This story begins not at Huntington Ramen, but at a new restaurant I was originally planning to review for this issue. It looked promising at first: The place had a catchy name, well-curated social-media accounts, an eclectic menu and a bar with creatively named drinks. But then the food arrived. There was a weird noodle salad that tasted as if it started with barely cooked Top Ramen and egg rolls so salty they made my head hurt. Things took a turn for the worst after that. When I told our server the wings we ordered were still raw in the middle, she didn't apologize or offer to take it back. Instead, she insisted they were fine and safe to eat. After I paid the bill in a huff, my still-hungry mates and I hightailed it out of there, shaking our heads all the way out the door.
As it will fail without any help from me, I won't name that restaurant. Instead, I'm grateful for its existence because if it hadn't been for that extraordinarily awful experience, I wouldn't have ended up down the street at Huntington Ramen.
Despite the generic name and unimpressive strip-mall exterior, Huntington Ramen was a truly special place. We saw servers wearing traditional Japanese hakamas and tables partitioned into private booths while plucky shamisen music permeated the air. As I slurped the house tonkotsu ramen, I saw other customers tucking into California rolls and nibbling on edamame. There were families of all types, twentysomethings on dates, gabachos, Asians, Mexicans, Huntington Beach cops, even a hippie couple who clapped excitedly when the waitress informed them the restaurant does, in fact, have a vegetarian ramen.
It catered to everyone, with a menu that will seem very basic. The laminated sheet—the size of a placemat—has pictures for nearly everything. There are seven ramens, a handful of rolls, and a roster of small plates and appetizers. But its focus on the ordinary belies food made with meticulous care. The tonkotsu features crinkly al dente noodles that are a pleasure to chew and a thick, long-simmered pork broth that tastes like the concentrate of a thousand hogs. And if you're still peckish after that, a cha-shu rice bowl topped with chopped pork belly is, in my opinion, way too good for its $4.75 price tag. And the perfectly seasoned sushi rice in the spicy tuna bowl makes you realize those poke joints are phoning it in when they use regular rice. Also, the karaage here—sake-marinated chicken thighs lightly battered and fried—is the best I've had anywhere. It arrives roiling hot and juicy, served in pieces too big for your mouth—but you'll try to stuff 'em in, anyway.
Beyond those gateway dishes, there are treasures that indicate Huntington Ramen isn't just a ramen joint or even a sushi bar; it's a full-fledged Japanese restaurant that isn't afraid to offer traditional foods such as natto. One of the best is the chilled silken tofu. Served on a wicker basket nestled on a big bowl of ice, you eat it alternating between dipping the wiggly cold curds in a dashi-based sauce and dabbing them with grated ginger—a dish as simple as it is thrilling.
I've now been to Huntington Ramen more than a few times, and each visit has left me even more enamored with it. One afternoon, after I ordered the salmon-skin salad, I smelled its roasted aromas filling the entire dining room. Shortly thereafter, the salad came in a bigger bowl than I anticipated, with plenty of the crispy flecks of skin acting as fishy croutons. A week later, I discovered the sushi chef offered unabata, two pieces of nigiri sushi topped with broiled unagi and a sliver of cold butter tucked between its belt of seaweed. It's a very popular dish in Osaka, the menu said, and for good reason. And I've now settled on my favorite form of ramen here: the seasonal tsukemen, which comes with the chilled ramen noodles in one bowl, the reduced-pork soup as dipping sauce in another.
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But most of all it's the service that has endeared me to the place. They've split shared bowls of ramen without me having to ask. They serve complimentary ice cream to everyone for dessert. And one night, after realizing he'd charged a higher price than advertised for the grilled salmon collar on special, the manager came over and apologized. I told him I hadn't even noticed, but I thanked him for his honesty. It was about then I realized that, unlike that other restaurant, if I ever find anything was less than adequate here, the staff at Huntington Ramen would jump to correct it because, well . . . that's how you're supposed to run a restaurant.
Huntington Ramen, 7391 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 715-3631; huntingtonramen.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Closed the first Monday of the month. Meal for two, $15-$40, food only. Beer and sake.