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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Ramen Holiday

March 09, 1995|Jonathan Gold

A few years ago, the Japanese noodle shop Tampopo was by far the best place to get ramen in Southern California, a simple, bright restaurant on the western end of Gardena's Japanese-restaurant row, with a couple dozen variations of the re-engineered, Chinese-inspired noodle: springy, fresh, and served in a vivid pork-based broth. Jiruzu Itami's 1987 Japanese comedy "Tampopo," for which the restaurant was presumably named, was a movie-length quest for the perfect ramen , and Tampopo lived up to its name.

The movie aside, ramen is less a precious object of veneration than it is the ubiquitous fast food of Japan, the Kyushu-bred equivalent of the Big Mac or the Whopper, and the demand for Tampopo's noodles quickly became extraordinary.

For a while, new Tampopo franchises, mostly in the food courts of the Japanese department-store chain Yaohan, seemed to multiply as quickly as branches of Louise's Trattoria or California Pizza Kitchen. It was pretty cool at first to be able to eat Tampopo's ramen without popping onto the 405, but the standards were inconsistent, and sometimes the noodles were, frankly, not good. Eventually, the original location closed. My friends and I began to feed our occasional Japanese-noodle cravings at the extraordinary Gardena udon shop Kotohira, or at the Westside soba parlor Mishima, but it wasn't the same.

So here comes the new Tampopo, tucked away among the sushi bars and izaka-ya of Gardena's Tozai Plaza, a restaurant filled with Japanese expat corporate ronin , slumped at the end of 14-hour workdays at the local outposts of Honda or Mitsubishi. The place is decked out in basic samurai rustic--hanging lanterns, massive beams, sanded dark wood--which is more or less the Japanese equivalent of the cowboy thing at a Rustler steakhouse. (I think the storefront used to house a branch of Yoro No Taki, sort of the Denny's of Japan.) There is a glass display case at the front with a whole lot of frozen stuff for sale, and printed flyers advertising mochi -covered ice cream are taped to the walls.

And the fabled ramen is almost everything you dream about when you rent "Tampopo" from the video store: vast bowls of yards-long noodles, freckled with golden specks of toasted garlic, immersed in a superheated, vaguely Southern Japan-style broth made with chicken, pork and beef. To one side comes a serrated pinwheel of fish cake; in the middle are simmered bamboo shoots. Topping everything, on a floating raft of bean sprouts, is a stack of thin pork slices, a little salty but with a clear, concentrated taste as if it had been simmered in strong stock. (If the chef gets the effect with MSG, I don't want to know about it.) Miso ramen is even better, more garlicky yet subtler, with a vague sweetness from the fermented bean paste and an almost winy complexity.

From wall signs, one may infer a minor house specialty in what the restaurant calls "deep-fried kebabs," but the frying can be less than deft here, and the skewered bits of battered eel, chicken or shrimp sometimes seem closer to a product of some Asian Long John Silver than they do to classic kushikatsu . The set-course fish dinners are only ordinary; the over-sweet yakisoba , stir-fried buckwheat noodles, are what you might expect from a takeout joint; zaru udon , thick, cold wheat noodles with a dipping sauce, are done vastly better at Kotohira at the other end of the mall. At Tampopo, ramen's the thing.

The place is very good, though, at the classic accompaniments to the noodles: gyoza , thin-walled pork dumplings pan-fried to a sizzling crispness; blocks of chilled tofu sprinkled with chopped scallion tops and smoky shavings of dried fish; soft mounds of pork-fried rice. Maybe the perfect thing to eat with a bowl of ramen is a ball of sushi rice, about the size and shape of a peanut-butter sandwich, wrapped in sheets of toasted seaweed, thinly filled with Japanese pickles, shaved bonito or salmon eggs. When you sear the roof of your mouth with hot broth, there's nothing like cool rice to take the sting away.

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WHAT TO GET

Miso ramen , gyoza , rice balls, coffee Jell-O.

WHERE TO GO

Tampopo, 15462 S. Western Ave. (in Tozai Plaza), Gardena, (310) 323-7882. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. Beer and wine. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$20.

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