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“Comfort” Ramen at Namu in San Francisco

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In a recent thread, “nsheth” described Namu’s ramen:
“. . . We were excited about the ramen - the menu states only 6 bowls available a night, and we snagged the last 2. In previous trips there, I've always been too late to get a bowl. All in all, it was probably one of the least successful ramen bowls I've had in recent memory. They were out of pork belly, so they substituted with tonkatsu, which was fine. There was a panko-crusted fried egg on top, which was very good. Nothing else in the bowl worked for me. The broth was a bit flat, boring. There were some pickled green beans, which clashed with everything. The kimchee didn't seem to belong. All in all, a pretty disappointing bowl. Anybody else have any reports on it? Not sure if things were just "off" last night . . .”
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/752432

His report pretty much mirrors my own take on Namu’s ramen. I finally had a chance to try the ramen on September 17. Here’s the description from the “comfort” section of the menu: Namu Ramen, $16 (six orders daily): handmade noodles, pork miso broth, pork shoulder, deep fried egg, daily green vegetables, bean sprouts, kimchee.

My bowl also had tonkatsu as the pork element. One of the best renditions around, I’d love to have this juicy, crispy crusted pork on a plate another time.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Also excellent was the panko-coated, deep-fried egg revealed in this photo, after removing the sheet of nori. I remember having a breaded and fried egg at Tra Vigne years ago when Chiarello was still at the helm. The staff made a big to-do about how excruciatingly difficult it was to make, that the chef had to be in a good mood, yada yada. Here at Namu, the chef makes these every day and hides it in a bowl of noodles with little fanfare. Plus the panko on Namu’s version takes it up a notch. As with the tonkatsu, I’d come back just for this egg.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Besides those two highlights, Namu’s ramen has little else to recommend. The broth was quite weak, lacking meatiness or depth and only had a faint miso note. The handmade noodles, despite being ordered firm, were much too soft although not as mushy as Nombe’s. The daily green vegetables were long-braised gai lan, cooked until very strongly flavored and bordering on bitter, shown in the upper left quadrant of the bowl. When the kimchee from the right side of the bowl flowed toward and mingled with the gai lan, the combination of flavors was plain awful.

A couple days after eating at Namu, I was contacted by a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University for his design class assignment, “Redesign the ramen experience. make it better.” (One example from last year’s class, “design. chopsticks. and journalism” http://tonyzanders.com/258 ) It forced me to take a minute to reconsider the Ramen 2.0 efforts put forth over the last year by contemporary, non-Japanese chefs. With Namu, I’d tried five of them by that point. They’ve all had wonderful toppings using better quality meats, eggs and produce, executed with new gadgets in modern kitchens. At the same time, the soup stocks have all been subpar lacking the complexity and dimensions turned out by the traditional chefs from Japan. On reflection, I realized that I’d been weighting the quality of the toppings too heavily in ranking them. Without a wonderful stock, the first thing I taste in every bowl of ramen, the pleasure is largely diminished and should be reflected in the rank order. Accordingly I’ve re-jiggered and knocked down Alexander’s and Orson a few levels on the list below.

While dazzled by the fried egg at Namu, this bowl of ramen comes in at #34. I still like Namu a lot for other dishes, but I won’t be ordering the ramen again unless I hear it has changed significantly.

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

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Namu
439 Balboa Street, San Francisco, CA 94118

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  1. Totally agree on the flat broth and soft noodles. I never understood why it was so hyped up, "6 orders a day". I think I even remember chefs tweeting about how good it was, which surprised me.

    3 Replies
    1. re: DezzerSF

      Why would you be surprised? The asian fusion ingredients that pop up on western menus are rarely used in a way that I think benefits the dish. They're more to get yelpers excited by "innovative and surprising combinations." There isn't much restraint or balance in how most western chefs incorporate these items, or they are so excited to use new ingredients that they forget to pay attention to the foundation of a dish like the stock.

      1. re: SteveG

        Surprised b/c the chefs I follow on Twitter actually make good food.

        1. re: SteveG

          uh there isn't much quality or anything in the quality of 90% of all restaurant cooking. I has nothing do do with the ethinic background.