acting on yet another rumor of such-and-such place having "the best ramen in town," i walked into tokyo cafe next to the east-west playhouse (in little tokyo) late in the afternoon today and decided to investigate for myself. i was skeptical, but two details piqued my initial interest - that the owner was from kyushu and that she'd been trying for years to make a suitable bowl of noodles. actually it's her husband that's from fukuoka but anyway...
the place was empty save for a youngish guy in an apron and his friend at one of the 4 tables - the former i assume was the owners' son, as the business is entirely family-run. they weren't eating so much as reading a stack of newspapers and discussing video games.
signed headshots of famous and not-so-famous asian american actors lined the walls. "to tokyo cafe" they all read; which made me wonder, did all these guys beat me to the best bowl of ramen in town? maybe i was in for a secret little gem of an experience...
eventually a woman poked her head out and gave me a menu, but i already knew i was going to be there for the ramen. "ramen and gyoza," i ordered. wooden placards above the kitchen had various specialties scrawled upon them, in japanese: saba, sanma, salmon, hakata ramen, gyoza...
i did a double take. "HAKATA ramen!" now there's a boast. anyone familiar with northern kyushu's most famous culinary export knows that shinsengumi is the only semi-authentic purveyor of hakata ramen in southern california. we'll have to see about that, i thought.
within minutes, it arrived. and it certainly LOOKED promising. definitely NOT like hakata ramen, with its trademark white broth and spare accompaniment highlighted by red, pickled ginger.
i immediately tore into it, and wouldn't you know it, it pretty much was EXACTLY what i thought it would be. NOT the best, NOT hakata, but a competent version of kyushu-style ramen as you might find in any non-descript rice-field town in southern japan.
first off, the tonkotsu soup has a definite heady essence of PORK to it, something that none of the other places around - daikokuya, ssg, chabuya, really manage to capture. only santouka really retains as much "porkiness" in their soups, but they're of a different category (where shoyu/miso/shio are the main flavor). unless you've been to japan, you may or may not know what i'm getting at, but the tonkotsu at tokyo cafe is actually very "porky" in that kyushu way. daikokuya's soup has a smokey funk to it that, though not unpleasant, isn't quite like the real thing. shin sen gumi? their broth is tonkotsu, but is a mediocre version of authenticity. if anything, the broth here resembles chabuya's; both try for the same level of intensity and flavor but don't quite achieve it. but tokyo cafe's broth comes closer, and is certainly "porkier."
noodles. this is where the ramen fell flat. sadly, like most ramen shops, tokyo cafe uses the same yellow, egg and bicarbonate noodles that everyone else uses. they serve it al dente and call it hakata ramen, but it's nothing like the real thing. ssg's noodles come closest - they're unrisen wheat noodles that are super thin and firm and white in color. THAT SPECIFICALLY is the essence of "hakata ramen" and nothing else really belongs in that category.
tokyo cafe gives an admirable effort, though, considering they're entirely family run. if there were such a thing as "kobe pork" their chashu would definitely take the cake; it was SO FATTY i could barely eat it. i never thought i'd be paraphrasing s. irene virbilia, but like she said about the kobe steaks at cut, "it was like having fat marbled with meat." in my case, that meant it was pretty inedibile (or more like, chew-uppable and spittable).
the other toppings were decent: negi and (once again, i appreciate the effort) a tiny pinch of takana-like pickled vegetables, but not quite the real thing.
all in all, it added up to a pretty decent bowl of ramen, and is very reminiscent of your run-of-the-mill neighborhood ramen shops in kyushu (which, for the most part, are miles better than anything in L.A.). is it the best? no. santouka is still the gold standard. shin sen gumi does a more authentic "hakata" ramen. daikokuya exists in its own funky shoyu-tonkotsu world and if you like it, you like it. but tokyo is a reasonable alternative right around the corner, that's for sure. if anything, it's closest in spirit to the ramen at ikkyu (it's q) ramen in hacienda heights. both go for the gold but come up a little short in the broth department; both use janky generic egg noodles and undercook it in efforts to replicate hakata-style firmness.
oh by the way, their gyoza - rectangular, flattened and pretty much an homage to daikokuya's, are quite EXCELLENT, if a bit skimpy on the filling.
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