Shoyu Ramen @ Norikonoko, Berkeley
Sliding open the shoji to step in from the courtyard, my first impression was that I would find a welcoming, homey and traditional experience. All came true, plus the ramen was good too.
I ordered the chashu shoyu ramen with gyoza. Miso-flavored is also available. From the robata grill section of the menu, I tried salt chicken skewers too. Sitting at the counter, I got to watch my food being prepared at the grill and stove.
The gyoza were served already dressed with a ponzu-like sauce and some fine strips of red pickled ginger that went really well with the flavor of the dumplings. Well-cooked to a crunchy brown, these juicy gyoza were some of the best ones I've had with fresh-tasting ground pork and well-balanced seasonings. The yakitori (grilled chicken) was okay, but not special.
This ramen was unusual in possessing a rare quality not found in many examples I've tried to date --- finesse. It was also the most greaseless with just a few beads of oil floating on the surface and a micron-thin layer of browned fat rimming the pork slices. The mild shoyu stock was well-salted but not as salty as most and was more akin in its subtlety to a lighter dashi used for udon. Rather than being the dominant flavor, the taste of shoyu settled into the background but still played an important part in knitting together the other elements. Ordered "hard", the thin, fresh noodles were straight and had a slippery texture and firmly chewy bite. They soaked up the flavor of the stock nicely. The toppings was placed in exacting proportions. Against the backdrop of the subtle stock, the faint sweetness of the marinated bamboo shoots, fresh flavor of the compressed spinach leaves, chopped green onions, richness of the hard-cooked egg, mild crab-like taste of the fish cake, and the ginger nuance of the roast pork could each shine through directly. In other cases, I have preferred the richer flavor and tenderness of well-marbled pork. Here the small core of tenderloin only is used, and while lean, it is soft and tender with a gentle meatiness in harmony with the personality of this carefully assembled bowl. The slices were faintly pink when presented, completing their cooking in the hot stock, and consequently stayed juicy and didn't dry out.
When the sweet woman behind the counter asked me if things were okay, I raved about the quality of the pork tenderloin, the perfect texture of the spinach, and the amount of care placed in a simple bowl of noodles. She said she was pleased that I'd noticed as they roast the meat themselves. She added that they do not compromise and try to continue the traditional flavor they grew up with at home.
Norikonoko Japanese Restaurant
2556 Telegraph Ave.
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
PERSONAL RAMEN RANKINGS
1. Ramen Halu, San Jose
2. Santa, San Mateo
3. Ryowa, Berkeley
4. Himawari, San Mateo
5. Ryowa, Mountain View
6. Maru Ichi, Mountain View
7. Tanto, Sunnyvale
8. Do-Henkotsu House of Tokushima Ramen, San Jose
9. Gen Ramen, Fremont
10.BY Grill, San Francisco
12.Masas Sushi, Mountain View
13.Oyaji, San Francisco
14.Maru Ichi, Milpitas
15.Tomoe, San Rafael
16.Ringer Hut, San Jose
17.Tazaki Sushi, San Francisco
19.Ogi-San Ramen, Cupertino
20.Kaimuki Grill, San Mateo
21.Tanto, San Jose
22.Okazu Ya SF (Noriega), San Francisco
23.Ramen Club, Burlingame
24.Kings Garden Ramen, Newark
25.Sushi Bistro, San Francisco
26.Lakuni, San Mateo
27.Iroha, San Francisco
29.Tanpopo, San Francisco
30.Sushi Yoshi, Newark
31.Suzu Noodle House, San Francisco
32.Oidon, San Mateo
33.Katanaya, El Cerrito
34.Sapporo-ya, San Francisco
35.Tokyo Ramen, Milpitas
36.Hotei, San Francisco
37.Bears Ramen House, Berkeley
The ramen at Norikonoko is certainly a change of pace. My first taste reaction to the bowl was that it was very simple, almost too simple, like verging on bland. But then I tasted each of the ingredients alone and together and the studied simplicity started to grow on me. Each thing tastes true to itself, if that makes any sense. Then I started to muse that if Paul Bertolli ever tried to make ramen, it might be something like this. Simple, actually stark in some ways, with no extraneous ingredients or flavors in the mix. Nothing about it hits you over the head. This ramen speaks very quietly and not everyone will hear it.
re: Melanie Wong
From both your description and the photo, this is the style of basic ramen that I am most familiar with I lived in Tokyo. When done well (as this one seems to be) I generally prefer this style over more complicated/tweaked variations and the more country-style/heavier broth that many of the Bay Area ramen-yasans are doing now.
So thanks for finding this! I've known about this restaurant, but never realized that they could have good ramen. I'm looking forward to trying it next time in Berkeley.
You're welcome! I think it took me longer to write the description than to eat the thing. (g) It's just that I wanted to be so careful to show its nonobvious attributes.
Tomoe in San Rafael makes a similar Tokyo-style shoyu. The broth there is more savory with an oil slick and a deeper meat flavor. I felt the noodles and the char siu at Norikonoko were superior, so it ranked a few notches higher.
I'm hoping to hear from others who have eaten at this restaurant. I watched several bento lunches being assembled and they looked really good. The small plates menu here sounds interesting and I hope to try some of them another time.
re: Melanie Wong
I've actually frequented Norikonoko many times when I lived in Berkeley for a while. Not only was the food carefully prepared, I especially enjoyed the homey feeling and pride in "cookmanship" prepared by both Noriko-san and her husband. I used to go there to get my curry-rice fixes.
I still remember this one time that she rushed out of the door to give me a simple chocolate when I told her that it was my birthday. That was really sweet. My next birthday I towed my friend visiting from Chicago and my mom visiting from Taiwan over there because it just felt right. I hope to visit there again when I am in Berkeley next time.
(I am surprised, though, that I didn't try the ramen back then. I guess I wasn't in my Ramen Period at that point.)
Hey Melanie, was this your first time at Norikonoko? It was once a favorite of mine. Never had the ramen, but agree wholeheartedly on the gyoza.
Sounds like the sweet woman behind the counter might have been Noriko-san herself. As she once told me, "Norikonoko" translates to "Noriko's daughter." The entire place, from decor to food, seems to echo that.
re: Spoony Bard
Hi Russell, yep, my first time there. It feels very much like eating in someone's home with the choice of fabrics, clutter, and warm woods, plus the watchful eye of the family to see that you're pleased with your food. I guess we don't hear much about it here because it's not a sushi bar. Nor does it seem to offer tempura. Though I've had but one meal, I have a really good feeling about the place.