I always knew the Japanese are passionate about their ramen, since they even have multiple comic series based on ramen. What I found out on Saturday night was that it's not just the Japanese - there are a TON of Bay Area residents who are passionate about ramen!!
Upper Island, which appears to be a Japanese event organization company (I say that because everyone helping out at this event was Japanese), organized Ramen Life, an interesting mix of entertainment and food. The evening's theme was ramen meets fashion, club-going hispters, and mirror balls. Three of the local hipster ramen shops - Himawari, Halu, and Maruichi - were there with their big pots of soup, noodles, and their usual trimmings...in a night club. My understanding of the event is that they cooked their broth at their home kitchens and brought it to the kitchen here, along with their noodles and their trimmings. They cooked the noodles, mixed the flavoring sauce with their broth, and assembled the ramen at the small night club kitchen. Ramen teams from the respective shops were seen lugging their humongous pots of broth over the course of the evening.
Doors opened at 5 PM, and dinner was supposed to start at 6 PM. We decided to get there earlier than at 6 PM, since we didn't quite know what to expect. Well, it was a good thing we got there when we did, because there was a line of ramen seekers that wrapped around the block, waiting to get in! Luckily, we were able to skip the line, since they were still allowing people with tickets to go ahead and get in. I briefly heard that they were going to stop that as I snaked past the two big guys at the door. Phew. Amazingly, there was already a line for the appetizer table, so we rushed to the line, while saving four seats at one of the tables with our jackets - soon to be coveted positions of status and power, while late stragglers ate their bowls of ramen standing. Soon after we got there (5:30 PM or so), there was an announcement that Himawari was the first of the three to go, and that they were already starting to serve! We waited patiently to get through the appetizer table, which turned out to be an uninspired collection of sushi and other Japanese trimmings, including a weak rendition of takoyaki - balls of flour which usually contain a tender nucleus of octopus chunks. These were balls of flour with something chewy in the center - the octopus was way too small to decipher as being octopus. Blah! Neither my plate of appetizers nor the appetizer table were worthy of photo space on this page...
After picking at the appetizers, I moved on and got in line for Himawari's ramen. There was a whole lot of getting in line going on in this event. I swear, I spent the majority of the evening in lines. I will preface my ramen assessments with this - I am a big fan of Himawari's ramen. And it's not just because of the hipster store front or the friendly ramen chef. I find their soup to be motherly and nourishing without the overly aggressive statements other ramen soups in the area make to stand out. Himawari's soup at the event was the usual Himawari soup with gentle tenderness, but boy, I think they suffered from poor operational preparation! The noodles were severely over-cooked and the staff looked totally overwhelmed in the kitchen area. But, all things considered, they produced a nice looking bowl with their wonderful chicken-based broth. Each team also showed a short film, which was really more like a TV ad for their shop while they served, and Himawari's was so quirky and odd that I loved it. It involved three dancing afro- and sweat suit-clad ramen customers dancing after enjoying ramen at Himawari. Yes, it was very odd...
Then, came the storm that was Halu. By the time Halu started serving, the place was PACKED with standing room only. Diners standing looked at us with piercing eyes as we enjoyed our seats at the table for our appetizers and Himawari ramen. The line for Halu's ramen snaked around the entire dance floor. The line was so long that the event planners chose to show the movie, Ramen Life, to distract the attendees from the long lines. But Halu, being a super-star ramen shop, was like a well-oiled machine! They produced bowls after bowls after bowls without any hiccups with all workers comfortably flowing through their work station - show of impressive operational preparation. They served all of the noodles and broth they brought and finished off with a round of celebratory hand-clapping while those not lucky enough to get in line soon enough shook their heads in disappointment. Halu cleaned up the kitchen with the same exact operational precision and left the area spotless for Maruichi to take over.
Although I was very impressed with Halu's operation, it comes down to this - I am just not a fan of the Halu ramen. The ratio of oiliness to saltiness is not quite right for me, and I get overwhelmed by the richness of their broth. Of course this is coming from a girl who rarely cooks with any butter or oil, so I am no expert in assessing the 'kotteri' (rich) style ramen. I have to give this to them, though - the bowl they served out of the unfamiliar mini night club kitchen was essentially identical to the bowls I've had at their store in San Jose, which is an amazing feat in itself. The noodles were cooked just like they do at the store with al dente firmness, and the soup was identical to their soup at the shop, a testament to their operational completeness.
Maruichi had the tough job of going last. After appetizers and two bowls of ramen - the second one being the mega-punch of a ramen with enough pork fat to last me the evening already, a lot of people were a little bit ramen-ed out. The line for Maruicihi's ramen never reached that of Halu's. Their effort was valiant, though, and their ramen was quite impressive, considering the circumstances. They looked a bit more frazzled than Halu, but kept the operation smooth and flowing. They brought their Kuro (Black) ramen with its strong garlic flavor, and my Chinese friend, Shan, who is quite an epicurean, gave her vote to Maruichi. The noodles were cooked to that wonderful ramen firmness with its distinct chewiness that resists clipping by the lips and requires teeth-involvement. The soup was a well-balanced act with saltiness, garlic, and pork fat all sharing equal parts of the spot light. Interestingly, this bowl was a lot better than the Kuro Ramen I've had at the Mountain View Maruichi last year. I enjoyed the first taste of Maruichi's ramen quite a lot, but was soon overwhelmed by the garlic-pork fat-salt one-two-three punch. I guess I'm just a ramen wimp... But I will visit Maruichi soon for another try at the ramen at their store. Now that they have a Milpitas branch, it'll be a little bit easier...
The ending of the event was anti-climactic with no announcement, no round of applauses, no discussion on how the three ramens differed. People sort of trickled out, and we followed. I was SOOOO over-ramen-ed, and I was craving something sweet to wash off the saltiness and the layer of fat that had accumulated inside my mouth. My final assessment is that I am just not a ramen-toughie, and I really like Himawari's 'assari' (light) style ramen. The Himawari ramen was the _only_ bowl I finished off the soup, and that's not just because they were the first to go. It really was the only one I could drink the whole thing without being overwhelmed. I enjoyed the differences between the three styles very much, and I feel very lucky that we have these ramen shops to provide variety to the ramen culture that's starting to take off here. I read on the Japanese restaurant review board that New York City ramen freaks salivate while reading the ramen reports in the Bay Area, since they have nothing like what we have here. So, Bay Area ramen freaks, let's unite and support the ramen shops in our neighborhood!
PS- The movie they showed, Ramen Life, by Hayato Ando, a student at DeAnza College, was really, really, really funny, so if you have a chance to see it, it's definitely worth your time! It's the story about a white guy who 'trains' to become a black-belt in ramen consumption. He faces a tough opponent after his training, and an exchange ensues. I won't give out the ending, but it sure had the whole night club chuckling!
PS2- I have to refer you to my blog if you want to see more pictures from the event, since I can only post one (I tried to post more). I am being totally biased and featuring the Himawari ramen here. Sorry!