i finally found it! "real" ramen in L.A. - santouka notwithstanding (review)
A true rameniac lives for days like these.
Late on a Superbowl Sunday, with hunger mounting and twenty fresh miles on the car, I pull into a desolate South Bay strip mall only to find my intended destination, Shuu-chan Ramen, transformed into a newfangled Asian “Bistro.”
Looking for alternatives, I check out an even more deserted corner mall and peek into Gardena Ramen, which I’ve vaguely heard of but know virtually nothing about. The place stands empty, with nary a single slurper in sight, and though the lights are on and the sign says “open,” a TV has been erected at a corner table, doubtless to kill wasted time.
“Are you sure you want to eat here?” my copilot asks.
“Well, might as well get it over with,” I reply.
An elf-like chef with a toothy grin seemingly materializes out of thin air the moment we enter. Is this magic? I ask for a menu as I take a seat. He points at the wall. “No menu. We only have two kinds. Shoyu ramen and miso ramen.” And gyoza and beer. I can swear he is winking at me.
"This does not look good,” I think. Bottles of Sriracha and Tapatio decorate the tables. What kind of ramen shop is this?
But I should have seen the clues. A one-man operation. A take-it-or-leave it menu of limited choices. A bookshelf with volumes of ramen-themed manga. And last but certainly not least… um… posters of Japanese babes holding mugs of Asahi.
In a nutshell: Gardena Ramen serves the best ramen in Southern California.
Okay, Santouka notwithstanding.
But Asahikawa shio tonkotsu is a different animal altogether. I’m talking shoyu ramen here, purist ramen, the stuff anime characters eat while flicking naruto like ninja stars. Many people - from Japanese ex-pats to ex-Engrish teachers (myself included) - bemoan the lack of “real ramen” outside of the motherland.
Well I’m here to tell you now. “Real ramen” has finally arrived.
Sole chef and proprietor Isao Nakamura’s little ramen shop with the unlit sign is exactly like something you would find on a nondescript sidestreet in Tokyo. His shoyu ramen is a complex (the key word here) concoction derived from torigara (chicken bones), genkotsu (pork knuckle), and niboshi (dried sardines). It is slightly opaque and just a tad too salty, but flavorful in impossibly distinctive ways. It is sweet yet savory. Rich yet light. The product of trial and error, until Nakamura-san found the exacting flavor he was looking for.
“It’s all in the soup,” he says. By virtue of being the lone diners in the place, dinner quickly turns into a rameniac exclusive interview, especially when I start to gush over the broth and prod Nakamura-san with questions. “Had I this recipe when I first opened (roughly a year ago), people would be lined up out the door.”
A partner in the Sushi Mac franchise (which is how he thankfully manages to keep his ramen shop afloat with scant customers), Nakamura-san boils his soup not for hours, but for over two days, all the while skimming and stirring with an oar-sized ramen paddle. “I wake up, come here at 7am, tend the soup, and then go play golf until lunch. Sometimes I go play golf after lunch,” he says with a guilty grin. Upon retiring from his career as a sushi chef, he’d taken a three year sabbatical before opening Gardena Ramen. The place is indisputably his passion project.
I ask him if, given a choice, which would he rather eat. “Ramen or sushi?”
“I’m sick of sushi,” he deadpans.
Nakamura-san is clearly a student of the ramen game, and is amazingly forthcoming about his endeavors. He shows us the numerous recipe books he consulted while honing his craft over the past few months. He describes an experiment he once witnessed on Japanese television, in which mice were fed different tastes and oils and their preferences tracked, then explains how the results influenced his own approach to cooking.
He offers his theory as to why most of the ramen shops outside of Japan, quite frankly, suck. “They have too big a menu. They try to make too many different things. They hire other people to cook. Me, I only have ramen. And I’m the only one here.”
Realizing his ramen is such a marvel, I opt for a side of gyoza. We talk at length of marrow, of noodles in the Yamagata-style of his home prefecture, and of proper tare or soup base. “It doesn’t matter what tare you use, as long as the broth is right,” he insists. Not entirely true. In Gardena’s miso ramen, the salty shiro miso paste kind of overwhelms the delicate flavors of the distinctive broth (the shoyu, if I may reiterate, is superb).
Nakamura-san shows me his kitchen, which is optimized to make nothing but ramen. He realizes he’s forgotten all about the dumplings as they’ve burned to a carbonized crisp. “Oops! You don’t still want them do you?” We laugh. “Next time,” I say. I will be back within the week.
West LA means go to Sawtelle... There's a couple of popular ones on Sawtelle and Olympic, but I'm kind of partial to Kinchan's in the food court across the street from Nijiya. I really like the ramen there, not only because the noodles are always done well, but because the various brothes have great flavor without being too salty.
The gyoza was on the underwhelming side, but I've had far worse. I didn't find the shoyu broth to be superflously salty. It struck a nice balance. But I found my chashu to be bland and a bit on the tough side. I don't know if this place is worth going well out of your way to regularly visit. If I lived in the area, I could see myself maybe as a semi-regular based on the broth alone. If they set up shop in the ramen "black hole" in the valley between Van Nuys and Glendale, I would welcome them with open arms. The chef and the female server were extremely nice and friendly, and I wish them the best. But in such a tough area for competition, you have Santouka not far down Western, and a little further down you have Shisen (which I tried the same day and liked A LOT more than I thought I would).
I am no ramen authority but I've been to most of the places that get mentioned on CH, L.A. Weekly and The L.A. Times. Hopefully I'll make it to Gardena Ramen this week. Yesterday one of my 13 y.o. lads asked if we could go to Shisen Raman, his favorite and I'm also a fan of their spicy offerings. He likes the 'Kid's Ramen' with broth and noodles only, no meat, veg., or other toppings. I had the 'Shisen Paiko Ramen' special with 'Mini Fried Rice' AND Gyoza. GF had the 'Beef Ramen' with the same sides that I had. Everything was really excellent. I forgot to specify very spicy as I have always done in the past but it seemed spicier and better than before! I haven't been here since last October. Noodles were ok, broth and fried pork and veg. - excellent! I had one piece of GF's beef and it was pretty darn tasty. The gyoza were better than before, thinner wrappers with a delicate flavor pork filling. Fried rice, good as always.
Rameniac aside, this place doesn't seem to get much love on these boards. I DO like it, my friend born and raised in Tokyo thanks me for sending her here and I will continue to frequent this place!!!
My original review for my July 2006 visit to Gardena Ramen still stands:
Went tonight (9 Feb 2007) with my wife. She had the shoyu, I had the miso. We shared an order of gyoza.
Quite possibly the worst gyoza in the entire South Bay. Without a doubt. Dry, almost freezer-burnt (?) wrappers with an uninspiring filling. Considering that the gyoza comprises fully ONE THIRD of the offered menu, it's a crime.
For my miso ramen, another bit of uninspired cooking -- broth too salty and not miso-y enough (rameniac alludes to this above), noodles a *wee* bit underdone, woody bamboo (Santouka has the market cornered on succulent bamboo), etc. Not a good bowl of miso ramen.
My wife did say that the shoyu ramen had improved since our last visit, however it suffers from some of the same problems as the miso ramen (a bit too salty, noodles a bit underdone, woody bamboo, etc.).
We both decided that we won't be going back. We basically live at Ground Zero for Japanese food (North Torrance, Gardena adjacent), and there's just too many better options to get our fix.
I wish Nakamura-san much luck, and I hope he'll pick up some new customers based on Rameniac's rave review. But, in the end, it'll be up to the L.A. Chowhounds to decide if it's worthwhile to drive to Gardena for a one-trick pony...
re: Joe Blowe
wow too bad about the gyoza! i'll have to try it at least once i guess.
in retrospect, i probably overhyped it for you guys ><. i'll stand by the shoyu though, as it has a character and depth to it that i've yet to find elsewhere in L.A. i did think it might be a bit too salty for some people, but i also have to confess that my sodium threshhold is probably not on par with a normal person's.
fwitw, my date wasn't hot on the bamboo either. not the greatest, but it didn't bother me enough to affect my topping score too much as the chashu more or less held its own.
were there any other customers when you went? i almost went back there again tonight, but for an incident with some disappearing cup noodle lol.
"were there any other customers when you went?"
Honestly, it was the busiest I've ever seen the place! We "frequent" the donut shop right next door (a bit too often), so I have a good idea of what his business is like. When we arrived last night there was a family of five, an older nurseryman (you can tell by the pruners attached to the hip!), and a younger couple.