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Sep 2, 2010 10:27 AM

Okinawan Tonkotsu Ramen and Kotteri Garlic Ramen at Ramen Tenma in San Jose

Last week William and I had a chance to check out Ramen Tenma, following up on KK’s tip, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6792... . It’s tucked around the corner from Lion, facing directly on Saratoga Avenue. Beer is available, but no hot tea.

To start, we tried the Simmered pork and egg, marked down to $4.50 this night.

More accustomed to dark soy sauce and star anise-marinated renditions, the simmered pork and egg looked eerily pale. So light in color, one might think they're unseasoned. Yet some delicate notes were definitely present. Maybe I was unduly influenced by the cases of katsuobushi (dried, smoked bonito) packed into the cold case I saw in the hallway as the subtle flavors of katsuobushi and kombu (kelp) dashi were what came through for me. A lovely jelly-yolked egg split in half, but served cold in the center, and the bacon cut pork was barely warm. The meat was tender but a little coarse in texture. The dab of wine-y mustard was Dijon-style instead of the more assertive Japanese paste, making a better partner with the lightness of this dish.

For me, the regular size Tenma ramen, $8.50, made with Okinawan-style tonkotsu stock and including a marinated egg. The basic stock is seasoned with a little shoyu and salt. At first I was a little disappointed by the stock, which had more vegetable flavors and seemed to lack depth. But later it grew on me, and the tastiest and most complex expression came through near the bottom of the bowl in the last room temperature spoonfuls. This was without the addition of any condiments.

The skinny noodles were uncommonly firm, almost feeling crunchy and brittle in the mouth. William commented that they’re similar in chew-factor to Hong Kong-style wonton noodles. When asked, Chef Sena said that these are alkali water noodles, a style traditional to the north islands, procured in San Jose. The bowl was topped with two slices of tender roast pork, large whole wood ears, chopped scallions, plucked bean sprouts, seasoned egg, and pickled ginger. Nice job on the pork, well-browned around the edges, delicately seasoned, smooth and melt-in-the-mouth tender. Bobbing on the hot stock, the ecru-tinted soft-cooked egg was warm inside this time. I liked the hot-tart-sweet bite of the ginger as contrast.

As part of the Tenma ramen set, I picked the Okinawan bowl, $2.50. A small portion of steamed white rice topped with miso-pork, a squirt of mayonnaise, shredded nori, scallions and sesame seeds was delicious. I liked it even more for breakfast the next morning.

William tried the Summer special: Kotteri Tenma ramen, $9.50, made from the same base stock as the tonkotsu with a special tare (seasoning sauce) and garlic. “Limited 15” puzzled our friend, Mamerto, who jokingly asked if each customer could only order 15 bowls apiece.

Richer in flavor and texture from added fat floating on the surface, the kotteri broth was infused with sweet, savory garlic. We were expecting the garlic to be more pungent but instead it was quite mellow and harmonious. Initially I preferred the flavor of this stock, but as noted above, the regular tonkotsu later took the lead for me. William said this ramen was enjoyable, especially if you prefer firm noodles, but along this stretch of the South Bay, he’d be eating Halu ramen for the same price.

“rotiprata” reported on the same two ramen bowls here,

The special for September is Okinawan soba, and Tenma also announced that it will be adding new appetizers. I’ll be keeping an eye on this one for dishes not found elsewhere in this area.

Comparing Tenma’s cooking with Kahoo and Orenchi that both offer lighter styles, we concluded that the quality here falls in between. Ramen Tenma enters the ramen ranking at #15.

1. Ramen Halu, 375 Saratoga Ave Ste M, San Jose
2. Santouka @ Mitsuwa Hokkaido Festival, 675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
3. Himawari, 202 2nd Ave, San Mateo
4. Orenchi Ramen, 3540 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara
5. Maru Ichi, 368 Castro St, Mountain View
6. Izakaya Mai, 212 2nd Avenue, San Mateo
7. Ajisen Noodle, 47890 Warm Springs Blvd, Fremont
8. Alexander’s Steakhouse Lounge, 10330 N Wolfe Rd, Cupertino
9. Orson Restaurant Bar + Lounge, 508 4th St, San Francisco
10. Ramen Dojo, 805 South B St, San Mateo
11. Ryowa, 859 Villa St, Mountain View
12. Tanto, 1063 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
13. Santa, 1944 South El Camino Real, San Mateo (post-move)
14. Do-Henkotsu House of Tokushima Ramen, 4330 Moorpark Ave, San Jose (closed)
15. Ramen Tenma, 487 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
16. Sumiya, 2634 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara
17. Gen Ramen, 47890 Warm Springs Blvd, Fremont (closed)
18. Hana Japanese Restaurant, 101 Golf Course Dr, Rohnert Park
19. Kyora Japanese Restaurant, 1217 Wildwood Ave, Sunnyvale
20. Izakaya Restaurant, 1335 N 1st St, San Jose
21. BY Grill, 3226 Geary Blvd, San Francisco (closed)
22. Norikonoko, 2556 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley
23. Dohatsuten, 799 San Antonio Rd, Palo Alto
24. Hana, 4320 Moorpark, San Jose
25. Ozumo, 2251 Broadway, Oakland
26. Muracci’s, 244 State St, Los Altos
27. Katanaya, 430 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
28. Tadamasa, 34672 Alvarado Niles Road, Union City
29. Masa's Sushi, 400 San Antonio Road, Mountain View
30. Nombe, 2491 Mission St, San Francisco
31. Gochi, 19980 Homestead Rd, Cupertino
32. Oyaji, 3123 Clement St, San Francisco
33. Halu Restaurant, 312 8th Ave, San Francisco
34. Sanmi, 3226 Geary Blvd, San Francisco
35. Maru Ichi, 530 Barber Lane, Milpitas
36. Hatcho, 1271 Franklin Mall, Santa Clara
37. Kahoo, 4330 Moorpark Ave, San Jose
38. Tomoe, 810 3rd St, San Rafael (closed)
39. Ringer Hut, 1072 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
40. Noodle Theory, 3242 Scott St, San Francisco
41. Watami Shabu Shabu and Ramen, 5344 Geary Blvd, San Francisco (closed)
42. Where’s Buta by Elgin Espiritu and June Lee, Eat Real Festival, Oakland
43. Kumako, 211 E. Jackson Street, San Jose
44. Japanese Restaurant Hoshi, 246 Saratoga Avenue, Santa Clara
45. Ramen Club, 723 California Dr, Burlingame
46. Ryowa, 2068 University Ave, Berkeley (after ownership change)
47. King Won Ton, 1936 Irving St, San Francisco
48. Tazaki Sushi, 3420 Judah St, San Francisco
49. Ramen Rama, 19774 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino (closed)
50. Ogi-San Ramen, 10789 Blaney Ave, Cupertino (closed)
51. Kaimuki Grill, 104 S El Camino Real, San Mateo (closed)
52. Tanto, 1306 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
53. Okazu Ya SF (Noriega), 2445 Noriega St, San Francisco
54. King's Garden Ramen, 39055 Cedar Blvd, Newark (closed)
55. Sushi Bistro, 445 Balboa St, San Francisco
56. Genki Ramen, 3944 Geary Blvd, San Francisco
57. Mitsuwa Hokkaido festival booth, 675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose
58. Lakuni, 325 E 4th Ave, San Mateo
59. 100% Healthy Desserts, 1155 Taraval St., San Francisco
60. Mifune, 1737 Post St, San Francisco
61. H2A Noodle, 42318 Fremont Blvd., Fremont (closed)
62. Iroha, 1728 Buchanan St, San Francisco
63. Miraku Noodles, 2131 N Broadway, Walnut Creek
64. Manpuku, 2977 College Ave, Berkeley
65. Tanpopo, 1740 Buchanan Street, San Francisco
66. Sushi Yoshi, 39261 Cedar Blvd, Newark
67. La Shang Niang Ramen (OEC), 42 Dixon Rd, Milpitas
68. Oidon, 71 E. 4th Avenue, San Mateo
69. Taraval Okazu Ya, 1735 Taraval St., San Francisco
70. Suzu Noodle House, 1581 Webster Street, San Francisco
71. Bushido Izakaya, 156 Castro St, Mountain View
72. Fresh Taste, 2107 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
73. Asuka Ramen, 883 Bush St, San Francisco
74. Sapporo-ya, 1581 Webster St, San Francisco
75. Tokyo Ramen, 678 Barber Lane, Milpitas (closed)
76. Kamakura, 2549 Santa Clara Ave, Alameda
77. Mama-san!, 312 8th Ave, San Francisco (closed)
78. Katana-ya Ramen, 10546 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito
79. Hotei, 1290 9th Ave, San Francisco
80. Bear's Ramen House, 2521 Durant, Berkeley

Ramen Tenma
487 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129

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  1. Your #2 place, is that a seasonal thing? Only during that certain festival?

    4 Replies
    1. re: achefsbest

      Santouka now has a permanent space inside Mitsuwa market on the other side of the freeway from Ramen Tenma. Here's the thread with many posts about it.

      The #2 rating was based on an earlier sampling at a special festival. My experience at the current location was not as good, but I waited too long to post about it and can't provide many details, so I've not given it a rank until I can return.

      And if you're in the area, don't discount Orenchi. I might like it more than Santouka.

      675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA

      Ramen Tenma
      487 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Thank you. I can't wait to eat at all those places.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Excellent report! hope to try that new Tenma ramen place soon.
          Agree completely with Santouka - the ramen at the festival was way better than the current permanent stand version. Also, I've seen pics of the new Santouka in Canada that opened in March, I think. The food looks so much better (juicy toroniku meat, better garnished dishes, real dinnerware and utensils - no plastic) than the SJ store. I dunno why the bay area is treated like 2nd class by Santouka.

          1. re: L C

            As it turned out I did make it back to Santouka last week. While better than my last experience, it's still not up to what was served at the festival. More soon.

            I hope to see what you think of Tenma's offerings some time soon.

      2. Wow, local Okinawa soba. Never thought I'd see that.

        (Coincidentally, I'm currently in Honolulu to attend the annual Okinawa Festival -- where I'll be wearing my Okinawa soba t-shirt!)

        1 Reply
        1. re: Debbie M

          I've only tried it here, so I hope you'll have a chance to test out Tenma's version and give us an opinion. Also, please check out Kyora in Sunnyvale (see my post).

        2. September Special: Okinawa Soba

          I really didn’t think I’d be back here in time to catch this special. But I managed to have lunch at Ramen Tenma on Tuesday. Here’s the menu for September offering up Okinawa soba and more appetizers.

          At 1:00PM, the version with the pork rib was already sold out. I ordered the regular Okinawa soba, $8. The cloudy, caramel-colored soup stock was less fatty than my earlier tonkotsu but still had a fine creaminess on the palate. It’s made with some of the basic tonkotsu stock blended with a fish-based dashi. Some smoky notes from katsuobushi made things more interesting but unlike Orson’s broth, did not dominate. Everything came together in seamless harmony. Combined with the briny sweetness of the sea and meaty flavors, the soup packed a lot of intensity but without the weight. With the gingery notes and nuttiness of toasted sesame, I preferred this very flavorful but leaner soup stock to the previous two offerings.

          My first experience with Okinawa soba . . . and I’m sold. Thick, firm and elastic, the fresh noodles had a very satisfying chewiness. Only one slice of roast pork this time, but again, tasty, tender and of good quality.

          With a mini yaki onigiri, $1, the portion was just right for lunch. http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

          Studying the refrigerated pantry this time to and from the restroom, I spotted organic agave syrup and Okinawan Chatan sea salt. On the kitchen counter I spotted this batch of tamago in the seasoning brine. Chef Sena said that they soak for only 20 minutes.

          Prices here include tax, so my tab was $9 before tip. Cash only.

          6 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Did they have a little bottle filled with awamori (rice spirits, about 40%) and vinegar with little whole hot peppers in it for seasoning? A few shakes of that into Okinawa Soba really puts an authentic flavor spin on things.

            1. re: Tripeler

              Not on the table, only white pepper and red chile shakers. But thanks for mentioning this, the next one to try Tenma will know to ask.

                1. re: Debbie M

                  Ramen Tenma doesn't have koregusu (yet), but I was told that they'll have the Kotteri ramen special again next month. They have one monthly special ramen, and they announce unique weekday deals on Facebook that u need to ask for because it's not posted at the restaurant. I guess it's a strategy to attract SV tech customers. But the restaurant is so small that it fills up quickly. As MW reported, the Okinawa soba with pork ribs was very good. Also like the okinawan bowl (minced miso-pork donburi appetizer) for $2. They accept take out orders.

                  Also Okinawan soba is usually available at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (April) in SF Japantown (note that since they make hundreds of orders for the festival, sometimes a few noodles are stuck together).

                  Ramen Tenma
                  487 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129

                  1. re: L C

                    Thanks, L C. Could you please tell us about the pork rib? This extra was sold out when I tried the Okinawan soba.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Sorry for the late reply, I don't check this site that often. The pork rib meat is different from what u get at Ajisen (I like that one too). I got 2 thick slabs of meat (1 long, 1 chubby) in my bowl, clearly they were made ahead of time and just added after cooking the noodles. The exterior was very charred but the meat was not dry, tender because it's not a lean cut, taste is similar to homemade stew meat. Good but not as orgasmic as kakuni or rafute.

                      I think that the "limited 10 portions" sign (for pork rib) is a gimmick. I cannot seriously believe that they'd only have 20 slices (2 per bowl) of pork rib meat total. RT's menu is VERY short yet the kitchen is twice the size of Muracci's in SF, which has x15 times more menu items.

                      I went early but the place was already full (20 seats), and 2 tables on the waiting list ahead of me. Many customers seemed to order the Okinawa soba with pork rib, so I was concerned they'd run out. But I was able to get it when I got a seat. Don't know how many portions they have, but my guess is more than what the sign says.

          2. By way of background, Okinawa is one of three places with a tradition of lye-kneaded noodles, along with Lanzhou, China and Chiang Mai, Thailand, according to this paper: http://is.gd/fiePU

            1. I randomly drove by Tenma because the Saratoga Ave ramp off 280 in the other direction was backed up (was going to Mitsuwa) and saw the Open sign after I pulled my U-turn. They've changed their hours since I looked a few months ago and are now open Tuesday night and are closed Wednesday. Lucky me!

              Ramen Tenma now has 2 different Okinawa Soba options, one that is purely seafood based (Katsuoboshi / Bonito) along with their original with pork. They have also expanded their standard ramen menu since my last visit with a Shoyu, Tsukemen, and a few Spicy options, plus thin, medium, or thick noodles depending on the item. TV was playing Japanese league baseball.

              I went with their dinner special which is ramen plus 2 side dishes for $12 (can go up with different ramens) and upgraded my Okinawa Soba with the +$3 pork spare rib option. For the sides I chose Kimchi & Mini-Okinawa Bowl. The prices include tax.

              Kimchi was pretty standard. "Mini" Okinawa Bowl is a good description with a small amount of chopped pork with miso, a couple green onions and slivers of nori. Nice tender, sweet pork. Next time I might skip the dinner special and get a full sized Okinawa bowl!

              The Okinawa Soba has a simple presentation with a square of nori, sliced negi, pickled ginger, sprouts, 1 (large) slice of chashu, and the rib. The dark brown broth is richly flavored and not very fatty. The chashu was excellent and maybe 5" in diameter. The spare-rib was tender and sweet from it's braising liquid, but with the amount of meat to bone (before & after shots in my pics), I didn't think it was worth the $3 for just one (from Melanie's 9/2010 pic, it looks like it used to be a $1.50 option).

              The noodles are described as resembling Udon, but are thinner with more of a rectangular cross-section. They were nicely al-dente and had nice chew. The waiter (owner?) said it's their recipe manufactured by a local noodle company. I liked these much better than the thin, wiry noodles I've had previously.

              The Okinawa chili sauce, Koregusu, is now provided which definitely kicks things up a notch. A few drops was enough for me, but I'm not a hardcore spice junky.

              While I was eating a complimentary half medium-boiled egg appeared!

              Need to come back and try their Medium thickness noodles.

              1 Reply
              1. re: drewskiSF

                Super report, drewskiSF! Have you been back since?