It's difficult to write about ramen because the simple dish of yellow noodles in broth is fetishized by its partisans; ramen arguably inspires more heated discussions than any other element of Japanese cuisine. It's hard to categorize, too, because there are at least as many ramen recipes as there are Japanese municipalities, and people are convinced their way is the only correct way.
Happily, all of this nattering and arguing leads to a plethora of noodle shops. Previously, good ramen had to be sought out in the food courts of the Japanese markets in Costa Mesa; now, good ramen-ya are opening all over the county, including two that have sprung up in unlikely parts of North County. Kappa Ramen opened about six months ago in increasingly Asian West Anaheim; Okazu Ramen House opened in a corner of a strip mall behind the Golden Spoon on Orange's Tustin Street about a month and a half ago.
Kappa is a bright, slightly cavernous room, staffed with young men who have a very easy, informal method of service; they'll joke with patrons, dispensing with formality while keeping water glasses or teacups full.
The test of any ramen shop in this country ought to be its tonkotsu, a broth made by simmering pork bones and their marrow in kombu (seaweed) broth for hours and hours. At Kappa, the Kyoto-style (tonkotsu) ramen ($7.45) had nearly perfect, milky-white broth. It was topped with some gari (pickled ginger, shredded here), lean pork, bean sprouts and half a "tea egg." The noodles were chewy without being undercooked, and the broth was not greasy in the slightest.
It's possible--and advisable--to add more toppings for a small upcharge. The five-spiced egg is worth an additional order, and added vegetation such as bean sprouts, spinach or even kimchi lend interest to the bowl. If you run out of noodles before you run out of soup, you can even have another portion of noodles for $1.25.
Okazu is smaller, more intimate, and the service is more classically Japanese; it's more formal but not stilted, and there are lots of giggles from the women who serve the tables.
The broth was darker, greasier and saltier, and the noodles were more al dente. Ramen noodles are supposed to have a slight pop (the only word to describe it is the Chinese "cui"); these were a little bit too "cui."
Okazu's tonkotsu broth ($7.75) was garnished simply with vegetables, a few slices of pork (an upcharge, but included in the price above) and a slice of fish cake. The pork was fatty, which provided textural interest; the fish cake seemed alien, as though it didn't belong. Nevertheless, the broth was quite good and hot enough to finish cooking the noodles. Unfortunately, at the end, there was a great deal of hard grit at the bottom; if that is normal, then it's best to leave a few spoonfuls of soup at the bottom of the bowl.
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Of the two bowls of ramen, Kappa's was clearly superior. The ability to customize the dish is a powerful incentive to go. Okazu, however, has a far more varied menu, including Japanese curry, grilled mackerel with salt, donburi and a few sushi items; the katsu curry with rice was quite good, and all it needed was pickles to cut through the rich sauce.
Kappa is the winner of this week's Dueling Dishes; count on OC Weekly to ferret out any new ramen shops that may pop up in these fair orange acres.
Kappa Ramen, 3024 W. Ball Rd., Ste. 4, Anaheim, (714) 828-2210; kapparamen.com.
Okazu Ramen House, 2143 N. Tustin St., Ste. A1, Orange, (714) 998-9988; okazuramen.com. Okazu will be open for lunch starting Sunday, Jan. 16.