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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Mom's Mabo

July 18, 1996|KIM UPTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a distant land north of Beverly Hills--far beyond even the Ventura Boulevard cappuccino-latte line--lies a place of good restaurants that appeal to people on money diets.

Despite all the movie and TV studios in the Valley, not everyone here has a six-figure income. When it comes to restaurants, those who don't have two high concepts in mind: good and cheap.

Enter, stage left, Kyushu Ramen in Van Nuys. Clean and bright and tucked away in the second strip mall west of Sepulveda Boulevard and Sherman Way, Kyushu Ramen is generally crowded with people of Asian heritage or people dining with people of Asian heritage. That's how my family first ended up there. But long after our friends tired of taking us, we have returned again and again for good, inexpensive food with no wait in an environment that allows blue jeans and even forgives the littlest chopstick-users an occasional jet-propelled teriyaki chicken piece.

As you enter, take note of a multicolored neon figure in the front window that looks strikingly like the woman with the surprisingly gonzo spiked flat-top hair standing behind the counter. That's Hiroko Culbertson, the owner, and when she opened this restaurant nine years ago, the idea was to serve food like her mother's.

In fact the restaurant's name, Kyushu, refers to the mountainous Japanese island that was Culbertson's home until moving to the United States 23 years ago. There's no sushi here. It's just abundant portions of satisfying home-style Japanese food, with a few Chinese stir-fries on the side.

The generous menu includes a long list of ramens (23 of them), massive steaming bowls of noodles and broth with traditional toppings such as roast pork, seafood, egg and/or vegetables--and not-so-traditional ones, like chicken curry.

Excellent choices on the light side are Kyushu ramen ($5.80), a subtle broth thick with noodles and topped with roast pork, bean sprouts, spinach, bamboo shoot, wakame (dry seaweed), ginger, egg and dried fish cake; gomoku ramen ($6.05), a soy-flavored soup topped with seafood, vegetables and pork stir-fried in oyster sauce; and chanpon ramen ($4.95 for a small bowl, which is large enough for most people), a soy soup topped with stir-fried vegetables, seafood and pork. But these, although tasty, are subtle in their appeal.

Not mabo ramen ($5.25). It's a wonderful, head-clearing soup: chicken stock flavored with soy sauce and sake, hot with ginger and garlic, topped with ground pork, diced tofu and slivers of green onion. Definitely a two-Kleenex dish. A bowl of this can cure a raging hunger or a bad week at the office.

Also satisfying, and right up there on the spicy scale, is chicken curry ramen ($5.20), which is exactly as it sounds: a rich curry broth with significant amounts of chicken.

But if soup isn't what that miserable week demands, there's the mince cutlet, a breaded and deep-fried hamburger served with tonkatsu sauce ($6.30), sort of a spicy sweet and sour sauce. The burger arrives sizzling with a side of steamed white rice and remaining plate space mounded with a kind of Asian spaghetti salad and cole slaw. While this has nothing whatever to do with low-fat eating (don't tell my Weight Watchers coach), it's well worth the following week filled with nonfat yogurt lunches.

Also remarkable is the gyoza dinner of pan-fried dumplings filled with vegetables and ground pork. What makes these elegant little dumplings a standout is not just their flavor, which is very nice, but the fact that they are not particularly greasy. Despite this seeming handicap they are wonderful: tender and flavorful. Like most others, this dinner comes with miso soup, rice and salad.

My 6-year-old recommends the chicken teriyaki bowl (ask for it without skin). It's not on the menu--there you'll find only teriyaki dinners, chicken or beef ($5.95 and $6.25, respectively)--but it's just the right amount of food at a good price (a bowl of rice topped with chicken, $3.95) for someone who weighs 50 pounds--or would like to.

For dessert there are the usual and predictably fine plum wine and green tea ice creams ($1.25), but better still, after all that food, are the snow cones ($1.60 to $3.70, depending upon flavor), which are large enough to be shared by two adults and one child. If you're not with a kid, get the red bean. But if someone at your table is under 10, you may have to order blue bubble gum and fight for it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE TO GO

Kyushu Ramen, Village Plaza, 15355 Sherman Way, Van Nuys; (818) 786-6005. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesdays. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Takeout. Wine and beer. Parking lot. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10-$15.

WHAT TO GET:

Mabo ramen, chicken curry ramen, Kyushu ramen, gomoku ramen, chanpon ramen, mince cutlet, chicken teriyaki bowl, snow cone.

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