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Spicy Seafood Ramen (Champon) @ Hatcho, Santa Clara

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Intrigued by Rich's mention of lunch time ramen, I called ahead to find out if ramen was also available at dinner time and learned that it is. William and I tried it last week.

We ordered a few small plates to start and a bowl of spicy seafood ramen to share. The potato croquettes, $3.50, weren't bad, just innocuous. Fried nicely but bland in flavor and lacking much potato taste, they had a nice crunch to them. William pointed out that they weren't greasy and they were very large. Grilled gindara, $10, was the largest piece we've seen in three outings. It had been expertly grilled and had a wonderful smoky aroma. However, the fish was oddly soft and almost mushy in texture and lacked the fresh sweetness of other examples tried recently. Kushi katsu, $7, was a pair of skewered pork and onion pieces coated with panko so that it looked like a solid piece that William dubbed a Japanese corn dog and deep-fried. Like the other dishes, these were enormous as well. This was too much deep-fried stuff by this point and the dried-out pork didn't invite eating.

We had better luck, fortunately, with the spicy seafood ramen, $10.50. Our waitress had asked us what level of spicy we wanted, and we compromised at medium hot. She also asked if we wanted it with or without Chinese chives, which has not been posed by anyone to me before, so we said we said "yes".

Now I can tell you that if you like Chinese chives, this is the dish and the place for you. This bowl was the biggest we've seen, bigger than Ramen Club's even, and not much smaller than a bathroom basin. It was more than double the serving of the same dish at Izakaya Mai for the same price. And, it was was covered thickly with Chinese chives. Not just a few snipped lengths, these were whole chives all the way down to the tender pale green near the root end, maybe one whole bunch or possibly two, and excellent quality as well.

Besides being a large volume, the contents were tightly packed. It was near impossible to stir the bowl in the way we would other bowls of ramen which are loosely layered and mostly broth. This one had an uncommon density of ingredients with some soup poured over to fill in the few small spaces. The toppings (which isn't the right word in this case) included grilled giant squid, fried fish cake, green-lipped mussels, psychadelic pink fish cake, tiny shrimp, tentacles, and fresh jalapeño chilis for heat. Oh yeah, that's another thing. We assumed the spiciness would come from kimchee, instead, this bowl had fresh chili peppers in it.

The other versions of champon I've tried had some pork or beef in it. This one did not have any pieces of meat, but the taste of pork resonated in the meaty-tasting broth. But it wasn't just pork, but all kinds of complex seafood flavors like shrimp shells, bonito flakes, and since this is a sushi bar, maybe all the bones of the fish that have passed through. It had a warming bit of heat from the chilis, a delicious garlic-oniony taste from the chives, an exotic dash of white pepper, and a fresh sweetness from the vegetables (bean sprouts and cabbage). The broth was also unusual in not being a milky, fatty stock. While the flavor was meaty, the broth was absolutely greaseless and clear as a bell. Very intense in flavor, yet not heavy or thick and only moderately salty, this was quite a unique broth.

This was a really hard one to rank. The broth was very complex and unusual. Part of the toppings were good even though some were weak (e.g., the squid had little flavor but a huge quantity). The noodles were so-so and cooked too soft. And, one can't help but be swayed by the size of the serving. We agreed that it was better than the champon at Izakaya Mai we had tried together. I decided to peg this bowl at #14.

1. Ramen Halu, San Jose
2. Santa, San Mateo
3. Ryowa, Berkeley
4. Himawari, San Mateo
5. Ryowa, Mountain View
6. Tanto, Sunnyvale
7. Maru Ichi, Mountain View
8. Do-Henkotsu House of Tokushima Ramen, San Jose
9. Gen Ramen, Fremont
10.BY Grill, San Francisco
11.Norikonoko, Berkeley
12.Masa’s Sushi, Mountain View
13.Oyaji, San Francisco
14.Hatcho, Santa Clara
15.Maru Ichi, Milpitas
16.Tomoe, San Rafael
17.Ringer Hut, San Jose
18.Izakaya Mai, San Mateo
19.Ramen Club, Burlingame
20.Tazaki Sushi, San Francisco
21.Ramen Rama, Cupertino
22.Ogi-San Ramen, Cupertino
23.Kaimuki Grill, San Mateo
24.Tanto, San Jose
25.Okazu Ya SF (Noriega), San Francisco
26.King’s Garden Ramen, Newark
27.Sushi Bistro, San Francisco
28.Lakuni, San Mateo
29.Iroha, San Francisco
30.Miraku Noodles, Walnut Creek
31.Manpuku, Berkeley
32.Tanpopo, San Francisco
33.Sushi Yoshi, Newark
34.Suzu Noodle House, San Francisco
35.Oidon, San Mateo
36.Sapporo-ya, San Francisco
37.Kamakura, Alameda
38.Tokyo Ramen, Milpitas
39.Katana-ya Ramen, El Cerrito
40.Hotei, San Francisco
41.Bear’s Ramen House, Berkeley

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