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Tokyo Cafe - best ramen in L.A.? (ramen review!)

acting on yet another rumor of such-and-such place having "the best ramen in town," i walked into tokyo cafe next to the east-west playhouse (in little tokyo) late in the afternoon today and decided to investigate for myself. i was skeptical, but two details piqued my initial interest - that the owner was from kyushu and that she'd been trying for years to make a suitable bowl of noodles. actually it's her husband that's from fukuoka but anyway...

the place was empty save for a youngish guy in an apron and his friend at one of the 4 tables - the former i assume was the owners' son, as the business is entirely family-run. they weren't eating so much as reading a stack of newspapers and discussing video games.

signed headshots of famous and not-so-famous asian american actors lined the walls. "to tokyo cafe" they all read; which made me wonder, did all these guys beat me to the best bowl of ramen in town? maybe i was in for a secret little gem of an experience...

eventually a woman poked her head out and gave me a menu, but i already knew i was going to be there for the ramen. "ramen and gyoza," i ordered. wooden placards above the kitchen had various specialties scrawled upon them, in japanese: saba, sanma, salmon, hakata ramen, gyoza...

i did a double take. "HAKATA ramen!" now there's a boast. anyone familiar with northern kyushu's most famous culinary export knows that shinsengumi is the only semi-authentic purveyor of hakata ramen in southern california. we'll have to see about that, i thought.

within minutes, it arrived. and it certainly LOOKED promising. definitely NOT like hakata ramen, with its trademark white broth and spare accompaniment highlighted by red, pickled ginger.

i immediately tore into it, and wouldn't you know it, it pretty much was EXACTLY what i thought it would be. NOT the best, NOT hakata, but a competent version of kyushu-style ramen as you might find in any non-descript rice-field town in southern japan.

first off, the tonkotsu soup has a definite heady essence of PORK to it, something that none of the other places around - daikokuya, ssg, chabuya, really manage to capture. only santouka really retains as much "porkiness" in their soups, but they're of a different category (where shoyu/miso/shio are the main flavor). unless you've been to japan, you may or may not know what i'm getting at, but the tonkotsu at tokyo cafe is actually very "porky" in that kyushu way. daikokuya's soup has a smokey funk to it that, though not unpleasant, isn't quite like the real thing. shin sen gumi? their broth is tonkotsu, but is a mediocre version of authenticity. if anything, the broth here resembles chabuya's; both try for the same level of intensity and flavor but don't quite achieve it. but tokyo cafe's broth comes closer, and is certainly "porkier."

noodles. this is where the ramen fell flat. sadly, like most ramen shops, tokyo cafe uses the same yellow, egg and bicarbonate noodles that everyone else uses. they serve it al dente and call it hakata ramen, but it's nothing like the real thing. ssg's noodles come closest - they're unrisen wheat noodles that are super thin and firm and white in color. THAT SPECIFICALLY is the essence of "hakata ramen" and nothing else really belongs in that category.

tokyo cafe gives an admirable effort, though, considering they're entirely family run. if there were such a thing as "kobe pork" their chashu would definitely take the cake; it was SO FATTY i could barely eat it. i never thought i'd be paraphrasing s. irene virbilia, but like she said about the kobe steaks at cut, "it was like having fat marbled with meat." in my case, that meant it was pretty inedibile (or more like, chew-uppable and spittable).

the other toppings were decent: negi and (once again, i appreciate the effort) a tiny pinch of takana-like pickled vegetables, but not quite the real thing.

all in all, it added up to a pretty decent bowl of ramen, and is very reminiscent of your run-of-the-mill neighborhood ramen shops in kyushu (which, for the most part, are miles better than anything in L.A.). is it the best? no. santouka is still the gold standard. shin sen gumi does a more authentic "hakata" ramen. daikokuya exists in its own funky shoyu-tonkotsu world and if you like it, you like it. but tokyo is a reasonable alternative right around the corner, that's for sure. if anything, it's closest in spirit to the ramen at ikkyu (it's q) ramen in hacienda heights. both go for the gold but come up a little short in the broth department; both use janky generic egg noodles and undercook it in efforts to replicate hakata-style firmness.

oh by the way, their gyoza - rectangular, flattened and pretty much an homage to daikokuya's, are quite EXCELLENT, if a bit skimpy on the filling.

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  1. Thanks for the review. I also would love to have authenitc ramen in LA but sadly my ramen experience in Japan is limited so I am not qualified to judge. I am much better versed in soba and udon. Next time I go to Japan I will try more. Interesting your take on her style. The owner is from Kyushu and said her sister is a ramen expert who tried for years to teach her. Eventually after her sister left for Japan, she made up a bit of her own style.

    At the very least, this place has opened up a new ramen world for me and intruduced me to some diffences and subtlties that just aren't there with Daikokuya or other downtown ramen places.

    1 Reply
    1. re: cls

      ah i see. i asked the woman there if she was from kyushu and she said her husband was. maybe i was talking to a different woman/aunt or something?

      as for authentic ramen, there are literally thousands of variations on it depending on the shop/location/etc., so it's hard to say. hakata ramen though, usually refers to a specific style/type of noodle. until recently, tonkotsu-based ramen has been a rarity in L.A., but looks like that's starting to change =). definitely a good thing!

    2. Great review.

      I'll have to hit this place up sometime.


      1. I have been saying for a while now that these gyoza are the best I've had. Not your traditional shape and taste, but definitely my favorites. Perhaps I don't find the filling skimpy because I love the wrapping, and I always get 2 orders. So, so good.

        1. Still a big fan of Mr. Ramen.
          Curry ramen is out of this world.

          1. Nice review...

            I've heard champon ramen was the "thing to get" at the old Tokyo Gardens. Sill on the menu at Tokyo Cafe?

            5 Replies
            1. re: weebie

              not sure i noticed, but if they have a champon on the menu, i'd imagine it would be pretty decent if not outstanding, since you don't need specialized hakata-style noodles for it and they could concentrate on getting the broth right.

              1. re: weebie

                Tokyo Gardens?? Wait, are they the same owners? I've had the champon. It would've been great on a winter day but unfortunately it was the middle of summer. Way too salty but it hit the spot regardless.

                1. re: pirikara

                  Yes, same people from the old Tokyo Gardens.

                2. re: weebie

                  I love the spicy champon at Hanaichimonme in the Mitsuwa marketplace. But then again, that's the only place I've tried it at......

                  1. re: MeowMixx

                    I agree, the spicy champon is great with the seafood (clam, shrimp, squid) in a tonkotsu broth.

                    Actually wrote a post about it awhile back.


                3. Where in LT is this place again?

                  1. next to the east-west playhouse. just north of 1st street on san pedro. i think they call it judge john aiso st. or something, but i never pay attention...

                    1. Yes it's right next to the David Henry Hwang Theatre. Just google that and it's right next door.

                      1. Wow...I don't know where to start...

                        I was in DT on business with my GF on the way to Izayoi for their amazing $10 Izayoi bento...All of a sudden i remembered Tokyo Cafe and I thought I would give it a try.

                        As soon as we sat down, i knew we were in trouble. A place that serves hamburgers and sandwiches probably shouldnt advertise that they make authentic hakata ramen. Here is the thing about ramen: you have to master your soup. That's why you shouldn't serve too many variations at your Ramenya ala Asahi Ramen which is so bland it makes me ill thinking about it, especially their miso soup errrr ramen.

                        We both ordered hakata ramen and gyoza to share. The gyoza was extremely oily first of all. More importantly, I felt like i was eating griled gyoza skin cause the filling was seriously on the skimpy side.

                        Once the ramen appeared, it LOOKED fairly legit. However, one thing i noticed was the color of the broth. It wasn't white nor red like the yokohama style tonkotsu. Instead it was more like a thick, dark biege. Very odd. The first thing of course was the taste the soup...hmmm....uhhh, where is the flavor? let me try once more...uhhh what is this???? My girlfriend and I both looked at each other like "oh boy...another pretender in LA."

                        The positive: The chasu was fairly tasty
                        The negatives: the soup, the noodles were chewy, the toppings weren't doing much in terms of adding flavor either.

                        Top it off, the old lady tending to our water straight asked my GF in japanese "how is the ramen?" wow...she also said in japanese that i knew how to use chop sticks very well and i slurped my noodles like a pro. greeeeeeeeeeeat...

                        Do yourself a favor, SKIP THIS PLACE!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: ronnie_gaucho

                          lol the first time i went there i noticed that the "hakata" ramen had a generously porky flavor that was actually almost compelling, despite it being nothing like real hakata-style ramen. then i went back recently and it was... completely awful.

                        2. Two major components to ramen are obviously the soup and noodles. growing up in a japanese household and visiting Japan a rew times doesn't make me an expert, but I have had quite a few bowls of ramen in my life. Of all the bowls I've tried here in LA, most achieve "taste," by adding alot of salt (and who knows what else).

                          The one place that I can say the taste is the purest, where a shoyu ramen tastes of shoyu, and a shio ramen tastes of a great mineral salt and not salty like a bag of potato chips, is Kin Chan ramen. The noodles are always cooked perfectly - the perfect amount of bounce and bite and that signature slightly egg noodle scent of ramen noodles hitting your nose as you pick up a batch with your ohashi and slirp it into your mouth. Kin Chan is a small ramen shop on Sawtelle in West LA, about a block north of Olympic on the west side of Sawtelle - you know, that strip mall loaded with restaurants. This place came highly reccomended to me by a former neighbor who is from Japan and also has a restaurant on that stretch of Sawtelle. They serve up a simple proper bowl of ramen.

                          Just watching the chefs in the kitchen at work is a clue that they take their food very seriously. Each person has their appointed tasks: one person works only noodles, the other only works the soup. They each know what to do and when to do in perfect synchronization with each other - almost zen in their acts.

                          The real test for ramen is the soup - you almost always have the soup left as the noodles go down so fast and easy. The soup portion of Kin Chan always has great flavor and is hardly salty at all. I can sip the entire remaining soup without choking on the salty aftertaste or having to reach for a glass of water. I might also suggest having a side of rice that you can slip into the soup if you still have room for it. The side dishes and fried rice dishes are always good as well. Hope you like it.