Chain restaurant is a dirty word to some food-lovers. But in Japan, where ramen is a national obsession, specialty chain restaurants offer reliably good noodles, and a U.S. branch shows there’s more to cooking for the masses than Mickey D’s. On the hunt for a great bowl of ramen after reading The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life by fellow Chowhound Andy Raskin, Melanie Wong dropped by Ajisen, the local outpost of a Japanese ramen chain.
The premium pork ramen may completely change the way you see pork belly. The thinly shaved slices, roasted and then stir-fried, were “tender and delicate,” Melanie says, with “the subtle flavors of pork’s natural sweetness, roasted essence and supporting seasoning combined with a buttery softness that melted in the mouth.” You can customize your order to a certain extent, and “the tonkotsu stock had the characteristic Japanese brininess mingled with roasted porcine depth.”
Prices are on the high side, starting at $9.95 for a small bowl of the specialty ramen. Add $2.50 for a set lunch that also includes karaage (delicious and juicy marinated fried chicken) and rice.
Melanie ranks Ajisen at number 7 out of 64 restaurants in her personal ramen rankings, and that’s without having tried the house specialty, sparerib ramen.
Hana Japanese Restaurant may underwhelm with its overpriced sushi, but Melanie really liked the lunch-only ramen, which made number 12 on her list. There’s just one kind, kakuni ramen, with two thick slabs of braised pork belly. Although her portion looked more like loin, the meat was pull-apart tender and had good flavor from braising. There was also a soft-boiled egg, the not-quite-cooked yolk jellylike in consistency. But the best part of the bowl, she says, was the shoyu stock: “Meaty with roasted pork and poultry tones, the stock also had a sweet and briny ocean breeze of seafood flavors swirling through the complex brew. Remarkably light textured, restrained in salting and non-greasy, Hana managed to take away much of the fat and salt, yet still create a ramen stock that’s very flavorful, well-balanced and authentic tasting.”
It’s possible to get a half-taste of sake—2 ounces of Akita ginjo sake is $5—a nice option for lunch. Kakuni ramen is $12.
Ajisen Noodle [East Bay]
47890 Warm Springs Boulevard, Fremont
Hana Japanese Restaurant [Sonoma County]
101 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park