First Taste: Ramen Yamadaya Costa Mesa

Yamadaya's Kotteri ramen
Yamadaya's Kotteri ramen

They're finally open! Back in November we reported that Yamadaya's first Orange County restaurant was opening by the end of that month.

They put up hand-written signs in their papered-over windows counting down the days. "8 Days," the sign promised, and stayed that way for over a month. A similar window-sign fakeout happened when they opened the Culver City store, so let's not take it personally, Orange County.

The good news is that their already-mythic tonkotsu soup, super-saturated with pork, is available minus the drive in traffic to their three other locations in Torrance, Culver City, and Westwood. The bad news is that this kitchen still has some kinks to work out. In fairness, this writeup is a first taste of a spanking-new restaurant that's still finding its bearings.

The menus at each location vary a little bit. Costa Mesa has a best-of-breed menu, which includes several teishoku lunch sets, several varieties of ramen including tsukemen, an interesting selection of a la carte ramen add-ins plus beer, sake and shochu. Yamadaya offers diners a choice of thin noodles like you'd find at Fountain Valley's Shin Sen Gumi Hakata Ramen, or thick noodles like you'd find at Santouka Ramen in Costa Mesa or Irvine.

Thin or thick, the noodles are served in a soup that starts by briskly boiling pork bones and meat for 20 hours, which releases the marrow, fat and collagen into a broth so thick-bodied you'd swear you're eating Cream of Pork soup. The broth can be flavored with your choice of salt, soy sauce, a spicy miso. A fourth soup choice is called kotteri, which means extra-rich in Japanese. Here, the liquid pork fat skimmed from the broth-making process is added back to your bowl so that you have little gelled globs of se abura, the white back fat from high on the hog. Any porkophile should step up and order the kotteri, in my opinion.

Today, my late-afternoon lunch came out with a thin skin of crystallized collagen on top of the soup that occurs when a highly-extracted broth reduces in the stockpot. That skin is evidence of the flavor-density of the broth, but also an oversight that should have been corrected before it left the kitchen. Also, the thin noodles, usually cooked to a perfect al dente, came out overcooked and pasty. When fresh noodles of this thinness are approaching readiness, 15 seconds of inattention can lead to disaster.

Takoyaki: deep fried at Yamadaya, not pan-fried
Takoyaki: deep fried at Yamadaya, not pan-fried

Something I'd never tried before at Yamadaya is their takoyaki. Here, the octopus fritters come out an evenly dark-brown, crisp and obviously deep-fried texture, while the inside is still soft. It turns out they're using a frozen product, rather than making them from scratch in a special half-spherical takoyaki pan. Nonetheless, the product they're using is decent, and it's worth a try if you love these little octopus balls.

The movie Tampopo illustrated the dedication it takes to for a ramen chef to cook at very high level, and this very personal attention is hard to replicate at every step. Some ramen chains, like Shin Sen Gumi and Santouka, have their processes dialed for a multi-unit operation. Will Yamadaya's rapidly-expanding empire also prove as deft at growth, or will they fall victim to their booming popularity? Time will tell, readers. Check back on Stick a Fork In It as we take Yamadaya for a long-term test drive.

Yamadaya's Costa Mesa menu.
Yamadaya's Costa Mesa menu.

1175 Baker St. Costa Mesa, 714-556-0091.
Open 7 days a week. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. Dinner: 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.

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