If you remember the opening scene of Lost in Translation, you can see a red-eyed, groggy Bill Murray wake up in a cab. The amazing array of Japanese characters in neon light form reflecting off the windows of the cab. Cut after cut of city life and a blank stare provide us with the confusion Bill experiences. For the whole movie, everything he was accustomed to, interactions, mannerisms and customs were either flipped upside down or thrown out the door. And it was the same way I felt when I had first arrived in Japan. It was already the evening when we landed in Narita International. From there, we cabbed it into the city and it was just like the scenes in Lost in Translation. Lights - of every possible hue. Signage - working every single one of your sensory glands. Black-haired people - walking around aimlessly. All of this happening within a tightly packed concrete jungle. This was the system known as Tokyo.
Being tourists in Tokyo was a challenge. Everything was written in Japanese and no one spoke English. If there was English signage, it probably didn't make any sense. Try finding directions in the metro station and you'll be sure to spend more time than you need there. You may know that more comically as Engrish. If it were not for one of our friends that spoke minimal Japanese or the Chinese characters in Japanese (kanji) we might as well have just followed a tour book. But when it comes to eating, I never found it difficult to find good food. There are photos and drawings everywhere. Their posted outside businesses, all over the window and even have employees running up to you to reel you in. There's also the wonderful art of plastic food modeling in Japan known as shokuhin sanpuru which is more often than not, a clear indication of what you'll be eating. In Tokyo, after a long night of you know what, I found myself completely fueled by sake and Sapporo, running by a restaurant with the food models sitting on a table, not enclosed in a case, and awarding myself with a plate of plastic tonkatsu for a souvenir. Oops. To that restaurant in Tokyo, sorry, I still have it if you want it back. Read more about Japanese food modeling here.
In Japan, the worst food there is probably better than any Japanese food you'll eat in your neighborhood. It's true, the standards are so high there for a culture that drools over small details. It was because of the simple enticement by large food photos and high standards that we were able to eat solid ramen at every ramen shop. And I loved that. You didn't have to log on to a food forum, Yelp or a tour book to find good food, it was really the food that found you. I can still remember the last bowl I ate in Tokyo. It wasn't a very busy shop and it was the kind of restaurant that you ordered the food from a machine, which then printed the orders in the kitchen. In less than 10 minutes, a server brought your piping bowl of whatever ramen – it was divine. We were indeed lost in translation, but frolicking in the joy and art of Japanese soup noodles.
This was 2006, and since then, I've only found a few places in Los Angeles and New York that were worth considering, "solid ramen". I do like Santouka from time to time, but I feel guilty eating such a rich broth. I like Asa Ramen for its fatback toppings, but that too can be much. Ippudo Ramen and Ramen Setagaya in New York are super tasty, but I don't live in New York! But good news comes to me when I get an instant message from the Rameniac, and usually it sounds like this:
"Hey, I found a new ramen joint that opened up."
This time, I'm brought to Studio City, a satellite of Japanese food culture in Los Angeles. During the 80s, a lot of sushi shops were popping up for the wealthy movie industry folks and even now, Ventura Blvd. is peppered with here and there Japanese joints. Ramen Jinya is located in another one of the millions of Valley strip malls next to good old Marshalls. One look from the outside and you wouldn't think much, but with an ex-Santouka ramen chef leading the charge and backing from Takahashi Tomonori, a successful restaurateur that operates 7+ establishments under his La Brea Dining brand, I think I've found myself a piping-hot, bowl of Lost in Translation.
Like California Ramen in Torrance, Chef Daisuke Ueda ("Daice") offers a Californian twist to the menu with fresh salads that include corn, broccoli and potatoes. But that's the least of our interests - we want to get into the meat of everything!
For $12.50, Ramen Jinya offers a happy meal consisting of a small salad, appetizer of choice (gyoza, fried chicken karaage, etc.) and the ramen of your choice. The skins were very thin on these and as you can tell fried beautifully. I love when you get that caramelized sauce "webbing" on the bottom of gyoza. The sauce was a soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and chili oil mix. I think they may have been over-steamed because the gyoza wrapper was slightly soggy. Gyoza has to be served and eaten right away.
Fried Chicken (Karaage)
This is one of my most favorite things to order at any izakaya. These were beautifully fried and marinated well. I hate when karaage has too much batter or the chicken is too dry. This is strictly a dark meat dish. If you're in Little Tokyo, try out Chin Ma Ya's karaage... it's probably one of my favorites in Los Angeles. This was served with ponzu sauce.
Fried Garlic & Bonito Shoyu Tonkotsu Ramen
With a name that long, it should be a solid dish. This was the special at the time of the grand opening and what Rickmond was telling me about all day long. To be exact, these our his exact words:
"What I did order on my initial visit was simply the special of the day, a delightfully authentic and hitherto rare-outside-of-Japan take on Tokyo gyoukai ramen, with a dashi and gyofun fish powder-infused shoyu tonkotsu soup and a topping of marinated and grilled bonito and garlic flakes."
He had me at "garlic flakes". I honestly felt "Tokyo" when I saw that bowl. Moist rolled-up chashu, golden noodles, scallions, an aromatic brown broth with a ladle so large that it could be used as a shoehorn. If you're shopping for some shoes at Marshall's next door, I'm sure Daice won't mind if you borrow the ladles.
I first tried the broth and it was super tasty. I could taste the nice bitterness from fried garlic with the soy sauce and subtle bonito-flavored broth. The noodles were nice but I would have preferred them even more al-dente. And the, the chashu, mmm... nice and melty. The egg although was a bit too mushy. I was hoping for molten lava yolk action.
Jinya's Chicken Ramen
My favorite wife ordered the namesake house special. I was surprised that Chef Daice would select the chicken ramen as the captain of the ship. I didn't think much of this until I took a sip of that broth. Beautiful. It was so homey and reminded me of a delicious version of Campbell's chicken noodle soup minus the sodium. Chef Daice boils chicken bones for 8 hours... just long enough to add a subtle stickiness to the broth much like tonkotsu broth. I could taste some ginger and garlic in the broth.
This was served with two chicken meatballs (tsukune) that had a decent amount of wood-ear mushrooms and a super moist piece of chicken breast. I would order this next time I go, it's seriously tasty.
That shoehorn is no joke. It makes Ippudo Ramen's spoons like miniscule.
If you're a garlic head, then Chef Daice will let you inject as much fresh garlic as you want into your bowl of ramen for a nice spice kick.
Our friend JK, another satisfied slurping customer.
Ramen Jinya has only been open for a week and I have a feeling it will do pretty well. Although out of the way, you'll be glad to know there's a Marshall's next door - two birds with one stone. Admit it, we all shopped there many times in our lives. On top of the quality of the food, both Chef Daice and Takahashi Tomonori are more than welcoming and friendly. This just may be your closest taste of Tokyo without enduring the 12 hour flight, jet lag, sensory overload and confusion. By the way, we'll be running up and down Japan next week for food! Thanks for reading and of course to Rameniac for fulfilling our ramen cravings.
11239 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
11239 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604