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

Yōkoso! (Welcome!)

An enthusiastic ramen shop promotion in the Kaito-ku section of Ueno in Tokyo.

Merriam-Webster says a gourmand is someone “excessively fond of eating and drinking.” A gourmet is “a connoisseur of food and drink.”

So into which category do ramen lovers fall? We’d have to say somewhere in the middle. Ramen, leaving the instant kind aside, is a very basic pedestrian dish in Japan. However when you consider the care and time that goes into the broth, for example, and how certain chefs have elevated a bowl to the level of fine dining, gourmet isn’t far off.

How thin, or thick, did this restaurant slice the chashu? Did it have a char? Does the richness and complexity of the broth have staying power throughout the meal? Do the noodles go beyond good enough to having a texture, flavor and mouth feel that make them special? These are the kind of distinctions and conversations we tend to have about ramen. 

So three friends thought we’d form our own club, first as a joke. Then it got a bit more serious. Inspired by Ramen Adventures and others who write or make videos, we decided to add our voices to the conversation. 

Yes, the “club” is just the three of us. We live near San Francisco. No rules or dues in this club. Not sure how often we’ll post, and topics may vary beyond just reviews. At some point, we may open up to comments or guest posts. Let’s see how it all evolves. Welcome. 

Review: Chonmage – San Rafael, CA

Chonmage Ramen on the left, and Samurai Ramen on the right

Neighborhood ramen spot has great vibe and good food, but inconsistent.

One of the most important qualities of a good restaurant is how consistent their cooking is. Are their dishes reliable, or do they change day to day, week to week, or from one cook to another, whoever might be cooking that day? Will flavors change from season to season? Maybe, and I would expect that kind of variation. But, for me to return more than once to a restaurant, they need to be both good and consistent.

We visited Chonmage on consecutive Thursdays. The first visit, the food was very good. We tried the Chonmage Ramen (miso broth), Samurai Ramen (shoyu broth), and Sasuke Ramen (tonkotsu broth). They offer two sizes of bowls, and the smaller size is great if you want to try a couple different dishes, which is what we did.

For me, the winner that first night was the shoyu broth – among the best I’ve ever had, bringing a smile to my face with each spoonful. However, the Samurai Ramen had thinner noodles in it, and it simply didn’t come together – that elusive act of the sum of the parts being more than the whole. The Chonmage Ramen, however, came together quite nicely, and was a very good bowl of ramen, as was the Sasuke Ramen.

Our second visit, I had high expectations for this place, ordering their Chonmage Ramen again, along with some sweet potato tempura and shrimp tempura. The ramen was between okay and good, and the tempura was only below mediocre. Nothing was bad, but nothing was good. The experience was disappointing, and left me wondering how they could have strayed so far in just a week.

I’ll go back to try it one more time, but I’m not excited about it. Overall, I’d give it only 2.5 stars (out of 5). For just the ramen, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Review: Ichiran – Ueno, Tokyo

Ichiran Tonkotsu 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 tonkotsu). 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 tonkotsu. 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.