A true rameniac lives for days like these.
Late on a Superbowl Sunday, with hunger mounting and twenty fresh miles on the car, I pull into a desolate South Bay strip mall only to find my intended destination, Shuu-chan Ramen, transformed into a newfangled Asian “Bistro.”
Looking for alternatives, I check out an even more deserted corner mall and peek into Gardena Ramen, which I’ve vaguely heard of but know virtually nothing about. The place stands empty, with nary a single slurper in sight, and though the lights are on and the sign says “open,” a TV has been erected at a corner table, doubtless to kill wasted time.
“Are you sure you want to eat here?” my copilot asks.
“Well, might as well get it over with,” I reply.
An elf-like chef with a toothy grin seemingly materializes out of thin air the moment we enter. Is this magic? I ask for a menu as I take a seat. He points at the wall. “No menu. We only have two kinds. Shoyu ramen and miso ramen.” And gyoza and beer. I can swear he is winking at me.
"This does not look good,” I think. Bottles of Sriracha and Tapatio decorate the tables. What kind of ramen shop is this?
But I should have seen the clues. A one-man operation. A take-it-or-leave it menu of limited choices. A bookshelf with volumes of ramen-themed manga. And last but certainly not least… um… posters of Japanese babes holding mugs of Asahi.
In a nutshell: Gardena Ramen serves the best ramen in Southern California.
Okay, Santouka notwithstanding.
But Asahikawa shio tonkotsu is a different animal altogether. I’m talking shoyu ramen here, purist ramen, the stuff anime characters eat while flicking naruto like ninja stars. Many people - from Japanese ex-pats to ex-Engrish teachers (myself included) - bemoan the lack of “real ramen” outside of the motherland.
Well I’m here to tell you now. “Real ramen” has finally arrived.
Sole chef and proprietor Isao Nakamura’s little ramen shop with the unlit sign is exactly like something you would find on a nondescript sidestreet in Tokyo. His shoyu ramen is a complex (the key word here) concoction derived from torigara (chicken bones), genkotsu (pork knuckle), and niboshi (dried sardines). It is slightly opaque and just a tad too salty, but flavorful in impossibly distinctive ways. It is sweet yet savory. Rich yet light. The product of trial and error, until Nakamura-san found the exacting flavor he was looking for.
“It’s all in the soup,” he says. By virtue of being the lone diners in the place, dinner quickly turns into a rameniac exclusive interview, especially when I start to gush over the broth and prod Nakamura-san with questions. “Had I this recipe when I first opened (roughly a year ago), people would be lined up out the door.”
A partner in the Sushi Mac franchise (which is how he thankfully manages to keep his ramen shop afloat with scant customers), Nakamura-san boils his soup not for hours, but for over two days, all the while skimming and stirring with an oar-sized ramen paddle. “I wake up, come here at 7am, tend the soup, and then go play golf until lunch. Sometimes I go play golf after lunch,” he says with a guilty grin. Upon retiring from his career as a sushi chef, he’d taken a three year sabbatical before opening Gardena Ramen. The place is indisputably his passion project.
I ask him if, given a choice, which would he rather eat. “Ramen or sushi?”
“I’m sick of sushi,” he deadpans.
Nakamura-san is clearly a student of the ramen game, and is amazingly forthcoming about his endeavors. He shows us the numerous recipe books he consulted while honing his craft over the past few months. He describes an experiment he once witnessed on Japanese television, in which mice were fed different tastes and oils and their preferences tracked, then explains how the results influenced his own approach to cooking.
He offers his theory as to why most of the ramen shops outside of Japan, quite frankly, suck. “They have too big a menu. They try to make too many different things. They hire other people to cook. Me, I only have ramen. And I’m the only one here.”
Realizing his ramen is such a marvel, I opt for a side of gyoza. We talk at length of marrow, of noodles in the Yamagata-style of his home prefecture, and of proper tare or soup base. “It doesn’t matter what tare you use, as long as the broth is right,” he insists. Not entirely true. In Gardena’s miso ramen, the salty shiro miso paste kind of overwhelms the delicate flavors of the distinctive broth (the shoyu, if I may reiterate, is superb).
Nakamura-san shows me his kitchen, which is optimized to make nothing but ramen. He realizes he’s forgotten all about the dumplings as they’ve burned to a carbonized crisp. “Oops! You don’t still want them do you?” We laugh. “Next time,” I say. I will be back within the week.