(Formatted with All Pictures here:
A new Ramen Noodle shop opened up recently in the San Gabriel Valley. Usually that would mean a high probability that it was a Chinese Ramen restaurant, instead of a Japanese Ramen-ya, and the flavors would reflect that, but then I heard that it was a restaurant focusing on Japanese Ramen, specifically Hokkaido Ramen(!), which would be a rarity if true. Before I knew it, I found myself with one of my Ramen Hounds, pulling into the parking lot of Aji Man, located in the same plaza as Golden Deli and Newport Seafood on Las Tunas Drive.
We entered the restaurant and were greeted in Japanese by a humble lady, and also by the Ramen Chef, Sasaki-san. I sat down and looked at the menu (all in English), and saw some standard offerings - Shio Ramen, Shoyu Ramen, and then a Sapporo Miso Ramen, which Sasaki-san said was his "Hokkaido Ramen," a tribute to the great Northern island of Japan. I glanced over at Page 2 and saw a variety of... Fusion Sushi Rolls. (>_>) I almost got up and left on the spot, but decided to stick it out and try some of their Ramen.
We ordered two flavors of Ramen to try out. The first Ramen served was their Shio Ramen (Salt-flavored Ramen). The Noodles were the ubiquitous yellow curly Egg Noodles, with a surprisingly clear Broth. It was served with some Menma (Bamboo), two slices of Chashu (Pork), and Nori (Seaweed). I took a sip and discovered a nice light soup that was not salty at all (perhaps even a bit underflavored). I could taste some Pork Bones flavor in there as well. But then after a few sips I started tasting something not quite right... the three letters of doom: MSG. Sigh.
Besides the Broth, the Menma was OK, the Ramen Noodles were cooked well enough, a slight chew, and decent, and the Chashu tasted moderately "fresh" (probably about 1 day old, compared to many Ramen restaurants in So Cal that taste like the Chashu is about 2-4 days old). The other thing to note was that the Pork Slices were really lean (and healthier), but as a result it was a bit too tough for my tastes, with almost no fat. The highlight would've been the Broth, but the MSG ruined it for me.
Continuing on, the next Ramen came out: Miso Ramen. I was wary at this point, but I tried some of this as well (and left most of it for my Ramen Hound who's resistance to MSG is far greater than mine). The Miso Broth was noticeably stronger and more pungent, and lightly spicy, and by now I could definitely taste more of the MSG working its "magic."
We also ordered a couple Onigiri (Rice Balls) to try out as well, starting with the classic Umeboshi Onigiri (Japanese Plum Rice Ball). After having homemade versions, and the amazing, fresh, made-with-care version at Yakitori Bincho, this version came out rather mundane, with only a small dab of Umeboshi paste in the center of mostly cold rice.
The Sake Onigiri (Salmon Rice Ball) was about the same, with the Salmon tasting rather pedestrian and a bit old as well.
At this point you may be wondering why I didn't just leave and abandon this restaurant immediately (well we did leave immediately afterwards :), but before I left, I sat down to talk with Sasaki-san, who was very humble and obliging.
He said he started out as a professionally-trained Sushi Chef(!), but the competition was too high for Sushi Restaurants in Southern California, so he retrained himself under a Ramen Master from Hokkaido, about 15 years ago (this is why Aji Man also happens to serve Sushi Rolls; to allow Sasaki-san to not forget his original training and love).
Sasaki-san went on to describe his process for making his Sapporo Miso Ramen: He had a philosophy of Yama to Umi (Mountain and Ocean), and he makes his Sapporo Miso Ramen Broth from scratch, with Tonsoku (Pork Feet), representing the "Mountain" and the other half of the Broth was mixed with his recipe of Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Flakes), Kombu (Sea Kelp), and Chirimenjako (Small Whitebait Fish), which represented the "Ocean." He adds in some Miso Paste as well, and all of that combined is what makes up his Sapporo Miso Broth. He was also candid enough to tell me in Japanese that he used a bit of MSG at the end (not in the Broth, but added to the bowl, per customer order) because he lamented he didn't have the time to stew his Ramen Broth long enough to get the maximum flavor it should have.
He said that he could make the Ramen Orders without the MSG, per customers' request.
Intrigued to at least try out his signature dish, I dragged another Ramen Hound with me the next day to see if their Sapporo Miso Ramen wouldn't be any better. When we sat down, I noticed that some tables had a jar of Diced Garlic for additional flavor.
The Sapporo Miso Ramen arrived, and it looked much different from the standard Miso Ramen the previous day. It was a huge bowl of Ramen Noodles, but this time it was topped with a giant mound of Moyashi (Bean Sprouts), Corn(!) (which I believe is a Sapporo style topping), and Diced Chashu, instead of Slices of Chashu (Pork). It was also just a touch spicier.
Sadly, I was busy and let my friend order (who didn't know about the possibility to request the Ramen without MSG), so I suffered for a 2nd day in a row with everyone's favorite sodium. :( The Sapporo Miso Broth was quite complex: The porkiness in the Tonsoku was evident, but combined with a strong aroma of the ocean and seafood with the Whitebait, Katsuobushi and Kombu flavors. This was my first time having Sapporo Miso Ramen, so I had no reference point (I'll leave that up to Rameniac, Keizo and others to judge (^_~)), but I felt it could've used a bit more punch to it (besides the monosodium glutamate). The Moyashi and Diced Chashu were a nice touch, and the Corn was bizarre but somehow worked.
We also tried their standard Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce Ramen), which also had a very clear broth, nice and simple (but sadly with MSG as well). It wasn't anywhere near as complex as Santouka's Shoyu Ramen Broth, and I'd imagine without the MSG it'd be a lot better.
Finally we had their Gyoza (Pan-Fried Dumplings), which Sasaki-san mentioned they made their own stuffing (not the skin, just the stuffing). The stuffing was a nice mixture of Ground Pork and Cabbage, and was actually decent. But unfortunately the skin of the Dumplings broke apart for each Gyoza we had.
Determined to try this at least once without an MSG overload, we traveled back one last time, and sampled their Shio Ramen and tried their made-from-scratch Curry. The Shio Ramen this time (without MSG) was better, nice and light, but now that I'm used to Santouka's Shio Ramen (which is far more complex and thick and porky), I think this might be too light and plain.
The Katsu Curry (Pork Cutlet with Curry) Rice tasted like it was made from scratch, tasting more diverse in spices and flavorful with some nice bits of Carrots, Onions and Potatoes. Sadly it was also reheated, due to the fact that Curry probably isn't a big seller at this Ramen shop. The Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) was passable, with a thin breaded crust. It was too salty, and the crust wasn't crispy at all. And the last problem was that the rice was reheated as well, which was really disappointing. I would imagine that a fresh batch of the Curry and fresh Rice would elevate this dish greatly, but it wasn't meant to be last night.
We averaged about ~$10 per person (including tax and tip). (Note that they also serve "Kaedama" (Extra Noodles) for $1.50 - it's not on the menu.) Decor was close to nothing: It's a simple mom-and-pop Ramen Noodle shop. Service was decent, as to be expected at a Ramen-ya.
Ultimately, Aji Man is a decent Ramen Restaurant if you happen to be in the area and are craving Ramen but don't feel like driving across town to the better Ramen-yas (fortunately, Santouka is always nearby for me :). Sasaki-san's Sapporo Miso Ramen could've been a major selling point for the restaurant, but the Flavor Crystals handicap the dish greatly, and even requesting the dish without it, please note that some Miso Pastes contain MSG regardless (I didn't confirm if the Miso Paste he used had it or not).
It's unfortunate that Sasaki-san isn't able to devote enough time to his Broth, and has to resort to enhancements, but it shows flashes of promise: Aji Man's Non-MSG Shio Ramen is much better than the Ramen served down the street at Tamaya, for example, but it's not saying much. If Sasaki-san eventually perfects his various Broths without MSG, Aji Man could become a much better Ramen Restaurant than it is today. Maybe someday...
*** Rating: 5.1 (out of 10.0) ***
821 W. Las Tunas Drive
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 282-3478
Hours: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.