During my last visit to East-West Hair, I got on the topic of hunger with my barber, Ikho. He asked me if I had ever eaten ramen. I couldn’t tell exactly how complicated he intended that question to be, so I answered in the affirmative. Ikho encouraged me to pay a visit to the shopping center next door and try a bowl of their ramen, which he simply characterized as “very good.”
In our world of democratized research, where the technologically deft are constantly developing new ways to aggregate the world’s dining experience, it’s easy to underestimate the gravity of a single recommendation. A local tip can seem trifling when held against the mass of its counterparts online. The growing accessibility and interactive nature of restaurant reviews is surely a boon to those with utility to maximize, but access to DSL does not a decisive diner make.
Yelp, which a friend of mine once compared to a premature ejaculation, demonstrates this dilemma most effectively: On the one hand, it offers instant vital information on any dining establishment imaginable, but on the other hand it delivers a dizzying array of opinions that forces more responsibility on its user than is often convenient. By linking restaurant reviews with some of Web 2.0’s less noble features, Yelp’s doesn’t denigrate the demand of a quality writeup, but it does complicate food with popularity contests and a community of widgets.
It was curmudgeonly thrill to me, then, that Ikho wanted to acquaint me with his favorite ramen bowl. Scenes from Tampopo flashed through my mind as I entered Mitsuwa Marketplace and headed straight for the food court, where a long line of lunch break visitors made clear which counter I was meant to patronize. I ordered a bowl of spicy miso ramen and sat down in a corner booth with my prize, imagining myself in the company of the Ramen Master himself. I would later discover that I had been led to Santoka, a Mitsuwa food court constant that in reality bears less romanticism than I had first imagined.
Nevertheless, much like that legendary first chapter of Tampopo, Santoka’s spicy miso ramen turned my meager experience with Japanese noodles on its head and redefined the genre with every savory slurp. Foremost was the broth, positively sparkling with grease. Its shimmer was backed by a rich, almost milky consistency, which provided a complex yet comforting base for the broth’s salty, greasy, modestly spicy flavors. While a typical bowl of ramen broth would be little more than a diluted dissolve, Santoka’s broth possessed the taste of a sommelier and the body of a teamster.
Fulfilling the promise of a magnificent broth were Santoka’s ramen noodles, carrying themselves with the same strength of body and purpose. Even more crucial than the noodles’ hearty texture was their abundance. It’s hard to overstate the importance of balance when it comes to soup; even if the broth is delicious enough to drink as a beverage, it does little to satisfy without a generous helping of the ingredients that make a bowl of ramen truly satisfying. Santoka’s noodles, commanding the volume of the bowl, were held high in this regard.
Bringing everything into focus were the accoutrement of any ramen bowl: sliced pork, fish cake, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions and seaweed. Each ingredient was perfectly cooked: the pork a fine cut of fatty meat, the bamboo boiled just enough to register as tender, and the others present in quantities restrained enough to serve their purpose.
As I finished a bowl of ramen broth for the first time in my life without being prompted by promises of glory, I understood what the Ramen Master meant by “affection,” and what Ikho meant by “very good.” The averaged judgments of 155 Yelp accounts already stood behind those words, but it took the delivery of a Japanese hairstylist to give them meaning.
Santoka (inside Mitsuwa Marketplace)
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626