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

The Peninsula’s Best Casual Dishes

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

I’ve had the great fortune of visiting a wide variety of restaurants over the years. Most are good, some mediocre, and a few just plain horrid. But there are a few standouts; the kind of restaurant where everything comes together and you can’t stop thinking about the meal you just had there. These are places in the Bay Area peninsula where service, cleanliness, overall vibe and of course, food are not only good, but memorable and relatively AFFORDABLE!

Curry Up Now (San Mateo) – Deconstructed Samosa, Chicken Kathi Roll

Cuisinett (San Carlos) – Moules Frites

Millbrae Dumpling Shop (Millbrae) - Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs, Xiao Long Bao

Mingalaba (Burlingame) - House Special Noodles, Tea Leaf Salad

Osteria Coppa (San Mateo) – Tagliatelle Bolognaise

Ramen Dojo (San Mateo) – Garlic Pork Ramen

Speederia Pizzeria (San Carlos) - Indianapolis Pizza

Ramen Roundup

Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn’t had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?

But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It’s what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it’s one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.

These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a “trend“. Recently, I’ve also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.

Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different versions of these tasty soup noodles.

Shoyu (soy sauce) Ramen w/pork & kimchi from Santa Ramen

Santa Ramen - 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918

This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.

Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.

Kuro (black garlic) Ramen from Maru Ichi

Maru Ichi368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931

I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they’re known for a specific kind of ramen called “kuro” ramen, or “black” ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960’s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn’t taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn’t completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.

Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It’s something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor. Overall, Maru Ichi’s kuro ramen definitely wasn’t your usual bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.

Garlic Pork Ramen w/corn from Dojo Ramen

Dojo Ramen - 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568

This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.

They specialize in something called “sutamina” ramen, which literally means “stamina” ramen. I’d call it “extreme” ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer. And don’t come here if you don’t like spicy food.

The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.

And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.

So even without the “sutamina” label, Dojo’s was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.

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