Freshly cut ramen noodles move along a conveyor belt. One noodle type made… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
What do some of Southern California's top bowls of ramen — the tsukemen at Tsujita, tonkotsu ramen at Daikokuya and kotteri shoyu ramen at Asa in Gardena — have in common? Their noodles come from the same place: a small factory near the Compton-Gardena line called Sun Noodle.
The L.A. branch of a Honolulu-based company launched nine years ago, making just 10 kinds of fresh ramen noodles. Now, in the midst of a global ramen boom, the factory makes 160 kinds, to customers' exacting specifications — 31/2 tons a day, or enough for 30,000 servings, says Vice President Keisuke Sawakawa. "It's a lot of ramen."
To meet rising ramen demand, last year Sun Noodle opened a factory in Teterboro, N.J., and there set up its Ramen Lab, led by Shigetoshi Nakamura, formerly chef of cutting-edge Ramen California in Torrance (where he set out to establish a ramen style native to SoCal — what miso ramen is to Sapporo or what chicken-y kotteri-kei ramen is to Kyoto). At the newly minted Ramen Lab, Nakamura consults with chefs such as Japan's Ivan Orkin and experiments with noodles such as toasted whole wheat.
Although ramen-heads obsess about broth and regional styles, the key to a great bowl of ramen is that the correct noodle is matched to the soup. (Ramen, after all, refers to the noodles.) Sometimes it's tradition that dictates the combo. Tsukemen — the ramen that's dipped in a separate, concentrated broth — calls for extra-fat, slightly wavy noodles, and tonkotsu, made with long-simmered pork bone broth, is served with thin, straight, firm noodles.
But Sun Noodle leaves room for innovation and customization in texture, flavor, color, width, length and waviness. Made with hard wheat flour, water, sea salt and kansui, a combination of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, noodles' texture and flavor can be adjusted by varying the amounts of the ingredients or adding egg, egg whites, additional gluten and/or vitamin B2 for color. "Chefs have their vision, and we try to make exactly what they want," Sawakawa says.
Tsujita executive chef Kenta Ikehata consulted with Sun Noodle over several meetings and taste tests to replicate the noodles at the restaurant's Tokyo originator, Sawakawa says. They're distinguished by their fatness, springiness, slight curl, chew, pale golden color and flecks attributed to a higher ash (mineral) content.
You thought the best ramen places handmade their noodles? Devoted ramen chefs obsess over their broth — the proportion of pork stock to seafood stock in their tonkotsu gyokai, the amount of brix (solids) in the stock. They think about every detail of preparation — how much to adjust the noodle cooking time in humid or dry weather, which way the fish cake faces the customer when the bowl is served. But many don't make their own noodles, leaving the work to specially calibrated, über-efficient machinery.
The production room in Sun Noodle's 11,000-square-foot factory is equipped with two industrial mixers the size of dwarf elephants, with panels of flashing buttons and two long, shiny-steel assembly lines. The dough comes out of the mixers slightly crumbly and is pressed into 22-centimeter-wide sheets rolled around rods that are then hung on racks for "aging." The aging process is a resting period of 30 minutes to 1 hour that helps the water and flour better combine, Sawakawa says.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the machines were humming as they moved dough through several rollers — sort of like several connected pasta machines that make the dough thinner and thinner as it moves along. Two rolls of dough at a time are fed through the rollers to create layers that in turn create air pockets that help soak up soup.
Each batch of noodles is lettered and numbered according to dough type, cutter size and whether the noodle is straight, wavy or occasionally round. Noodle TS24W, for example, was being prepared for a restaurant in Austin, Texas (which has a burgeoning ramen scene). This particular mixture of ingredients is named "tokusen," or "specially selected," so it's abbreviated with TS; the number 24 means that 24 noodles are cut from a width of 3 centimeters of dough, and the W is for wavy. Ramen noodles, by the way, are always cut, not extruded.
Meanwhile, noodles dubbed TK26S — made from a different dough mix, and thinner and straight — are rolling off the adjacent assembly line and will head to a restaurant in Las Vegas.
Sun Noodle also makes noodles for restaurants in Canada and Central and South America, Sawakawa says. "Ramen is getting big in South America."