Ramen Roundup Part 2

I realized with my last roundup of ramen joints in the Bay Area that I was only scratching the surface. It seems like ramen is the new obsession around these parts, and noodle lovers have their staunch favorites.

Ramen in the Bay Area may not be the “fast food” item it is in Japan, but it’s certainly not a fussy meal, though extremely customizable. With that rich meaty broth and chewy noodles, and fixings like hardboiled eggs, corn, and dried seaweed (nori), it’s a complete comfort food meal in a bowl. In Japan, ramen noodle houses are as common as pizza joints are in the States. It’s a cheap, filling, and delicious way for them to satisfy their hunger.

So here are four more places on the Peninsula and in the South Bay I visited recently.

Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen
Ramen Club Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork

Ramen Club — Burlingame
This restaurant’s ramen is by no means the best, but it’s a good, fun bowl of noodles. I say fun because the Garlic Kimchi Ramen with Pork is not exactly authentic, but good and tasty. I loved the zesty crunch from the spicy kimchi cabbage and the added kick of the hot sauce on top. The texture of the noodles is good and chewy but not soggy. However, the broth and the pork are lackluster. Still, it’s a good version of ramen.

Ramen Club
Ramen Club & Catering on Urbanspoon

Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic
Ramen Parlor Spicy Pork with Soft Shell Crab and Black Garlic

Ramen Parlor — San Mateo
If you’ve been to Santa Ramen or Dojo Ramen in San Mateo, you’ll love this place. Ramen Parlor is owned by the same folks as Santa and Dojo, and is the newest of the three. Though it’s not as popular or as good as Dojo, it is definitely a strong second, and certainly my favorite on this list. Their specialty is infusing spicy seafood elements into their broth like lobster oil, or fried soft shell crab. I ordered the Ramen with Tonkatsu (pork) Broth and Soft Shell Crab, spicy of course. Along with all those fun flavors, it comes with a glistening, buttery, full-fat slice of pork belly, pungent black garlic oil, and a creamy, perfectly cooked hard boiled egg. It is delicious, bold, innovative and every element was cooked to perfection. Heaven.

Ramen Parlor
Ramen Parlor on Urbanspoon

Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen
Santouka Spicy Miso Pork Ramen

Santouka Ramen — San Jose
Santouka is a popular Japanese ramen chain restaurant, and this is their only franchised Bay Area outpost. Located inside the Japanese Mitsuwa Marketplace strip mall as part of a mini-food court, it’s as close to a fast food ramen place as you can get around here. The ramen noodles have that ideal chewy-but-not-soggy texture and the broth has good depth. However, I suspect it was full of MSG since I came away later that day with some serious thirst and a slight headache. And the portion itself was very small. My American palate, unfortunately, is used to a serving double the size of what they gave me.

Santouka
Located in the Mitsuwa Marketplace
Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork
Ramen House Ryowa Roasted Sesame Ramen with Pork

Ramen House Ryowa — Mountain View
“Ryowa” apparently means sesame, so I’d be remiss not to order the specialty of the house. Out of the four places I went to, this was both the most authentically Japanese in setting (bar seating, very fast food-like atmosphere) and straightforward in terms of the food. The broth and noodles were both reliably good, but nothing to write home about. Although I loved that the ramen is served with a side of gyoza dumplings, which apparently is what they do in Japan. It makes for a nicely rounded meal.

Ramen House Ryowa
Ramen House Ryowa on Urbanspoon

Searching for Okonomiyaki

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Okonomiyaki is a dish that’s described many different ways: a savory pancake, Japanese pizza, or an Asian frittata. Whatever you call it, it can be hard to find around these parts. With the exception of San Francisco and San Jose, all places in between can be an okonomiyaki-free zone.

Okonomiyaki is a classic comfort food dish in Japan. It’s a round, flat, savory dish that’s made from flour, eggs, cabbage, and seafood or meat. It’s got a drier exterior and a soft, moist interior. A good dose of sweet Japanese mayonnaise and sweet, smoky Okonomi brown sauce is drizzled on top, and then the dish is finished with some dried fish flakes (bonito) and dried seaweed. A good version of the dish shouldn’t be to dry or too wet.

Literally translated, okonomiyaki means “grilled as you like,” which explains why you’ll see slightly different versions of the dish everywhere in Japan. Here in the Bay Area, I’d be happy to see it even half as often as I do sushi and chicken teriyaki.

I remember the first time I tried the dish at a restaurant in Japantown. I had ordered it out of sheer curiosity since the photo on the menu made it look, indeed, like a Japanese pizza. The flavors were like nothing I’d ever had before. There was sweetness from the white sauce, smokiness from the brown sauce, and seafood flavor from the bonito flakes on top. Crunch came from the cabbage inside. It was thoroughly satisfying and I couldn’t wait to have it again.

So my recent craving sent me on a search for the dish. I was determined not to look to San Francisco or San Jose, where you can find it more readily since both cities have Japantowns.

There may be tons of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, but I realized that most of them don’t serve okonomiyaki. So I was thankful to find these two restaurants that serve good renditions of the dish.

Ramen Taro Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki from Ramen Taro with Beef and Cabbage

Ramen Taro — Foster City
This newer Japanese spot may focus on ramen, but its their other dishes on the menu that are both tastier and more interesting. Their okonomiyaki is bold and chock full of ingredients. It’s drenched in more brown sauce and mayo than I’d like, but it has a load of flavor and texture with its abundance of cabbage, pickled ginger, and bonito flakes on top. And it’s not too doughy either, which is a good thing. It’s served pre-sliced so it feels like you’re eating a very exotic pizza.

Bushido Okonomiyaki
Bushido Okonomiyaki with Seafood

Bushido — Mountain View
This trendy Japanese restaurant has some very unusual dishes like a Tuna Poke Burrito and Kimchi Goyza. But surprisingly, their version of okonomiyaki is fairly straightforward, but well-balanced and had a less overwhelming mix of flavors. Their version had shrimp and veggies, giving a nice contrast of textures and tastes. My only complaint was that it was a smaller portion than others I’ve had, which would make it a good shared appetizer for the table.

I know I’m just scratching the surface on my quest to find some good okonomiyaki around these parts. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. My search continues…

Ramen Taro
Address: Map
1495 Beach Park Blvd
Foster City, CA 94404
Phone: (650) 212-2883
Hours: Mon-Sun 11am – 9:30p

Bushido on Urbanspoon

*Cross posted @ KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Japanese Mochi Both Old and New

Azuki and Lima Bean Filled Mochi From Shuei-Do Manju Shop, San Jose

If you’ve ever had mochi (or manju), you’ll know that you can’t eat just one. Its contrast of light yet densely chewy texture and mild sweetness is filled with everything from the traditional red azuki or white lima bean paste, to green tea ice cream.

Japanese mochi is a small ping pong ball-sized dessert made from glutinous rice paste, molded into a round ball or cut into squares, and filled with, most traditionally, red or white bean paste. The exterior is dusted with a bit of rice flour to prevent sticking.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop Goodies

One of the only Bay Area Japanese confectionery shops left in the Bay Area, Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose’s Japantown has been making these treats the old-fashioned way by hand for over 60 years. You can find many traditional versions, along with some fun flavors like raspberry, coconut, and peanut butter (they’re not available everyday, so call to find out what the flavors of the day are). The care and artistry of each piece comes through in every bite. The mochi exterior is soft, chewy, and dense, while the interior red bean filling is thick and sweet.
Shuei-Do Manju Shop is a San Jose treasure and has earned a devoted cult following. It’s an even more popular destination in the summer because of their other specialty: Hawaiian shaved ice.

Mochicream Display Case of Various Mochi Flavors

On the other end of the mochi scale is Mochicream. This popular Japanese chain calls itself a “Japanese Sweets Deli.” They’re doing for mochi what Pinkberry did for frozen yogurt, or Sprinkles for cupcakes.

Their only Northern California outpost is located inside the Japanese mini-mall, Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose. Daring mochi flavors like Caramel Macchiato, Cranberry, Blueberry Yogurt and Orange Cheese fill their immaculately arranged refrigerated glass cases.

I was surprised to learn that their sweets are made in Japan and then shipped fresh to the States, weekly. It’s not exactly homemade like Grandma would make.

And mochi, when filled with cream, can easily get soggy because of all the moisture. They’ve combated this problem by surrounding the cream fillings with white bean paste, creating almost a layer of insulation inside each mochi ball. This way, they’re able to freeze these confections and ship them all the way out here without extensive damage to its flavor or texture. And they instruct you to let them “defrost” for about 15 minutes before diving in.

The mochi is soft, light and airy, but a bit of sogginess does indeed plague this international treat. But if you’re into mochi or are looking for something sweet that is a bit out of the ordinary, it’s definitely worth a try. The Apple Pie was my far and away favorite, with bits of apple pie filling and little pie crust crumbles to give it some real depth of flavor and surprising texture. My second favorite was the Darjeeling for its nice subtle yet distinct tea flavor that fortunately, wasn’t too sweet.

Whether you’ve tried mochi before or not, both these places offer up some great examples of this classic sweet Japanese treat.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop
Address: 217 E. Jackson Street, San Jose
Phone: (408) 294-4148
Facebook: Shuei-Do Manju Shop
Prices: Between $1 to $3

Mochicream
(Located inside Mitsuwa Marketplace)
Address: 675 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
Phone: (408) 725-9263
Prices: Between $1 to $3

With JapaCurry, It’s All About The Food

From SF Weekly to the Wall Street Journal, the JapaCurry food truck has been getting a lot of press lately for ruffling feathers with San Francisco restaurants located in the areas where the truck is parked.

But one question hasn’t been asked much through it all…How’s the food?

Well, fortunately for owner Jay Hamada, it’s damn good.

Japanese curry is different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries. It is sweeter and has a deeper, richer, meatier flavor base and color than those from other cultures.  It’s also one of the most common meals at dinner tables across Japan because it’s rather inexpensive to prepare.

Hamada’s recipe is purely his own.  He starts from scratch with 80 pounds of onions a day as the basis for each day’s batch of curry, caramelizing them to give the sauce a rich depth of flavor and adding thickness. A day’s batch of curry can take 6-7 hours to make. Just like with a homemade soup or stew, Hamada says homemade Japanese curry is better the next day. Many of these restaurants in his native Japan, let their curries sit for up to a week before serving it so the flavors have time to meld and develop.

Some have talked about their Chicken Katsu Curry lately, but using chicken is a variation of the original and more traditional Pork Cutlet, or “Tonkatsu” Curry served in Japan, so that’s what I opted for.  I was instantly impressed when I open the clamshell box.

The cutlet was breaded and fried to a perfect shade of golden brown and had streaks of brown katsu sauce over the top that not only added flavor, but made for a lovely presentation, especially considering the food came from a truck.

I was even more pleased once I bit into the pork. Despite a 10 minute drive back to my office, the breading was still crisp and never separated from the meat; a true sign of good tonkatsu. The meat itself was juicy and tender, not at all dry. It was obviously a good cut of pork because there was enough fat to ensure juicy meat, but not too much to seem greasy.

The curry was more of a sauce than a thick gloppy stew like you’d see at many Japanese restaurants around town. Hamada says that’s because many Japanese restaurants in America don’t make their curry from scratch. Many times they use curry stock cubes that you buy from an Asian supermarket.

The sauce had a definite kick, even though I ordered the “regular”, not that I’m complaining. The flavors were also much more robust and had a definite warmth that came from the variety of spices, including cumin, coriander, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric, and a little bit of apple or peach, when in season, to add a touch of sweetness.

Hamada’s recipe is one he developed on his own, after stints at Tanpopo Restaurant in San Francisco and Wakuriya Restaurant in San Mateo. But his background is actually in technology. After getting laid off, he decided to give his passion for food another shot. He even returned to Tokyo to become a trained ramen maker.

But once he returned to the States, he noticed the food truck trend taking off. “I saw food trucks in downtown San Francisco and decided it was a better option because real estate was so expensive. And I used to work at an office, so I know that people want a quick lunch. I thought curry was better for that reason, and it’s easier to serve off a truck than ramen.”

The menu is extremely short with only pork or chicken cutlet, pork Kurobata sausage, veggie and veggie croquette curry options, plus the occasional bento box.  But this curry is the real deal.  The quality and flavor of my meal was excellent considering it came from a truck.  And eight dollars will get you a healthy portion that’ll satisfy your lunch craving.

Hamada says he has no plans to expand outside of San Francisco, for now, but he does want to expand his menu to possibly include a seafood and beef curry.  And he hasn’t abandoned his love of ramen, either. “I miss ramen!  That’s still my goal.  I’d love to have another truck, or maybe I’ll do a ramen restaurant.”

As for all this hoopla he’s been experiencing lately with the restaurants he’s offended downtown, he regrets not doing things differently in the beginning. “I would’ve introduced myself to the businesses in the neighborhood to explain what I do and let them know before I went out there. Overall, some restaurants are skeptical, but many want to try my food and are supportive.”

He admits, though, all this press attention has actually helped business. “My foot traffic has been great because people are curious.  Customers have been very supportive and say good things to me like, ‘Keep it up!’”

Some brick and mortar restaurants may not want a food truck in their neighborhood.  But the reality is if the food is good, people will come back, and the public will ultimately get to determine who stays and who goes.

JapaCurry Food Truck
Various locations in San Francisco, including Sansome and Pine, Howard and 1st St., Mission and New Montgomery, and 8000 Marina Blvd. in Brisbane.
11:30am – 1:30pm
@JapaCurry
www.japacurry.com

*This article is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites website.

Japanese Curry to Try Before You Die

The name “Muracci’s” sounds awfully Italian to me.  Supposedly, it’s the nickname of the owners’ son.

Instead, this restaurant serves up what is arguably one of the best Japanese curries outside of Japan…so I’ve been told.  7×7 Magazine even included it on their 100 Things to Try Before You Die list for 2010.  But with its San Francisco Financial District location and weekday only hours, I’d never make it down there.

So when they opened their second location in Los Altos (“Muracci’s 2 Japanese Curry and Grill“), I was thrilled.  Finally I’d get to see if it was worth the hype.

Some friends who tried it declared it was the best curry they’d had since visiting Japan.  I’ve never stayed in Japan long enough to try any curry, so I’d have to base my review solely on the dish’s individual merits.

The menu is very basic.  So instead of getting too adventurous, I decided to stick with what they’re known for and get the Katsu Curry w/Veggies (breaded pork chop).

The verdict?…It may well have been one of the best Japanese curries I’ve tried.  And I got it to go, so imagine if it had been fresh from the kitchen!

Muracci’s curry had many layers of flavor and a much more warm spicy flavor profile.  It’s not thick and pasty like the usual stuff served Stateside, but more of a gravy or sauce consistency.  And it’s not as sweet (other Japanese curries will typically add more apple to give it a fruitier sweet flavor and less heat).

The husband-wife team that owns these two restaurants make their curries from scratch.  It apparently takes two days to make and simmers for 20 hours.  The result is a curry that is rich, warm, and has a lot more depth in its flavor profile than most (think five spice or cloves).  I wimped out and ordered the “mild” version (there are three levels of heat to chose from), but I didn’t regret it since it had just a hint of real heat.  And the homemade soup stock base gave it a wonderfully meaty, robust flavor.

You also get some pickled veggies to start, which is a nice touch (they include some of it in your to go order, as well).  I hear it gets super crowded during the lunch rush, so come early or late.  It’s a tiny, yet clean restaurant, so it’s not exactly great for large groups.  I was also impressed at how genuinely friendly the staff was.

Muracci’s curry was different…a very GOOD different.  I will most definitely be back to try their other dishes as well as their curry noodle bowls.

It’s the perfect Japanese comfort food.  Just don’t come here expecting sushi!

Muracci's 2 on Urbanspoon

More Ferry Building Fare

Yes, yes, another trip to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace.  I know many of you may recall my endless affection for this foodie destination, but I can’t help it.  I don’t get to go as often as I like, but when I do, I visit both my faves as well as manage to find new items to swoon over.

So on this trip, I was determined to try a DIFFERENT porchetta sandwich.  One that WASN’T Roli Roti’s (gasp)!  I’ve heard much chatter about the pork sammie at Il Cane Rosso, and that it was just as good (which I find impossible).

First, yes it is VERY good.  The crunchy fresh French bread and the pickled cabbage gave a wonderful flavor and texture contrast to the moist, well-seasoned, obviously fresh and quality pork.  It seemed to have been cooked for hours with a variety of herbs that I don’t even have in my pantry.  Delicious, indeed.  BUT, it’s still second place to Roli Roti’s.

Second, the family and I headed to Miette to give their macaroons a shot.  I’ve tried many macaroons here and there around the Bay Area, and none have impressed me much, especially since I have a ridiculous standard to live up to having had them in Paris.

To my surprise, they weren’t bad at all!  Many may disagree, but for me, it came down to the texture of the cookie, itself.  Yes, I love the flavor infusions of the macaroons I had in Paris, but the chewy center of the two cookies and the crisp outer shell are what always impressed me most.  Miette delivered on this.  And it had that light yet distinct almond flavor.  I agree with many that the fillings are a bit too sweet and lack any delicate essence, but the texture and flavor of the cookie, itself, made it a winner for me.  (By the way, the grapefruit was not a good choice, but I’d go for the pistachio again in a heartbeat.)

And no trip to the Ferry Building would be complete without a trip to Delica.  Their Japanese deli fare is so delicious and prepared so well.  The ingredients are so damn fresh and tasty.  I always get the potato croquette (still the best one I’ve ever had) and this time I got the fried shrimp cake.  Oh…my…gawd.  I’ve always had great affection for all things fried, and these two snacks certainly fit the bill.  Just order them if you ever go.  You won’t be sorry.

So I add more items to my “must haves” list for next time.  This list, by the way, is getting too big.