Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ramen "Week" - yeah, whatever

So I'm full of shit and man enough to admit it. I've got three more ramen shops to write up, and but I'm leaving to go skiing today. Park City. With the Sundance Festival going on. So much for a quiet, off-peak visit to see my college roomate Matt, who happens to bake bread for the resort.

So how about Ramen Month? No, month's almost over. Ramen Q1?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Treat for Tet

I'm interrupting Ramen Week to announce that February 9 marks the start of the lunar new year. Happy 4702, everyone! All over Little Saigon, restaurants and bakeries are gearing up with seasonal treats for Tet. This also means that weekend traffic in that part of town will be a nightmare - go during the week, if you're able.

Visit Viet World Kitchen to read Andrea Nguyen's Tet edition.

You're looking at a sesame and cashew brittle I picked up at Van's Bakery. It's nothing like the clodgy, too-thick pistachio brittle I make that puts me at risk of dental reconstruction. I hang my head in shame. Van's diaphanous candy just barely cements the lightly toasted sesame seeds and cashew pieces into an impossibly thin crisp.

You'll find all sorts of Viet / Chinese / French baked goods at Van's. Try the freshly baked waffles. Available in durian flavor or pandan/coconut, even my 4 year old lily-white stepson likes them. Don't be a big gringo wuss - go. It's a bakery, for chrissakes, you'll find something you'll like. If Van's is "too Asian," try the very French Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie a couple doors down.

Like so many other treats available now, this brittle is around for only a few more weeks. Get some before it's gone!

Van's Bakery
Several locations in Orange County, San Gabriel, and San Jose
14346 Brookhurst St
Garden Grove, CA

Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie
14352 Brookhurst St
Garden Grove, CA

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Oki Doki - Costa Mesa

Goofy name aside, the folks at Oki Doki are serious. About soup. Soup is consistently great here. I've been telling people on Chowhound for years that the sizzling rice soup is amazing. If it's possible to kick ass with both feet, they do it day in and day out with their chicken stock.

Their ramen appears to be an afterthought, however. You'll easily miss it if you're not paying attention to the menu. Unsurprisingly, they make the ramen with this fabulously flavored chicken broth seasoned only with salt. Chicken soup is an exception in the pork-centric ramen world, and delicious. I finshed the whole bowl of soup, right to the bottom.

Most of the toppings are typically Japanese: the chashu, hardboiled egg, bean sprouts, and scallions. The delicous, fried crunchy bits of garlic are an atypical, probably Viet influence. Oki Doki bills itself as a pan-Asian restaurant with touches from Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese cuisine. Some of these international items are good, like the Korean seafood pancakes and the Vietnamese Imperial egrolls. Avoid the stir fried Chinese dishes, however.

Eggrolls w/ lettuce and mint to wrap them in and spicy nuoc mam dipping sauce

This place is Japanese owned, so ask the wait staff to guide you their Japanese izakaya specialities if you go for dinner. The lunch menu is more limited. Izakaya are pubs where small dishes are served to share with your drinking companions. The menu of daily specials is usually good. Of these, I like the eggplant sauteed with ground pork and red chili powder. It's a version of mabo dofu, called mabo nasu. This is a lightly spiced Japanese version of the Sichuan dish called pockmarked lady's tofu, minus the tofu and Sichuan peppercorn.

But I digress. Oki Doki makes a fine ramen, especially if you prefer a lighter soup. Another nearby option: Mitae Ramen makes a very light, vegetable-rich, soy sauce flavored Tokyo ramen. Mitae is probably my least favorite because of my bias for rich, porky soup, but for you - I'll go and report back. Stay tuned as Ramen Week continues...

Oki Doki
3033 S. Bristol St. #O
(SW corner of Paularino)
Costa Mesa, CA

Monday, January 17, 2005

Shinsen Gumi Hakata Ramen - Fountain Valley

Above: chashu ramen

The world of difference between instant ramen and real ramen is like the gap between great homemade chicken soup and canned condensed: it’s hard to appreciate either until you’ve had both.

My favorite in Southern California is Fountain Valley’s Shinsen Gumi (SSG), which specializes in a murky, pork-rich tonktosu soup. Ramen shops that offer tonkotsu soup on their menu in addition to soy and miso soups (*cough*...Ebisu, a half mile from SSG) most likely cheat by adding a commercial tonkotsu base to their all-purpose broth. Shinsen Gumi offers only this style of soup, and does it better than anyone in these parts.

SSG names their ramen after Hakata, a Kyushu port city. Their unique broth takes 15 hours to make by vigorously boiling bones, meat, and vegetables, rendering a richly murky, flavorful base the color of Mom’s pork chops. A secret-recipe soup flavoring is added to this broth, to your liking: light, regular, or strong.

Customize your ramen further at SSG. Kyushu soup is slicked with pork fat, and SSG lets you select how much you want. The noodles will be cooked to your spec: soft, regular, or firm. I order firm, because they'll continue to cook in the bowl. Their extra thin noodles have an elastic resilience that please the teeth.

The standard ramen comes topped with chopped scallions, red julienned ginger, and a slice of chashu, Japanese roast pork. There's a dozen additional toppings to choose from. Add extra pork, a hard boiled egg, bamboo shoots, nori, butter, or get a dollop of spicy miso on the side. This Korean influenced chili paste packs a lot of heat. Although I love spicy foods, the spicy miso overwhelms the delicious soup.

You can get an extra serving of noodles for 95 cents. For the stunt eater / frat boy set: men who can finish six extra helpings and women that polish off five get their extras for free.

Above: gyoza comes with the "A" set lunch

Lunch combos cost less than $8. The same items at dinner will run a lot more. Choose from several excellent sides, notably the gyoza: one-bite garlicky potstickers expertly cooked with a crispy crust. Dipped in a mix of soy, vinegar and chili oil, gyoza goes with ramen like strippers with rock stars.

I love the Spam musubi: a Hawaiian mom might pack this for lunch. A teriyaki-grilled slice of Spam between two layers of steamed rice, and wrapped with seaweed. These sounded wrong to me at first, but they’re delicious! Arrive early, because these sell out quickly. Other sides such as fried rice or salad are competent, but unexceptional.

SSG is part of a Gardena-based group of restaurants that offer Japanese specialties not found in your typical sushi / teppan shop. The Fountain Valley location has the ramen shop, and an adjoining restaurant that offers grilled Japanese pub foods called robatayaki – be advised to choose the right storefront. The exceptionally delicious (and fairly pricy) charcoal-grilled fare and sake selection at SSG merits its own review; watch for that in a future story.

Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen
18315 Brookhurst St. Ste 1
(Across the parking lot from the Rite Aid)
Fountain Valley, CA

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Ramen 101 w/ Professor Salt

Cold rainy days call for hot soup. Toothsome noodles. A slice of braised pork. Those three elements spell ramen with a capital R. During last week's torrential rainstorms, I explored some of the Orange County ramen joints I mentioned in the post called Ramentown USA. I'll post specific reviews later this week.

I consider the dish a soup with noodles, as opposed to noodles with soup. I make this distinction because the soup is my focus. Any ramen guy can buy noodles and boil them al dente. Does he* know how to build a broth, and make it great day after day?
* Props to the lady ramen guys. The other 99.8% of ramen guys are guys.

Distinguishing ramen as a soup dish serves a second purpose, of defining its regional style. The most common style originated in Tokyo, defined by a clear broth flavored with soy sauce (shoyu). A miso flavored soup comes from the northern island of Hokkaido. The murky, fat-slicked pork broth from Kyushu is also known as tonkotsu (pork bone) soup. The fourth major style of soup simply flavored with salt is called shio ramen. I'm a tonkotsu soup guy, but some places make a damn fine clear soup, too.

Broth is the foundation for the soup. Shops post signs proudly proclaiming how many hours it takes to make their broth. Technique is critical, and secretive. Pork leg bones might be cracked with a hammer to expose the marrow or not, depending on the desired result. To make a clear broth, bones are simmered gently to draw out flavors, but not the fats and proteins that would cloud it. Tonkotsu broth is boiled vigorously to render the fatty marrow that colors it a pallid, off white. Either way, some of the broth might be set aside to start the next day's batch.

The cook adds another layer of obsessively flavored seasonings to this foundation. The slice of pork served with your bowl was braised in a soy sauce based liquid. Like Chinese "red cooked" pork, some of this liquid is saved to cook the next day's pork, and the rest flavors the soup broth. Like Shrek, a ramen soup has many layers.

Vegetarians be advised: if yer vegetable ramen don't say it's truly vegetarian, it ain't.

Noodles vary in style, but not as much as the soup. Ramen noodles are fresh wheat and egg noodles. Some will be fat as spaghettini, others thin as capellini. Some will be frizzy, some straight. Ask for "kata-men" to get it cooked firmer than normal. The noodles will continue to cook and soften in your hot soup. Places that hand-stretch their own are rare even in Japan, but worth seeking out to witness the zenith of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Want to know more? will tell you everything you'd possibly want to know about ramen: the variations, photographic examples of the best in Japan, and where to get ramen around the globe.

Then go rent
Tampopo. It's the classic food movie about ramen. And movies.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Nam Viet - Irvine

If I tell you about a place whose food I don't love, do I do you a disservice? The chef came out to say hi, and wants to hear feedback. Should I give her my honest, somewhat negative opinion?

What would Buddha do?

A Vietnamese restaurant just opened in my neighborhood, and my first visit underwhelmed me. Really nice owner is making a go of it and I want her to succeed. But the food is overpriced for what it is, and not as good as others places. $7 for banh mi might fly in a neighborhood used to paying that much for a Quizno's sub. But any number of bakeries in Little Saigon sell a killer banh mi for $1.75.

We started with their excellent coffees: I had a Viet coffee with sweetened condensed milk, Katy had the latte. They've invested in some serious coffee equipment, and they know how to use it. Very good stuff.

We tried a couple dishes: the fried spring rolls, house special pho, and a roast pork banh mi. The spring rolls were nicely done - served with the classic accompaniements of lettuce leaf, mint, and fish sauce to dip in, these were competent, but not mind blowing. Total for lunch ran $35. Kinda spendy, in other words.

The banh mi was good, the pork more so than the baguette sourced from Gala Bakery in Long Beach. Baguettes are at their best very briefly after they're baked, so any banh mi shop that buys their bread elsewhere starts with a big handicap. The roast pork is very well seasoned with a slightly sweet glaze, and expertly grilled.

The pho needs work. The broth is too sweet for my tastes, the brisket tough and leathery. Brisket needs to cook for a long time to cook tenderly, and that didn't happen with mine. Perhaps the kitchen still needs to work out the kinks. Until they get sorted out, I'd choose Pho Bac on Barranca Pkwy for pho in this part of Irvine.

I don't claim to be any kind of expert on Viet cuisine, but I've eaten enough to know a restaurant that caters to Viet clientele from one that doesn't. Someone who's intimidated by Little Saigon but wants Viet food can have a good meal here, love the cuisine, and explore further. That was how it worked for me when I had my first Thai meal in a suburban, gringo-ized restaurant. And perhaps that's the customer that Nam Viet seeks. Try it for yourself and decide.

Nam Viet
15455 Jeffrey Rd

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Two books for the New Year

Ever wanted to order off of the specials menu hand-written in Chinese in a restaurant where nobody else is speaking English? The serious food enthusiast should order a copy of James D McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters.

McCawley's a linguistics professor teaching the written language found on menus, complete with pratice exercises. He doesn't attempt to teach any of the spoken dialects, which is a whole different ballgame. My resolution for this year is to understand at least half of the specials menu in the local restaurants that cater to the Chinese community here in Irvine.

Almost every herb and spice used in European and Asian cuisines is well photographed and described in Jill Norman's Herbs and Spices: The Cook's Reference. Publishing color photos on every page of a book is terribly expensive, so I hope Norman sells enough copies to keep this volume in print!

This culinary encylopedia illustrates hundreds of herbal ingredients both common and unusual. I recently purchased Vietnamese corn tea, which contains pandan leaf. What's that? Norman's got it covered. If you're an eggheaded type like me, then this book's for you.

Oh - for disclosure's sake - I am now pimping Amazon. I'm recommending these books because I sincerely like them, not because I want the nickel I earn from you clicking through and buying stuff from them. So though I feel a tad whorish, I bought these books from Amazon, and I feel good about sending you there too.