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

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: 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