I just came back from a last minute visit to Yakyudori Ramen after hearing about their soft opening in another thread. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/684012 Since that thread was anticipating their opening, I thought it most appropriate to start a new one now that they are open.
Though there were quite a few cars in the lot, there were only two customers in the shop when I arrived. I figured most of the cars were for the *$'s shop next door. I didn't realize it at the time, but I would find out a half-hour later that I came in just before they were to close the doors to new customers. (During the soft opening they close at 9 pm.)
As I walked in it was nice to have been recognized by both the waitstaff and the sole customer at the bar, both of whom remembered me from my frequent visits to Yakitori Yakyudori. (Hurrah for our first Ramen-ya with a counter!) The counter is very generously sized, certainly deeper than many in Japan, and extensive enough to handle perhaps 15 or more customers. Table seating was also plentiful, though only one table was being used at the time.
Having already read the menu on the front door, I knew what I was having - the Shio Ramen (salt flavored Ramen). This is, afterall, my favorite Ramen, followed by Shoyu Ramen (soy sauce flavor), neither of which is represented well in San Diego. Though I also enjoy a good Tonkotsu (pork bone flavor), I find it too rich and over-the-top to enjoy exclusively and have been dying to find a good Shio or Shoyu bowl in San Diego to provide an alternative to Santouka. A single bowl of Tonkotsu to every 9 bowls of Shio or Shoyu Aji is about the right balance for me.
Lucky for me Nabe-san's new shop concentrates on these two most basic flavors, in addition to Miso Aji. (There were 3 other variations which I did not pay attention to...)
So I ordered the Shio Ramen just as is. The Shio Ramen already comes garnished with two slices of Chashu (Chinese style pork), finely shredded rings of Tokyo Negi (Japanese green onions), Menma (or Shinachiku, marinated Chinese-style bamboo shoots), the all-important Hanjyuku Tama (half-boiled marinated egg), and corn.
The bowl was beautiful. Whereas a food-pornish image of a Tonkotsu Ramen will feature a nearly opaque and milky soup hiding its oils that cannot all be held in emulsion within its saturated broth, in a Shio Ramen it's all about the clarity and color, dotted with tiny pearls of oil clearly delineated from the rest of the broth. Here we can expect by looks alone that we will taste a soup in all its nakedness, one which will for better or worse clearly showcase the skills of the chef in making his Dashi (stock). There is no hiding with a Shio broth.
And the broth was wonderful. With a good Shiomen I'm always left speechless, unable to describe it in terms of any of its constituent flavors as all of its parts disappears into a single gestalt experience. Sure enough when I have a Shio or Shoyu Ramen that does not agree I can quickly point out why, but for me with these classic Ramen broths they are at their best when one can no longer make out any particular component.
And that is why I enjoy these broths so much, and why I believe it is the Shio broth above all, to be followed by the Shoyu broth, that makes them so difficult to master. That is, the closer you get to perfecting these broths, the more and more difficult it becomes to know what to do to make them better. (Very much like trying to navigate to the North Pole. The closer you get to it, the less you know in which direction you need to go...)
So check off the most important part, their broth. It really is true what they say in Tampopo - it's the soup that animates the noodles. The noodles, too, were wonderful and flavorful, with just enough soft starches on the surface to hold fast onto the broth. It is a smoother type of noodle than used at Santouka, which befits their more refined broths. And they have good flavor. Another thing I look for in a noodle is its "guts", or strength, and these have good strength but not quite as good as Santouka's. Still not shabby in strength either, and an overall score of the noodles would be very high in my book.
The pork was nicely cut and generous in size and cut to the correct thickness, Too thick and the Chashu will start to be unbalanced, too thin and it becomes too "wimpy" and insignificant. It was elegantly flavored with the right amount of fat to keep it moist, and again more befitting the more elegant styled broth vs. Santouka's more assertive Chashu.
And yet again the Menma befit the broth, where the more assertive, almost barn-yardy notes of some Menmas would be out of place. However perhaps in this department the Menma could be a tad more assertive and still complement the broth well. Afterall even in this quiet symphony of tastes there comes a point at which some notes become too quiet to almost not be noticed.
So I was pleased with almost all of the components and was left with one big question - I have not yet tasted the Hanjyuku Tama. Well it was more than adequate given the rest of the bowl. The yolk had just the right texture and provided a subtle salty burst of flavor as it was liberated from it's albumen casing. One thing did surprise me though as I bit into the Tamago is that I appeared to catch some unexpected sweetness coming out of the yolk. Not sure if this was accurate or not, so I await a second tasting. I actually considered ordering another portion of Tamago just to make sure, but I didn't have enough broth left to balance it out.
I'd say the only nit I came home with is that I can do without the corn. Growing up I never had corn in my Ramen, though it is a popular add-on topping in Japan. In a bowl which otherwise is all about Umami flavors, corn's concentrated and simple sweetness simply does not belong. But that's just my personal preference, and I suspect that I can order my next bowl sans corn.
I talked at length to Haru-san, who is the Ramen chef at Yakyudori. He comes here from Tokyo by way of Orange County, where we had worked for several years in charge of the Ramen at Santouka's Costa Mesa branch. To have perhaps the man responsible for Santouka's most consistently run So Cal branch here in San Diego is a plus indeed.
In fact he first became familiar with San Diego when he had helped with the opening of Santouka's San Diego shop, and it was during this time that he became familiar with Yakitori Yakyudori. Wanting a change of pace from Santouka's Tonkotsu style, he was looking for a change when Nabe-san just happened to approach him with the idea of opening up a new Ramen-ya.
So thus began a true collaboration, with Haru-san in charge of the Ramen, and Nabe-san in charge of the Yakitori. We're talking about an all-star team here, though Nabe-san's Yakitori station is yet to be installed, awaiting the arrival of a liquor license.
It was good to hear from Haru-san that the development of the Ramen is completely up to them. They know they're off to a good start, but they know they could do better depending, as usual, on the all-important customer. What would their taste preferences be? How traditional could they stay? Can they chase even more exotic preparation techniques for their broth and still keep a following and a relatively low price point?
It'll be a while before we will find out, but at least in these very early days I think I can confidently say that they are off to a great start!