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Ramen's rock star

It's Japanese casual: a sip of red rice beer, a slurp of the perfect noodle soup.

January 02, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

IT may be true, as scientists tell us, that you can discover whole worlds in a drop of water, but Rickmond Wong would prefer to explore a bowl of soup. Not just any soup -- noodle soup. And not just any noodle soup, but ramen.

On the Internet, at least, Wong just about owns the subject. He is the Rameniac.

Wong's website, www.rameniac.com, is a lively compendium of all things ramen, one of the best of the food sites by single-topic fanatics. There is an in-depth discussion of Japan's regional styles of ramen (22, according to Wong). There are reviews of ramen restaurants. There are reviews of packaged ramen. There are even videos of ramen being made and slurped. There is a forum for discussing ramen and ramen-related issues.

Wong says that he eats ramen several times a week when he's at home in Los Angeles and that he'll slurp almost nonstop when he visits Japan. "Last year I ate 18 bowls of ramen in 14 days," he says. "I came back and ate only salads for a month. But while I was there I had to get my ramen."

Next year's vacation is already planned. "I'm going to bicycle across Japan eating ramen," he says.

Visually lively, informed and well-written, Rameniac is one of three websites written by Wong -- he also has a site called Rameniac's B-Sides that is devoted to food other than ramen, and a MySpace page.

But Rameniac is all about the noodles. It's wised-up without being snarky, and though it is plainly a love song to ramen, it never veers into cheap romanticism.

Right now, the Rameniac is very happy. He is sitting in the bustling food court of the Torrance branch of Mitsuwa Marketplace. On the little table in front of him is ramen from his favorite restaurant, Santouka.

A mop-topped 33-year-old who was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Wong is the child of Cantonese immigrants. He works as a Web designer for Universal Studios and, with a partner has just started Qio, a clothing store on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles dedicated to Japanese street fashion.

Wong takes a slurp of soup and deftly plucks a nest of noodles with his chopsticks. "This is the best ramen in town because of the depth of flavor in the soup," he says.

He explains that Santouka's home base of Hokkaido is in the extreme north of Japan and that its ramen is made from a rich pork stock that is also flavored with seafood.

The broth is, indeed, extraordinary. In fact, so is the whole dish. Santouka's signature shio ramen is one of Southern California's perfect noodle dishes. The soup is deeply flavored and complex. The noodles are perfectly al dente. The slices of pork alternate between buttery smooth and chewy and muscular. It's hard to believe you can get food this perfect for only $6.50 a bowl.

At its most basic level, ramen is very simple. There is a soup, which consists of a stock and a seasoning. There are the noodles. And there are the garnishes. But each of these elements offers so many variables that trying to generalize about ramen in Japan is like trying to generalize about pasta in Italy.

There are two main families of stock -- a clear one made with pork and chicken cooked relatively briefly, and a milky one called tonkotsu made from split pork bones that have been boiled for hours. Traditionally, there are three seasoning choices -- salt (or shio), soy sauce (or shoyu) and miso paste.

The stock is determined mostly by regional preference and to a certain extent by the style of the individual ramen maker. The choice of seasonings is left to the eater, though most ramen shops will emphasize one, even if very subtly (at Santouka, the flagship bowl of shio ramen is signified by the presence of a pickled red ume plum the size of a large pea).

The overall effect of the soup can range from almost unctuously fatty (kotteri, in Japanese), to very light and brothy (assari).

It's this initial base that determines the quality of a bowl of ramen, Wong says. "The quality of a ramen is dictated by the broth and the depth of flavor in it is what determines a great ramen," he says. "By that I don't mean that it should be super-salty or something like that. The soup has to have lots of things going on in it. It's complexity and umami that makes the difference."

Regional differences

Though ramen is made almost exclusively with wheat noodles, every region has a slightly different style that the locals believe ideally suits the particular soup of the area. Hakata ramen from northern Kyushu has noodles that are very thin and very firm. Kumamoto ramen from central Kyushu has thicker noodles, nearly spaghetti-like.

Generally, ramen shops buy their noodles from specialized manufacturers. In fact, Wong says, most Southern California ramen shops buy their noodles from the same importers.

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