When it comes to creativity in soup noodles, you've got to hand it to the Japanese for their undying passion for creating bowls of ramen fit for the gods. It was almost as though the Japanese replaced the arts and crafts class in elementary schools with Ramen 101 courses. Contrary to many soup noodles from all over Asia that follow standards in taste and preparation like Vietnamese pho and Chinese beef noodle soup, ramen is one dish that has no boundaries or hard-carved rules. When the Japanese adopted the art of ramen from the Chinese, ramen was in its simplest form. You had your soup base of pork bones, flavoring such as salt, soy sauce or miso, fish and seaweed with toppings – a style of lighter soup noodles referred to as assari-kei. But after many conversations with ramen enthusiasts like Rickmond of Rameniac, I learned that that arena expanded with the long and arduous techniques in cooking pork bones, chicken bones and even seafood, including shrimp shells, to produce a richer broth – a style of heavier, fat-rich soup noodles referred to as kotteri-kei. If you've eaten tonkotsu ramen, then you've eaten kotteri-kei style ramen.
The sky's the limit, and so is the waistline, when it comes to the innovative variations of ramen. When I was in Japan back in 2006, I saw so many kinds of ramen. If ramen were a living and breathing thing, people like Darwin could spend years appropriating the noodles with a similar genus-species classification. No matter which ramenya (ramen shop) or yatai (food stall - 屋台) I ate at, it was good. And it all started with the basic recipe of boiled bones, soy sauce, mirin, sake and seaweed. But because the Japanese are technical like the French, differences were subtly noticeable based on looks but the differences in taste were monumental. You might get a ramen shop that braises their pork another +4 hours on top of the usual braising time. You might get a broth so thick from 16+ hours of cooking that it has become a beautiful goo. You might get a ramen shop that produces a boiled egg so perfect that it oozes out yolk like molten, golden lava. You might get a ramen shop that has brought in a 139-year old, Yoda-like Chinese man with one eye, one leg and one tooth that can hand-pull noodles faster than any machine out there. I'm just saying, these are the differences in ramen that the Japanese pride themselves on and what sets apart all the shops and chefs from one another. It's important to note that there really is no "right" and "wrong" bowls of ramen.
Unfortunately, you won't see the amazing variations unless you're in Japan. In Los Angeles, our ramen selection is slim pickings, like "good" pho in the Eastside area. But thanks to Breadbar and its routine rotation of chefs and themed concepts at Breadbar in Century City and West Hollywood, we've got a limited time to try some different styles of ramen from Noriyuki Sugie and Chef Kazuo Shimamura, who run a company called Ironnori Concepts. On June 8, they began offering both classic and experimental ramens known as "twist ramen". And will continue to sell bowls of ramen until the last drop on July 24. Sugie received Japanese and French culinary training and I'm gonna guess Shimamura, who is from Saitama, Japan (just north of Tokyo) has been making ramen since he was 2.
At Yatai, they offer Classic and Twist ramen.
Shio Ramen - seasoning with Indonesian sea salt, corn butter
Shoyu Ramen - seasoning with aged soy sauce
Miso Ramen - seasoning with blended miso,brown butter sauce
Spicy Miso Ramen - seasoning with blended miso, spicy sauce
Spicy Pork Curry Ramen
Tomato Ramen - tomato consommé soup, sautéed mixed vegetable
Vietnam Ramen - Pho style, raw beef tenderloin, asian herb
Ox tail Ramen - rich ox tail soup, truffle oil, marinated poached egg
Foie Gras Ramen - rich master stock consommé soup, chopped chives
For the three of us, we ended up ordering the Spicy Miso, Spicy Pork Curry and Foie Gras ramen. I had a heard the Ox Tail ramen was so good it was soldout.
Pork Feet Gyoza
In addition to kale gyoza and cold tofu, you'll probably be most interested pork feet gyoza. The gyozas are fried beautifully and filled with braised pork feet. The pork is super tender and has a nice pasty texture much like fish or shrimp patties used in Asian cooking.
Spicy Pork Miso Ramen
The Japanese seldom, if ever, use spice for their dishes. According to J, the Japanese find the seven pepper spice you see in almost all izakayas and ramen shops to be a mischievious contributor of the "sting ring". But when it comes to ramen, the chefs let it hang out and spice it up. Looking at this, it reminded me a lot of Korean seafood soup noodles known as jjampong. The noodles swam in a beautiful red broth, topped with juicy cuts of berkshire pork, marinated egg, wood ear mushrooms, seaweed and thinly sliced scallions. It smelled as beautiful as it looked. The wooden platters from Breadbar really made this bowl look super homey. I really enjoyed this bowl of ramen.
Although $11, it felt hearty with the right portion of noodles and toppings. The berkshire pork glistening in its own fat, of course, was delicious. The egg yolks were tasty but I think could've been cooked less. After you have oozy lava-like egg yolk from ramen in Japan, you're addicted.
Spicy Pork Curry Ramen
This reminded me a lot of Singaporean or Malaysian food. The curry was different than Japan's style and was more of a tasty mush. The flavors were there but it was just too heavy for me.
Foie Gras Ramen
After forever ruining my appetite for all things foie gras at Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon, I wasn't up for the swollen liver. Especially in my ramen. And again, Chef Kazuo nailed it on presentation and detail. The generous portion of foie gras was cooked right and how you would expect it to taste. To my surprise, the broth was on the sweeter side. Almost like a lighter version of the sweet, honey/palm-like soy sauce used in Thai cooking. And there was a slight aroma of burnt garlic which did add some nice depth to the broth. But not worth my $17.99.
Foie Gras Hiatus
For those that have been to Au Pied de Cochon, it's easy to understand the meaning of true foie gras overdose.
The noodles weren't bad and I'd actually recommend having it cooked more al-dente if you're an al-dente-whore like me. But something tells me this might be the only noodle they can get locally. Real ramen shops sometimes go the extra mile and make their own noodles. God, imagine how good that is.
We were curious about the shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) broths and asked the server for some Costco samples. And to our surprise, a man in plain clothing, trucker hat and apron came hustling out behind the counter with a small steaming bowl of broth. He looked like a Sam Woo chef. I know you've seen Chinese chefs behind the restaurant – sitting on a parking block digging into a huge bowl of whatever leftover food scraps and smoking at the same time. They look ordinary but you know very well they can kick some ass in that kitchen. We enjoyed talking to Chef Kazuo Shimamura as much as he was interested in watching us eat his ramen. I fell in the love with shoyu broth. It was seriously done very well. Dark in color, the right salinity and topped off with the tongue slap of burnt garlic. If you've been to Ippudo Ramen in New York, their flagship ramen shop in Japan is known for serving kogashi ramen, a ramen with broth made from wok-burnt soy sauce and garlic. Oh man! I had begged and pleaded with the chef at the New York location to make me a bowl and he politely declined my ass. Trying Chef Kazuo's shoyu broth, I imagined that this is what kogashi ramen was. And I'll definitely be going back to eat this one. The shio ramen uses Indonesian sea salt and was a bit on the saltier side. But there was a nice lingering tone of celery or maybe it was onion that was delightful.
Until your next trip to Japan or the annual Mitsuwa Ramen shop festival, this may or may not be worth your money and time because it depends on what you're looking for. In my opinion, the "twist ramens" are novel yet fun for those looking for something different. But Kazuo's real craft is in the bowls of basic shoyu, shio or miso ramen. As a lover of soup noodles, it's very hard for me to turn away something that could possibly be found in Japan. Was this life changing ramen? No. Ramen with a sense of humor and fun? Yes. I enjoyed the Spicy Miso ramen and Shoyu ramen, and hoping to try the Oxtail ramen next time. Vietnam ramen? I know it sounds as puzzling as Xoia's pho tacos – which are actually quite interesting. Thanks for reading.
Yatai at Breadbar
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Yatai at Breadbar
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048