Ramen Road Rage

by Zach Mann on January 8, 2010 · 7 comments

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JDC has been a close friend of mine for over fifteen years. He’s spent his last two years in Kochi, Japan, living off of ramen, curry and tall cans of beer while killing centipedes and mutant wasps in his spare time. For the ringing in of 2010, however, JDC was in the Bay Area, and in a post-party haze we headed back to Los Angeles via San Mateo, where at 11:15 in the morning, fifteen minutes before the restaurant was scheduled to open, the line outside of Santa Ramen looked like this:

Santa Ramen - San Mateo, CA
While waiting, JDC – in scarf, peacoat and Toshiro Mifune facial hair – regaled us with tales of ramen in Japan. Mele and I listened to the Sensei, his semi-ironic title amongst his fellow gaijin friends, and joked that we were forcing him to suffer through American ramen on his only week in the States, a week that he had otherwise dedicated to his reintroduction to chili cheese dogs and Mexican food. Santa Ramen was Mele’s choice, an oft-highlighted destination on GO RAMEN!, a blog which she reads religiously – this is a girl who, when asked what she’d like for Christmas, told her family only that she really wants to learn how to make ramen from scratch. Well, she got a comfort noodle cookbook from Santa Claus, and to celebrate, the three of us waited anxiously on a different kind of Santa.

I felt like I was just tagging along. Ramen has never been on my comfort food list, and I still rank it last amongst most Asian soups I’ve tried. That said, when a minimart in San Mateo has a ramen joint that warrants thirty people of all ages to wait in line before the doors ever open, my curiousity is piqued. Hype is a fun balloon to pop, but it’s even better when you learn that the food really is all that it’s cracked up to be. While JDC practiced acting snobby in line, I wondered if Santa Ramen would be another case of LA’s Daikokuya, a ramen joint with too much hype for its own good, or if it would really be worth the hour-long wait.

Spicy Miso Ramen - Santa Ramen - San Mateo, CA
For the most part, Santa Ramen lived up to its accolades. Its smooth, springy noodles can make ramen aficionados jump up and say, “Yatta!” and, “Al dente!” in the same sentence. The broths were not as porkily fatty as Daikokuya’s, but each had strong flavor, and each bowl had a high density of items that gave the ramen a stew-like impression, and an impression of complexity that is rare in my ramen eating experience. Mele, who ordered the soy flavor, became an immediate fan, and JDC, who ordered the spicy miso pictured above, forgot to be snobby. Halfway through his meal, he paused momentarily and humbly mumbled, “This is pretty good ramen.” He didn’t add, “for America.”

After trying JDC’s spicy miso broth, I wished I’d followed his lead. My heavy miso broth, while tasty, could have used some spice to cut into the pasty, milky flavor. In other words, the broth had me all excited at first, but at the end I was sick of it, like pancakes, according to Mitch Hedberg. In the end, like Daikokuya, and most places I’ve been to not named Santoka, I didn’t bother finishing the broth at Santa Ramen. But what would count as failure in the movie Tampopo was only a minor downside to some “pretty good ramen” in San Mateo that is worth the wait. After trying Santa Ramen, I’m only disappointed that I’ve never been to the original location, which a friend of mine described as “500 times better.”

Santa Ramen did count one failure. Upon ordering, I asked the waitress if the egg was hard- or soft-boiled. The waitress answered that the egg was somewhere in between. This was an outright lie, as I discovered upon biting into my dry, tasteless hardboiled egg. If I’d never tried a soft-boiled, marinated egg in ramen before, this would not be an issue, but I had, and it was so delicious that if there is no soft-boiled egg in any bowl of ramen I eat now, I’m disappointed. It is for this reason that Tajima Japanese Restaurant in San Diego is one of my favorite ramen places, and it is for this reason that Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen in Fountain Valley can never make that list.

Shinsengumi - Fountain Valley, CA Shinsengumi - Fountain Valley, CA
Hakata Ramen - Shinsengumi - Fountain Valley, CA
After I said goodbye to JDC with a Mexicali Dog at Fab Hot Dogs and a game of glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, Mele and I stopped in Fountain Valley for another GO RAMEN! recommendation. Again, we did not expect the hour wait, and unfortunately for Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen, sharing the same week with Santa Ramen led to a direct comparison. Despite having a bad ass samurai name, Shin-Sen-Gumi fell short of the San Mateo highlight.

Shin-Sen-Gumi’s strength was its noodles. When ordering hakata ramen, the customer is given the choice of low, medium or high saltiness; low, medium or high oiliness; and, most importantly, soft, medium or firm noodles. If the customer finishes noodles before broth, the waiter will bring a fresh batch of noodles of the customer’s choice. In this fashion, I tried both the medium and firm style noodles, and was very pleased with both.

It was the rest of the bowl that disappointed me. The “marinated egg” at Shin-Sen-Gumi was not only hard-boiled, tasteless and dry, but cold at the center. The flavored bamboo tasted like old ginger and the broth got tiresome halfway through. My experience at Shin-Sen-Gumi made me miss JDC already, not only because my friend was on his way back to Japan, but because some snobby pooh-poohing would have added a lot to an otherwise boring bowl of ramen.

Santa Ramen
1944 S El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 344-5918
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen
18315 Brookhurst St # 1
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
(714) 962-8971

Comments

James Boo January 8, 2010 at 4:41 pm

The title of this story does not accurately reflect the level of rage that the story contains. Not a complaint, of course.

Jake January 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm

While Santa Ramen is good to satisfy a ramen fix, my money’s on Kahoo Ramen in San Jose. Although, full disclosure, I prefer the clarity of the shoya broth that is the standard at Kahoo.

I think the biggest pain with Santa Ramen is that going there will invariably involve some form of let down. Without fail, they’re out of something. Last time, it was the special pork, and their standard pork is just awful. And, yes, they don’t know how to cook an egg. (Kahoo’s are perfectly soft-boiled, by the way.)

Zach January 12, 2010 at 3:55 pm

There seems to be some aspect of Ramen culture that requires everyone to choose favorites. Every time I bring Ramen up in conversation with anyone, someone inevitably will rank their favorites, as if it’s not okay for more than one restaurant to share honorable (Ra)mention.

Granted, in any kind of food, we love to compare. But I’ve gotten the impression that Ramen exaggerates the competitive nature. Definitely a commercial competition lying dormant there somewhere.

Jake, as for Kahoo Ramen, I have not been, and it is definitely added to my list. Finally something to do next time I’m stranded in San Jose.

Jake January 12, 2010 at 4:42 pm

@Zach

There is something about it, isn’t there? Despite my complaints, Santa is my 2nd favorite ramen up here in Northern California, so no shame in showing some love. I love the place, too.

I think food is a naturally competitive discussion topic. Ever read Oishinbo? It’s a manga about Japanese cuisine whose translated “best of” is slowly being released over here. It has the usual overly dramatic high-stakes tension the so often shows up in Japanese comics, and it’s fantastic!

In fact, in retrospect I should’ve gotten a couple volumes for James for Christmas. Go read it, gents!

Single Guy Ben January 13, 2010 at 12:35 am

Santa Ramen taste so much better without the line. Your ramen road trip totally sounds like a fun screenplay. Now you’ve got me curious about the spicy miso ramen!

James Boo January 13, 2010 at 3:24 pm

A good spicy miso ramen is something to behold. I cannot wait to find my way to Santoka once more to slurp down a bowl of theirs!

patricia January 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm

personally i love the noodles at shin sen gumi and spend more time there then i like to admit, however you are right, the egg is sad. next time you are in southern california, try the ramen at the food court in mitsuwa on paularino and bristol in costa mesa. the no. 9 special (or no. 7, i can’t remember….) is excellent. their noodles are not on par with shin sen gumi, but you won’t be dissapointed in the egg department, or in any of the other delicacies that come with it for that matter.

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