(Formatted with All Pictures here:
I'm still trying to recount how the events transpired that propelled me through 5(!) Ramen Shops during a lazy weekend afternoon. It began innocuously enough, with an invitation by my friend Keizo (of Go Ramen!), to try out Shisen Ramen in Torrance. I thought, "Sure! A bowl of Shisen-style Ramen Noodles sounds interesting and potentially delicious." (Although in hindsight, even this statement reflects something wrong: I had just finished trying out all 32 flavors of Ramen Noodles at Foo Foo Tei over the course of 1.5 months! What possessed me to eat more Ramen after that is a baffling mystery. :P)
After arriving at Shisen Ramen just before they opened, Keizo, in true Ramen aficionado fashion, uttered the question that will live in infamy: "What do you think if we visited all of Torrance's Ramen-yas today?" I suppose one part of my subconscious was screaming "Are you crazy?! Just try some Shisen Ramen here and be off!" But before I could contemplate the consequences, my culinary curiosity got the better of me, and I blurted out: "Sounds cool!" (^_^) In all seriousness, this turned out to be one of the funnest days in recent memory, touring all the main Ramen Shops of Torrance with one of the biggest Ramen experts around. :)
Shisen Ramen's specialty is, as its name suggests, Shisen (Sichuan)-style Ramen. Chef Yokomoto perfected his recipe for a Shisen-style Broth years ago and the restaurant has become a popular place amongst the locals for quite some time. It's a tiny Ramen Shop, with a long, L-shaped wooden bar and a warm interior.
We decided to start with their famous Shisen Paiko Ramen (Fried Pork, Curry Flavor, on Shisen Ramen). Any restaurant that plasters the famous Kanji of Shisen (the Japanese pronunciation of "Sichuan" or "Szechuan") on a dish's name has me preparing for a spice level that might torch my taste buds :), but luckily Yokomoto-san's Shisen Soup was spicy without being overpowering. The Shisen Soup forms the foundation of this restaurant's signature Ramen, and more than half of the menu is made up of variations on this soup.
Before taking a sip, a wave of peppercorns, garlic and chile oil aroma hit me full on; this could be something special. The Shisen Soup itself is everything that I had just smelled and more: A powerful, garlicky, spicy broth (not too spicy), with a touch of sweetness. It was very distinct and different from most standard Ramen Noodle Soups. But after a few more minutes of eating, I noticed something else: MSG. :( It wasn't anywhere near as bad as Gardena Ramen or a lot of the lower-tier places around town, but it was there.
The Paiko (Fried Pork Chop) was competently fried and matched the Soup nicely, as did the Hakusai (Napa Cabbage). But the standout were the Ramen Noodles themselves: Yokomoto-san imports them in from Kyoto, Japan, and the difference in noodles compared to most local shops was noticeable. It was relatively straight and had a good firmness while still being supple; a good chew as well.
Our side of Gyoza (Pan-Fried Dumplings) arrived at this point. Shisen Ramen makes their own Gyoza in-house, so I was excited to see how they would turn out. There was a good crisped bottom and a very thin skin, but this gave way to an extremely pasty filling. It was really off-putting and made it not very appetizing.
Besides their many variations of Shisen Ramen, they also featured the basic Ramen varieties, so we decided to try their Shouyu Ramen (Soy Sauce-based Ramen Noodle Soup). Unfortunately this turned out to be a huge mistake: Their Shouyu Ramen tasted literally like Hot Water + Soy Sauce... and that's it! :( It was extremely bland and lacked any real depth of flavor; it even looked murky and depressing. The Chashu (Pork Slices) that came with it fell into the category that most So Cal Ramen shops end up with: A-Few-Days-Old-Tasting slices of Pork, and the Tamago (Egg) was completely hard-boiled and chalky. This was really bad.
Service was standard for a Ramen Shop, with 1 waitress and 1 manager overseeing all the customers; no issues. Their Ramen prices range from $4.20 - $9.20. Our total was $10 per person (including tax and tip).
Overall, if you have a tolerance for MSG (or don't mind it), then Shisen Ramen is worth a visit for their unique, Shisen-style Ramen Soups and their Kyoto-imported Noodles. Otherwise, there are better places around town to enjoy a bowl of Ramen.
*** Rating: 6.2 (out of 10.0) ***
1730 W. Sepulveda Blvd. #6
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 534-1698
Hours: [Lunch] 7 Days A Week, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
The second stop on the Torrance Ramen Tour was Shin Mama Ramen (note: the English sign lists it as "Mama Ramen, Japanese Noodle Bar"). I had heard of this place but never got a chance to visit, so I was glad I had a chance to finally try it with Keizo. :)
Shin Mama Ramen is currently being helmed by Chef Komuro, who spent considerable time in Nagasaki and Hiroshima before perfecting his own recipe for the various Ramen featured at Shin Mama. Komuro-san focuses on 3 core Ramen Soups that serve as the foundation for all his Ramen (all 3 with No MSG): His Tori (Chicken) Soup takes over 10 hours(!) to make, while his Shoyu (Soy Sauce-base) Soup takes 8 hours. Finally, he spends over 14 hours to make his Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Soup base, which is just music to my ears: Any time a chef is willing to devote the necessary hours to cook and distill down and create a real Ramen Soup base, is reason to celebrate (instead of the majority of Ramen shops locally relying on MSG as a shortcut to spice up their creations).
We decided to try their new regional Ramen offering: Tokyo Shinasoba. It's not often that you see Tokyo-style Shinasoba offered in So Cal, so I was looking forward to this. This was a bowl of Ramen noodles (they used the same Noodles as they do for all their Ramen offerings) in their Tori (Chicken) Broth base, with a rather straight Noodle with a slight curl, sourced from a local supplier according to Komuro-san. The Noodles were a slight disappointment, very soft, and lacking character.
I took a sip of the broth and was speechless for a second: A surprisingly peppery, lightly sweet, airy Chicken Broth, so clean and pure that it rivaled Foo Foo Tei's legendary Shio Ramen Broth. Besides the Chicken aroma, it was tinged with just the right amount of Niboshi (Dried Baby Sardines). This was impressive! The ample amounts of Negi (Green Onions) and a bit of Hourensou (Spinach), and a mild Menma (Bamboo) all helped to bring this bowl of Noodles into focus, but it was their "Chashu" that really made this dish: Komuro-san uses Pork Belly and provides two thick slabs of the long-stewed Pork Belly as "Chashu" for this ramen.
Keizo and I both tried their Chashu for the Shinasoba at the same time, and the only thing I could muster was: "Sugoi!" ("Wow!"). (^_^) A super tender cut of Pork Belly, so fresh; this was nothing short of great! However, when compared to Murakami-san's Pork Belly Chashu at Foo Foo Tei, Shin Mama's fell short (lacking in depth of flavor that Foo Foo Tei has), but it was still very surprising and probably the 2nd best "Chashu" for a bowl of Ramen in town.
The second Ramen that we tried was their Kakuni Ramen (Fatty Pork Belly, Bamboo Shoots, Boiled Egg and Green Onion on a Soy Sauce-flavored Ramen). Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly) is one of my all-time favorite comfort dishes, so any place that offers that with Ramen has my immediate interest. (^_~)
This was the second of their 3 core Soup bases, made with their Shouyu (Soy Sauce) Soup. While Komuro-san spends about 8 hours making this Shouyu base, and it was leagues ahead of the miserable Soy Sauce Ramen at Shisen Ramen we just tried, it lacked the punch and complexity of their Tokyo Shinasoba offering. There were notes of Niboshi in here as well, but fell a bit limp otherwise; still a very solid offering.
The Tamago (Egg) used in both Ramen was notable: Komuro-san uses a Sake-infused almost-Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-boiled Egg), with a creamy egg yolk center with a beautiful aroma of Sake. It's not even close to the insane Hanjyuku Tamago I had at Menya Kissou, but it was pretty unique for L.A.
But it was their Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly) that was the highlight of this dish: Komuro-san's recipe for the Pork Belly was a lighter, sweeter version of the standard recipe found in many Izakayas (Japanese Pubs) around town, but it was just a bit tough (under-stewed). For a bowl of Ramen, this was a rare treat to have, and still a great alternative to mediocre Chashu, but a little more time braising would've helped this Pork Belly immensely.
I was so impressed with Shin Mama Ramen, that I decided to come back for a second visit a few days later. They occupy a tiny space, and on this weeknight, the restaurant was empty at 7:00 p.m., which was sad to see. But I was looking forward to trying the final Soup base that Komuro-san spent the longest time on.
Their Onomichi Ramen is the style that's Rameniac's favorite at Shin Mama, and I was curious to see how it compared to their new Tokyo Shinasoba that blew me away. While traditionally Onomichi Ramen is a Hiroshima-style offering, Komuro-san said that he tweaked it to be lighter than the traditional style, and it used the same Tori (Chicken) Base that was in the Tokyo Shinasoba.
It turns out the only difference between the two was the use of more Soup Oil, Kaiware (Daikon Radish Sprouts) and their regular Kurobuta (Berkshire Pork) Chashu slices instead of the Pork Belly.
I took a sip and for this second offering, the Tori Soup tasted a bit more diluted than the Tokyo Shinasoba that Keizo and I had two days earlier. It was still very clean and fragrant, but just a bit more diluted, despite the extra Oil in the soup. Strange.
Their Tamago (Egg) was just as delicious as before, with a fragrant Sake-infused flavor, and a creamy center. But the big disappointment was their regular Chashu (Roast Pork Slices): Despite it being Kurobuta (Berkshire), the Chashu was extremely tough, old, and *dense*! This was some of the densest Pork I've ever tasted. And it tasted about ~2-3 days old (like most other Ramen shops locally). Sigh. :(
Finally, their Ninniku Ramen (Garlic Ramen) arrived next. This was made with Komuro-san's third and final Soup base: Tonkotsu (Pork Bone). It takes Komuro-san 14 hours to make this Soup, so I was really excited to try this one. Taking a sip: The Tonkotsu broth was surprisingly... mild. It lacked the deep, porky goodness that I was hoping a 14 hour soup would produce. It wasn't bad at all, just... mild and light.
This Ramen featured a nice bit of Negi (Green Onions) and the same dense, old regular Chashu, but the highlight was the monstrous amount of Ninniku (Garlic). They weren't kidding when they advertised this as Garlic Ramen Noodles. I roughly reconfigured about 3 *full heads* of Garlic in this Ramen! It featured Fried Garlic, Garlic Puree, and Fresh Garlic Cloves, and they all combined to give this Ramen a very garlicky tone with every bite. :) Definitely for Garlic lovers, I found it pretty tasty actually.
Their Ramen prices range from $6.20 - $9.50, and Keizo and I averaged ~$10 per person (including tax and tip).
Shin Mama Ramen definitely impresses with their Tokyo Shinasoba Ramen, which features a 10 hour-long Chicken Broth base, Sake-infused semi-Hanjyuku Egg, No MSG (in any of their offerings), and the 2nd best Braised Pork Belly-style Chashu in L.A. However, their other 2 core Soup bases fail to live up to their Tori, and when combined with their mediocre regular Chashu and soft Noodles, Shin Mama Ramen falls a few notches. A good Ramen shop if you're in the neighborhood, and worth visiting just for their Tokyo Shinasoba.
*** Rating: 7.2 (out of 10.0) ***
Shin Mama Ramen
24631 Crenshaw Blvd. #K
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 517-9099
Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
We took a much needed break at this point, wandering around a bit of Torrance, and then talking about all things Ramen before we continued to our third destination: Chabuya, Tokyo Noodle Bar. Chabuya is the brainchild of Chef Yasuji Morizumi, and from the exclamations on the menu, it is Chef Morizumi's Ramen that is sought out by other chefs in Tokyo. He's taken his concept of the Ramen-ya to America, and today marked my 3rd visit to Chabuya (two previous times were at the Sawtelle branch).
The Torrance branch of Chabuya feature a much larger space than the Sawtelle location, with a more rustic, old Edo-style wooden look throughout the interior, from the dark wood bar to the wooden floors.
I've tried their "House Pork Broth" on my previous visits, so we decided to try a new style along with their classic. We started with their Tori Ramen (House Chicken Noodles) which features a slightly curly / crinkle-style Noodle, their "famous Chicken Broth" and Chashu Chicken(!). This could be interesting.
First, we tried the Soup: Keizo and I were both rather shocked as it tasted honestly like Campbell's Chicken Soup. There was no depth of flavor in this "famous" soup of theirs. Just a very straightforward Chicken essence, Salt and Water flavor. It was light and I didn't taste any MSG, but after having Murakami-san's Shio Ramen Soup (a long-stewed Chicken base), and just one hour ago we had Shin Mama Ramen's 10 hour-long stewed Chicken base, this wasn't even close. Disappointing.
Their "Chashu Chicken" turned out to be slices of a Grilled Chicken Breast, which resulted in a dry, mealy "Chashu." The crinkle-style Noodles looked unique, but turned out to be really soft and mundane. Their Fried Shallots, Green Onions and Daikon Radish Sprouts were nice, though, and helped elevate this dish slightly.
We then tried their famous offering: The Classic with Pork Chashu (Pork Broth Ramen Noodles with extra Roast Pork Slices). The past two times that I've tried their House Pork Broth made from Morizumi-san's famous recipe, I've been slightly underwhelmed. It was decent, with a good, deep pork flavor, but nothing outstanding. Now, after having tried so many different Ramen recently, I wanted to see if The Classic got any better.
Keizo noticed that The Classic is served with a completely different style of Noodle than the Tori Ramen, with a straight, Hakata-style thin Ramen Noodle. Unfortunately, the straight Noodles weren't that much better than the crinkle-style ones used in the Tori, still very soft, but it had just a little more body. It paled in comparison to Shin Sen Gumi's Hakata Ramen though.
But the most disappointing aspect was their House Pork Soup: This Tonkotsu blend was similar to the other two times I tried it at the Sawtelle location, but today's version featured a strange pungent aftertaste. Keizo likened it to "cardboard" and I'd have to agree that it was something funky and odd. (>_>) Like the Tori Ramen, the Fried Shallots and Green Onions helped make this more unique than most, but not enough to save it.
However, the one thing that saved Chabuya was their Chashu (Roast Pork Slices). For a traditional style Chashu, this was probably the best version I've had outside of Santouka (in its heyday). It tasted *fresh* (which is pretty rare), made that day, with a great marinade infused in each bite of the Chashu (Soy Sauce, Mirin amongst other flavors). It was relatively tender and very meaty. Very good! :)
Chabuya's Ramen prices range from $6.95 - $9.95, and we averaged about ~$10 per person (including tax and tip).
Chabuya, Tokyo Noodle Bar, offers the nicest ambiance of any of the Ramen restaurants around town (at both the Sawtelle and Torrance locations). There's a certain refinement angle that they are going for and for a neighborhood eatery, to grab a quick bowl of solid Ramen, it suffices. But today's showing at the Torrance location was the worst experience of my three visits, with a very average Chicken Ramen Noodle Soup, and the worst version of "The Classic" (Pork Broth Ramen) that I've had yet. Disappointing.
*** Rating: 6.5 (out of 10.0) ***
Chabuya, Tokyo Noodle Bar
24231 Crenshaw Blvd.
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 530-2749
Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Continuing on, we arrived at the fourth stop of our Torrance Ramen exploration: Men-Bei. I had passed by Men-Bei many times before (it's across the parking lot from Musha), but never thought about trying it because I've never heard anyone talk about it.
Now I know why. (~_~)
As we walked in, it seemed like a cute, simple family-style Japanese restaurant, and perusing the menu, it was impressive to see them offering 23(!) styles of Ramen. Either this was going to turn out like Foo Foo Tei's impressive array of Noodle offerings, or it was going to be a disaster. They also note at the top of their menu that each Ramen can be made without MSG upon request (at least they're up front about it).
We cautiously order their Shio Wantan Ramen (Ramen Noodles in Salt-based Soup, topped with Pork Dumplings), with "No MSG, please." It arrives with the ubiquitous, deep yellow, curly Noodles; they're predictably chalky and chewy. :(
The Shio Broth is very salty and straightforward as well; no depth of flavor, and just par for the course. The Tamago (Egg) is completely hard-boiled with a chalky yolk. But the sad part was their Wantan (Pork Dumplings): They tasted store-bought, with freezer burn(!), old and mushy. Keizo and I both couldn't finish more than 1 of these Wantan, they were that bad (and I hate wasting food).
Keizo recounted his past visits here and said the other Ramen he tried were about the same. Ramen prices ranged from $7.25 - $8.95. We averaged $4.60 per person (including tax and tip).
Men-Bei is a basic, average, neighborhood Ramen shop that would do well in areas that are deprived of any Ramen Noodles. They offer an impressive selection of Noodles (23 different styles), but their mediocre execution is disappointing. If this was in a Ramen-deprived city, it might be worth visiting, but in Los Angeles, there are too many higher-quality Ramen-yas to consider before this one.
*** Rating: 4.9 (out of 10.0) ***
21605 S. Western Ave., #J
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 320-7730
Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Our fifth and final stop today was at the venerable, much-beloved Ramen Santouka at the Torrance Mitsuwa Food Court. This review will include my thoughts over the ~25-30 visits to Santouka (both Costa Mesa and Torrance locations) over the years. :)
For those that've never heard of Santouka, it serves a style of Ramen from Hokkaido, Japan (Asahikawa, to be exact). They exploded onto the scene with an amazingly deep Pork and Fish-based Broth, and it was to be found in a food court(!). I still remember the first time my good friend from Tokyo mentioned the opening of Santouka in L.A., and dragged me along to try it. We were both excited and it was a flavor revelation at the time. I had never had a Tonkotsu-Shio (Pork Bone - Salt-based Soup) with this much complexity, so pungently porky (in a good way) and interesting. Their fatty Chashu and Ramen Noodles were both pretty standout as well.
However, over the years, I've noticed a degradation and change in the quality of their Ramen, and I wasn't even trying to be picky. Perhaps it's the inevitable turnover of kitchen staff, or a streamlining of the way they make their Ramen Broth, or complacency after their huge popularity. Whatever the case may be, Santouka today has fallen a few notches below their level of quality when they debuted in L.A. (my die-hard Santouka-loving friend from Tokyo has stopped going to Santouka altogether now).
Still, I was hopeful that this newest visit to Santouka Torrance would yield better results. Santouka offers 3 core types of Ramen broth: Their Shouyu (Soy Sauce) Tonkotsu Ramen, Miso Tonkotsu Ramen, and their Shio (Salt-based) Tonkotsu Ramen. I've found their Miso and Shouyu Tonkotsu Ramen to be decent (even when they debuted), but it's their Shio (Salt) Tonkotsu Ramen Noodle that's their standout, by far.
For this visit, we decided to try two types, starting with their Shouyu (Soy Sauce) Ramen (since it had been a while since Keizo and I had tried their Shouyu). Despite the name, Santouka's Shouyu Ramen is actually a Shouyu-Tonkotsu base soup, made of Pork Bones and Niboshi (Dried Baby Sardines) as a basis, in addition to the Shouyu (Soy Sauce), Shio (Salt), or Miso layering.
While they all use the same base, the layering of the Shouyu (Soy Sauce) just doesn't match well at all for some reason. It's decent, but there's an odd funkiness to the broth, something I've noticed the first 3-4 times I ordered it, and today as well. Keizo noted the same disappointment.
But today marked probably the worst Noodles I've had at Santouka since about 3 months ago (at the Costa Mesa location): The Ramen Noodles were completely chalky and doughy. They were terribly cooked, and Keizo and I couldn't believe what we were eating.
The Chashu (Roasted Pork Slices) were the standout item in this bowl, with a fatty, juicy cut of Pork, close to the Pork Belly cut used at Foo Foo Tei and Shin Mama's Shinasoba, but not as marbled. It had a good marinade, and it's been at this level for the last 9 months or so.
The other Ramen we ordered was their specialized version of their best Soup base: Tokusen Toroniku Shio Ramen (Special Pork Salt-base Ramen Noodle Soup). This takes their regular Shio Ramen and replaces the regular Chashu slices with a special, better cut of Pork, more evenly marbled. They also serve their ingredients on the side in a nice presentation, with Kikurage (Wood Ear Mushroom), Menma (Bamboo Shoots), Negi (Green Onions) and Umeboshi (Japanese Plum).
The standout in this dish should be their Tokusen Toroniku (Special Fatty Pork), but it's been wildly inconsistent over this past year (at both Torrance and Costa Mesa). There are some visits where the Toroniku is buttery, soft and very tender, and other visits (including today) where the Toroniku turns out to be chewy, slightly tough, and just overly salty (today marks a streak of 4 visits in a row where the Tokusen Toroniku Pork was disappointing).
Certainly the Kikurage, Negi and the Umeboshi are nice condiments and help the Ramen, but today's Shio Broth fails to impress either Keizo or myself. It's far ahead of their Shouyu Broth (there's no comparison), and the Shio Tonkotsu combination is still the most unique offering of this type in L.A., but it's overly salty and has lost its luster (their Shio Broth has gotten worse for quite a while now). It's not as good as when it debuted, feeling more processed, salty and just lacking attention / love in the making of this soup (its decline is what drove my Tokyo tomodachi away).
Their Ramen prices range from $5.99 - $10.99. We averaged about ~$10 per person (including tax and tip).
Ramen Santouka (Torrance and Costa Mesa) still represents an upper echelon Ramen Shop, offering a unique facet of Ramen, with their Asahikawa-style Shio Tonkotsu Ramen being the standout. However, they've really fallen a few notches since their auspicious debut. Their Chashu is inconsistent, their Ramen Noodles are inconsistent, and their legendary Shio Tonkotsu Broth reflects the change in staff / attitude / or streamlining that's happened to Santouka over time. It's still good Ramen for L.A., but they're not as good as before, which is unfortunate.
*** Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0) ***
Ramen Santouka (Torrance)
(inside Mitsuwa Market)
21515 Western Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 212-1101
* CASH ONLY *
Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 7:30 p.m.
Overall, I had a wonderful time with this Culinary Tour of Torrance's Ramen Shops. Huge thanks to Keizo - Doumo! (^_^) - and the best part was gaining the immediate perspective and comparison of each Ramen-ya's style of cooking their Noodles, Soups and Condiments (especially their Chashu). Looking back, while the final scores may seem a bit low, there are some gems worth mentioning, such as Shin Mama Ramen's Tokyo Shinasoba (which is outstanding with its Pork Belly! :). Now it's time to eat something else besides Ramen Noodles for a bit. (^_~)
21515 S Western Ave, Torrance, CA 90501
1730 W Sepulveda Blvd, Torrance, CA
21605 S Western Ave, Torrance, CA 90501
24631 Crenshaw Blvd Ste K, Torrance, CA 90505