Most ramen noodle soup shops that I’ve patronized make up their bowls in an enclosed kitchen. Rarely do you get to see what goes on. Last week, however, I fueled up at Hakata Ramen Shisengumi in Gardena and got to experience a master in action. Gardena is a suburb south of Los Angeles that has a large Asian, particularly Japanese, population.
Hakata refers to a city northwest of Kyushu that’s famous for tonkotsu ramen. Characterized by a milky rich broth, tonkotsu (not the same as tonkatsu – the fried cutlets coated in panko) ramen is very popular these days. As the name indicates, Hakata Ramen specializes in that type of ramen noodle preparation.
Though it was a sleepy Sunday, there was a wait for a table and we were left standing outside watching Japanese food TV programming. It looked like promotional footage of the Shisengumi restaurant group’s fare. Shisengumi is a Japan-based restaurant company that has a number of niche spots in California. Hakata Ramen is their small noodle shop. It’s professionally run and conveniently located but not super obvious corporate like TGI Friday’s or Chili’s. There’s a homey edge and plus, they’re in the back of a strip mall.
The menu is small and you can dial-in your ramen preferences with regard to the chewiness of the noodles, fattiness (richness) of the broth, and saltiness. Each party fills out this order sheet for the kitchen and the wait person reviews it with you before submitting your order:
My husband and I selected “normal” for everything to get a Hakata benchmark. Our orders took about 15 minutes to arrive but we didn’t care as the entertainment in the open kitchen was fabulous:
It was fascinating to watch the chef’s well-practiced moves. There were many little lessons for professional and home cooks alike. For example:
Broth: There are tall containers of concentrated broth that sit next to the simmering stockpots. The chef periodically tastes the broths in the two simmering – sometimes boiling pots – and adds more concentrated broth as needed. He sometimes adds some from one stock pot to the other. He strains the broth into each bowl to ensure that no weird solids get into a customer’s bowl.
Seasoning: As needed, the chef adds an extra ladle of savoriness (lots of soy sauce, I imagine) to a bowl before adding the broth and noodles.
Noodles: He uses fresh noodles and pulls them from a box. We were sitting right in front of the box of noodles. Hakata Ramen uses thin ramen noodles. More importantly, watch the chef as he shakes and whips the noodles in the noodle ladle. That ladle is among the MOST important tools in a noodle chef’s batter of equipment. Watch him as he deftly whips the ladles around to shake off excess moisture. I wouldn’t do that in my own kitchen but wouldn’t it be fun to whip your pho noodles around like that?
Stirring the noodles: Because noodles clump up in the bowl, the chef moves them around and lets them soak in the broth before adding the toppings. That’s why when the bowl arrives, you stir up the noodles and they are not a heavy mass sitting at the bottom of the bowl. That’s a marvelous trick!
Additions: The seasoned egg was cut with a wire connected to the counter. All the other ingredients were sliced and mis en placed. The chef worked like a well-oiled machine. That’s what you want to do at home when making Asian noodle soups! Be prepared with the various components then fill up the bowls in an assembly line fashion.
How did the ramen taste? It was good but not the best bowl of tonkotsu ramen that I’ve had. (Daikokuya makes excellent tonkotsu ramen!) The broth wasn’t as fatty as I liked and the noodles were a little too soft. But I’d like to return and try Hakata Ramen again. Next time, I’ll order firmer noodles and a richer broth. There is a spicy miso mixture too that I’m curious about too.
The fact that you can fine tune your ramen preference is terrific because you learn about the spectrum of flavors and texture that ramen can have. But that lesson doesn’t mean that you have to repeated make batches yourself! At Hakata Ramen, it’s as if you work with the kitchen to devise a “have-it-your-way” kind of ramen experience.
Finally, there’s a happy hour at Hakata Ramen — $1 pints and $5 pitchers of draft Budweiser beer, which tastes much better than it reads. Now if only I didn’t have to drive about 6 hours from Northern California to get there.
Have you got a favorite spot for tonkotsu ramen? Do tell…
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