3 stars

Note: I’m not keen on the industrialization of ramen at Ichiran: you sit in a slotted cubicle and slurp in private. You never even see the face of the person serving you. Some locations have 6 floors of such cubicles. And the worst piped-in music.

Tsuta is coming to San Francisco!

Tsuta in Sugamo, Tokyo

Tsuta, the Tokyo restaurant that was the first ramen spot to secure a Michelin star, is opening up a San Francisco location.

I nearly dropped my chopsticks when I read about this in the San Francisco Chronicle. Tsuta joins Nagi, Ippudo, Mensho and Ichiran as notable Japan ramen specialists which have moved to the U.S. I’m pretty damn excited about this, as I had one of my rare transcendent ramen experiences at Tsuta. Notable because shoyu ramen, Tsuta’s specialty, isn’t typically my favorite.

The restaurant will open in mid-September and be located at 155 4th Street. For updates and other info, check out Tsuta’s U.S. website at http://www.tsutaramenusa.com.

Full review of Tsuta Tokyo coming soon.