I'm a noodle-soup agnostic. Pho. Niu rou mian. Thai boat noodle. I love all these warm bowls of instant comfort equally. So long as it comes out steaming-hot, has a good broth to sip and springy noodles to chew, I'm in my happy place. But ramen? Ramen is something else entirely. Ramen is not for casual worship. It's the noodle soup with cultish obsessives who'd be able to tell you what pH of alkalinity gives the noodles their characteristic golden hue or why the oil that floats on the surface of the soup is important (answer: it acts as insulation, keeping it hotter longer).
I was reminded of the ramen cult when I went to the new Hakata Ikkousha in Costa Mesa. A television plays a video of the intense-looking founder talking about the strict quality controls at his growing ramen empire. When he isn't shown stirring a big pot of soup or inspecting the noodles as closely as if he's looking for head lice, he's posing with his arms folded and his brow furrowed, Iron Chef-style. The video goes on. It shows the noodles being made in a factory so clean and modern it could produce Intel microchips. Then it takes on the optimal thickness for slicing the roast pork and how the froth in a properly aerated bowl of soup is essential. All of this would seem boastful if there weren't awards to back up these claims or if Hakata Ikkousha's empire didn't extend from Japan to Indonesia, Singapore, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, Hong Kong and now the U.S.
The ramen menu is simple, with only five bowls to choose from. There's a basic tonkotsu, a shio, a jet-black bowl made with sesame and garlic paste, a miso, and a spicy one labeled "God Fire." Then there are the obligatory ancillary items, such as extra toppings, gyoza, a fried-chicken dish and four choices of rice. If it's your first time, you'll want the classic: the tonkotsu, with the noodles prepared "hard" so they retain their chewiness from start to finish.
As with all bowls of tonkotsu, the broth isn't so much a broth as it's a meal unto itself--thick, rich and salty. If you give it the opportunity to cool, you could pour it onto mashed potatoes and call it gravy. Ikkousha, as with others of the Hakata school, boils its soup long and hard from a big pot of pig bones. And if the translation from its website is correct, it uses "pig head and spine." The resulting brew is creamy, balanced and homogenous where the broth at Santouka across the street tends to be oilier. And yes, since the soup is sifted through a sieve as it's poured from some prescribed height, froth forms on the edges of the bowl. Does that add anything? I'd rather debate Creationism with a Bible scholar than tell the founder it didn't.
After you've graduated from the basic bowl, go directly to the "God Fire." This isn't to say the inky, black, sesame-flavored soup isn't unique with its pleasant hint of bitterness offsetting the salt and sweetness; I'm just saying the "God Fire" is so much better. It's offered in customizable levels of hotness from one to four. So far, I've only been brave enough to try level one, which already scalded me enough that I used five napkins to soak up the sweat from my brow and asked for three refills of water. Since I managed to drink every drop of the red soup--scraping the bowl clean down to the gritty leavings of pepper at the bottom--it probably means I'm ready for level two. Who needs a digestive tract, anyway?
Toppings range from the unnecessary (extra green onions) to the essential (a boiled egg). You need this egg. It's cooked just until the whites are set, but the yolk reaches that luscious state between solid and liquid. If you've got $6, opt for the premium toppings; your bowl will be lavished with snappy bamboo shoots, nori, the egg and extra slices of the deli-thin pork, which are draped over the brim as if drying laundry.
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As a side item, I prefer the fried chicken to the gyoza. Though delicate, the dumplings are expensive for what amounts to five fingertip-sized pieces that wouldn't satisfy a hamster. The chicken, however, is glorious--a big, honking dark-meat filet, gnarled from the fryer, its shimmering skin rendered to a bubbled fleck of crispness and the meat bursting juice when you tear into it. The fried rice is also pretty wonderful. It's onion-y, tossed with bits of meat and egg in a blazing wok--just as good as the fried rice Din Tai Fung makes and, I dare say, worthy of its own cultish following.
Hakata Ikkousha, 3033 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 540-2066. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Ramen, $9-$10; sides, $5-$7. Beer and sake.