Ramen Burger (Los Angeles, CA)

Ramen Burger Pop-Up
Osawa
77 N Raymond Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
Dining date: 9/8/13

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Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger is America’s latest food mania since debuting just over a month ago. Shimamoto has served his burger a few times at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, generating extremely long lines comparable to the cronut. Already, it’s inspired other restaurants across the country to create copycat versions in order to capitalize on the buzz. This past weekend, the Ramen Burger made its West Coast debut in a limited release (~500 burgers at Torrance’s Mitsuwa Saturday and ~300 at Pasadena’s Osawa Sunday). Even though the event was announced just a few days before the weekend, word spread very quickly and people came out for the burger…big time.

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Saturday’s event had some of the longest lines I’d seen in LA for a food item with an estimated 1,200 people attempting to try the creation (many more were likely deterred upon seeing early images of the line). I decided to attend the Sunday pop-up in Pasadena; luckily, those lines weren’t nearly as long. Still, the wait-time for a burger was multiple hours, the majority spent in the sun on a day where temperatures approached the low-90s. The pros brought lawn chairs and umbrellas, making themselves comfortable for the long waits.

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Ikemen (Los Angeles, CA)

Ikemen
123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St #108
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 1/28/13

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Ikemen is the latest ramen chain to open up shop in Little Tokyo (following other notables Shin-Sen-Gumi and Men Oh Tokushima). Located in Weller Court (the plaza shared with super-spicy Orochon), it kind of replaces the recently-closed Chin-Ma-Ya. Ikemen’s first location opened up in Hollywood in late 2011; I’d read mostly positive things about the shop but never made it out to Hollywood.

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Ikemen isn’t your traditional ramen shop; it’s actually kind of weird (modern?). The philosophy is very clear (it’s painted on the wall) – they aim to create edgy and stylish ramen.

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The specialty is what Ikemen calls ‘dip ramen,’ essentially a tsukemen where you dip noodles into a warm broth before eating. Except, they call the soup au jus here, and an option for the Ghostbuster Dip Ramen combines this jus with heavy cream, truffle oil, roasted marshmallows. Yep. My coworker and I weren’t quite brave enough to go that route, and stuck to some of the slightly more conservative options. Continue reading

Ramen (Tokyo, Japan)

As everyone probably knows, there’s great ramen in Japan. It’s seriously everywhere, and the breadth and depth of options is impressive. I can’t think of a food in the US that is matched with such passion (obsession?) as ramen is in Japan. There are countless restaurants specializing in the dish, and it really seems hard to go wrong wherever one steps in.

I had my fair share of bowls…most everything I had was pretty good, summarized below.

Ippudo
Marunouchi Brick Square B1F
2-6-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-6990

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Ippudo was a must-visit for me; I mean, it’s now one of the most famous noodle houses in America. It’s very famous in Japan too, where the Fukuoka-based shop has expanded to 40+ locations around the country. The only location I tried (multiple times) was across the street from the office and in the same plaza as a La Boutique de Joel Robuchon (and San Francisco-based A16), in Marunouchi’s Brick Square.

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Men Oh Tokushima (Los Angeles, CA)

Men Oh Tokushima
456 E 2nd St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dining date: 10/9/12

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Men Oh Tokushima is the latest Japanese ramen chain to hit Los Angeles. Like the gourmet pizza/cupcake/burger, these shops seem to be popping up everywhere. However, the Little Tokyo scene has been rather quiet, with the likes of Tsujita, Yamadaya and Jinya opening up a presence outside of downtown. Sure, Shin-Sen-Gumi opened up a year ago to finally bring some competition (and relief for long waits) for stalwart Daikokuya, but there isn’t a whole lot of variety in the category (I dislike Orochon and find Mr. Ramen, Kouraku, and Chin-Ma-Ya to be second-rate at best).

Just this past week, Men Oh Tokushima opened their latest US branch in the Honda Plaza of Little Tokyo. They already have 12 locations around Japan and a couple in Northern California, so it seems like a successful concept. Their ramen is a little bit different from what I’ve had before, a shoyu-tonkotsu hybrid native to the Tokushima prefecture in the south of Japan. I’ve had both shoyu and tonkotsu (probably my favorite) separately but never together, so I was definitely intrigued. Standalone shoyu and tonkotsu broths are also available.

GYOZA pork pot-stickers

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The gyoza had a delicate skin and a good balance of pork and cabbage. I would’ve liked more of a crusty sear on the pan-fried side though, and the fact that the gyoza rested in small puddles of its own oil resulted in some greasy, soggy dumplings if not eaten quickly.

KARAAGE japanese-style fried chicken

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The karaage came out piping hot with a great crust and moist thigh meat. They did a good job of trimming the skin and fat, leaving an ideal ratio of meat to fat. An addicting sweet/salty sauce of soy, sesame and scallions completed one of the best examples of chicken karaage that I’ve had.

TOKUSHIMA RAMEN house-made noodles in rich pork bone and soy sauce-based soup topped with Chashu Pork (simmered pork), Butabara (stir-fried pork belly), Menma (bamboo shoots), Negi (green onions), Raw Egg

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The Tokushima ramen tasted, as advertised, like a rich hybrid of shoyu and tonkotsu broths. The milky pork broth was there, but the sweet soy depth was also present making something pretty unique for me. I enjoyed it (though I may like pure tonkotsu broths better), and the toppings were tasty too between the two different types of pork. I liked the noodles but thought they could’ve been just a tad more al dente, they were a bit soft for me…particularly as I finished the bowl.

TONKOTSU RAMEN house-made noodles in pork bone-based, salt-seasoned soup topped with Chashu Pork (simmered pork), Seasoned Boiled Egg, Menma (bamboo shoots), Kikurage Mushroom, Negi (green onions), Nori (seaweed)

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I also wanted to try the pure tonkotsu, something more familiar and comparable in LA. I thought this one felt lighter in flavor than what I was expecting, though still with a nice fatty sheen on top. Bamboo shoots, scallions and mushrooms made things a little more interesting, but this broth lacked the depth that the Tokushima offered. Noodle-wise, I had a similar opinion with the texture, though I preferred them over the straight Hakata-style variety.

I thought Men Oh put together a pretty good meal. Their Tokushima ramen is something rather unique so it’s hard to directly compare, but I probably like the tonkotsu bowls at Daikokuaya and Shin-Sen-Gumi better (though I definitely prefer their tonkotsu over Men Oh’s tonkotsu). Having said that, Men Oh is something different and quite tasty on its own, so I’d say its worth a try (maybe for the chicken karaage alone). At the very least, I’m glad to have found another viable ramen shop in my neighborhood.

Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA) and Ramen Yamadaya (Culver City, CA)

Tsujita LA
2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

Ramen Yamadaya
11172 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90230
Dining date: 1/16/12

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I first tried Tsujita over the Veteran’s Day holiday. Trying to fit two lunch spots into one larger meal, Tsujita happened to fall into the second slot where a humongous line awaited us. Sadly, the tsukemen (dipping ramen) ran out while we waited in line, and we were left with the good-but-not-great ramen. I knew I’d have to return to really try Tsujita. Over the MLK holiday we again went for a two-spot luncher, with Tsujita first this time. We arrived at 11am (opening) to ensure we would not be denied. Perfect timing! We got in without any problems.

Three tsukemen options are available – “regular,” one with extra seasoned boiled egg (ajitama tsukemen) and one with extra chashu (chashu tsukemen). Coincidentally, we all ordered the same thing – the chashu. A few accompaniments awaited us at the table – in my opinion, I didn’t think they were even necessary.

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I marveled at the bowl that came out – noodles were topped with thick-cut chashu, a piece of nori and a lime wedge. Accompanying the noodles was a dark and murky broth, filled with a soft-boiled egg, pieces of chashu and a not-so-hidden layer of fat floating on the top.

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I had my first bite and was sold immediately. The noodles were thicker than usual with a wonderful chew, while the broth displayed a heady, rich porky and bonito flavor. It was well-balanced between the pork and fish, and I’m sure the fat helped made for an incredibly savory and comforting slurp that screamed umami. Apparently, pork bones are simmered for 60 hours with the bonito added at the end. The chashu was wonderful as well, thick and meaty – they just melted when heated by the hot broth (it should be eaten quickly since the fat will congeal if sitting out too long and the broth won’t be hot enough to melt it). Simply addicting.

The soup thickened and got richer over time as the noodles soaked up the liquid. By the time the noodles were gone, it was pretty much a gravy at that point. The lime was particularly clutch when it reached this consistency, helping to add a fresh citrus dimension as well as some acidity. Finally, they’ll add water to your leftover “gravy” for a drinkable soup – it wasn’t quite so much for me, still packing an incredible salty, porky punch. Personally, it needed to be consumed in small quantities per mouthful.

After some deliberation, we made the short trip to Ramen Yamadaya.  We’d be ordering entirely different things, but we were still somewhat fearful that it would disappoint given what we had at Tsujita.

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Ramen Yamadaya is a newer ramen restaurant to the SoCal scene, opening its first branch in Torrance in 2010. I’ve consistently heard good things about it, and its popularity has helped them already open up additional locations in Culver City, Westwood and Costa Mesa. The specialty here is the 20-hour-cooked tonkotsu broth, making for a rich and porky ramen.

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It was my first time so I opted for the ramen. The rest of the party ordered some different items, less similar to what we previously ate at Tsujita.

Gyoza

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Chicken Kara-age

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Takoyaki

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Ramen Yamadaya tonkotsu kotteri

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I tried a small piece of the gyoza and chicken and found them to be rather typical variations. I wanted slightly more meat and less cabbage flavor in the gyoza, and I thought they could’ve been crispier too. However, the star for me was the ramen. Going for the extra-fatty kotteri option, the broth indeed was rather heavy, milky and fatty. Full of flavor, indeed. The fresh garlic was an awesome accompaniment, providing a fun garlicky bite to the rich broth. The noodles were perfectly cooked, lending a nice chew and soaking up the flavors of the broth. Two kinds of chashu came with it – a leaner, thinner cut shoulder and a thicker, marinated belly cut. I didn’t really like either. The shoulder was a little dry and flavorless, while the belly’s marinade had an overpowering flavor that masked the meat. Still, a very good bowl of ramen.

Ramen Yamadaya is good, and is worthy of a return trip on an emptier belly. Still, I’d be hard pressed to come here unless Tsujita is closed or out of tsukemen. I’ve never had tsukemen before and it was a bit of a game changer for me. I can’t say if it was a good example of the dish, but I just found it simply delicious. At this point, I actually prefer it over any of the bowls of more “typical ramen” in LA.  There’s an inherent playfulness in dipping the noodles into the soup at-will, and I found myself conflicted between slurping everything up as soon as possible while it was hot, and consciously slowing myself down to savor every bite. I’ll be back for sure.

Tsujita LA (Los Angeles, CA)

Tsujita LA
2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Dining date: 11/11/11

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Tsujita is one of the latest high-profile ramen shops to open in LA this year. As far as I know, this is the first American location for Japan-based Tsujita, which serves its own version of a tonkotsu ramen. The restaurant opened in August, only serving its Japanese fusion dinner menu to guests…which did not include ramen. Why? Because the restaurant wanted to make sure its ramen was just right before serving it for lunch hours only. Sounded like they were serious about their “artisan” noodles and it quickly became somewhere I wanted to try as soon as possible.

The lunch menu is as simple as it gets; ramen and tsukemen (noodles are brought out separately and dipped into the broth upon eating) are both available, with a few ramen add-ins and rice bowl combos. While ramen is clearly a draw, the restaurant seems to be even more notable for its tsukemen. I was excited to try both.

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Having the Veteran’s Day holiday off, I wanted to make it count. After lunch #1 at Baco Mercat in downtown, we rushed across town to Tsujita to find an impressive line out the door. Apparently, others on holiday had the same idea. Dammit. While in line, they ran out of tsukemen (and many of the sides). Dammit again. We came all the way over here to try the restaurant, so we decided to stick around and try the ramen.

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A number of table-side toppings were available to add into our soups. The server recommended the hot leaf mustard with the ramen.

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Negi Ramen green onion ramen

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Char-Siu Ramen extra char-siu

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The bowl of ramen looked beautiful, carefully and deliberately put together. The soup clearly had a lot of depth with a nice porky flavor and a milky consistency. The noodles were very good too; I forgot to order ‘hard’ noodles but they still displayed a chewy consistency. The chashu was good too, tender and meaty…not too fatty. It’s really hard to compare to old standbys like Daikokuya, Shin Sen Gumi and Santouka.  They’re all similar, yet very different. Tsujita seemed to be a bit more refined (and more expensive), and I thought the flavors may have been a bit cleaner. Personally though, I still prefer Daikokuya for the noodles, the in-your-face fatty broth, and all the oft-overlooked side dishes.

Kaedama (Extra Noodle)

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I opted for extra noodles, which included extra soup too for $1.50. I’m not sure what happened here; the noodles were in one large clumpy ball, and individual strands were virtually inseparable. What was left was rather mushy. For a restaurant so deliberate in its actions, I wondered if this was intentional, but it seemed the noodles just weren’t stirred at all while cooking. Major disappointment.

In all, I had a very good bowl of ramen (aside from the refill). Not exactly a bowl I’d drive cross-town for again, but very satisfying if in the area. I was pretty disappointed that they ran out of tsukemen so I guess I have to return for that. Will wait for the crowds to die down a bit, though.