Noodle As Lifeline
In which the humble ramen noodle saves our reviewer from having his face burned off by the delectably spicy soup at Ajisen Ramen
Tampopo is one of my favorite films. The 1985 movie by Juzo Itami is a patchwork of stories, all with food as a central theme. But the main plotline is about Tampopo, a ramen-shop proprietress on a quest to cook the perfect bowl of noodles and the handsome stranger who helps her. The high-water mark of all food cinema, the film does for ramen what Sex & the City did for shoes.
It always comes to mind when I bury my head in a big bowl of noodles at any of OC’s ramen restaurants. I was reminded of a particular scene when I slurped the soup at Ajisen, a new ramen shop at Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree.
“He shouldn’t be able to drink the soup so soon!” Tampopo’s mentor lectured her after she served a bowl to a customer. “The soup should be HOT!”
Ajisen’s soup would get the same criticism. It didn’t singe my tongue like Santoka Ramen’s broth so often does. This one was actually just shy of warm bathwater. But perhaps it’s just as well. The bowl that I ordered, the spicy-pork ramen, was operating on the other definition of heat, courtesy of all that red pepper.
The seething, caustic red powder was concentrated and caked on the ground pork. It started imparting its hotness into the liquid immediately. A glutton for pain, I swirled it around to distribute the spice into the porky punch, turning the milky caramel-colored brew into a fiery-red moat.
The first sip cleared my sinuses. Each subsequent one made my ears tingle and my brow dampen. From that point on, the noodles became my buffer. But once I had sucked up the last strand, I was left with a puddle of the soup, which sat menacingly, beckoning me to drink it without the protection the noodles offered. I took the dare, gulped it down, and my eyes started watering instantly. It was a good kind of hurt—worth the two glasses of water I chugged to put out the inferno and the inevitable heartburn I’d suffer later.
Other bowls went down without incident or much afterthought. Despite the fact that the base broth had an onion-y bent and was made in the traditional tonkotsu style—where pork bones are simmered and coaxed for hours to give up their luxurious flavor and body—the soup seemed flat. Perhaps if it were a few degrees hotter, it would’ve sung. Instead, it barely hummed.
In almost all the ramen permutations produced, there were soft medallions of roasted pork, cabbage, seaweed and half an egg. The main difference among most was the amount. The barbecue-pork ramen, for instance, had about twice the number of slices as the standard bowl.
The tender pork-ribs ramen, however, was unlike the others. Here, the sliced meat was replaced with slow-simmered hunks of hog that surrounded bundles of connective tissue turned into a chewy gelatin.
Beef can also be had as ramen topping, but it’s better over a bowl of rice than the noodles. Lean steak was shaved as thin as Kleenex, simmered with mirin, onions and enoki mushrooms—as elegant a beef bowl as I’ve ever eaten. Yoshinoya would be shamed in its presence.
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The same protein was wrapped around the same mushrooms for an appetizer called beef enoki rolls. Fried calamari consisted of nothing but the dismembered tentacles of a large cephalopod, lightly floured and cooked to a salty, greasy chew. More satisfying still was the seaweed-like crunch of the marinated baby octopus. The tiny, eight-limbed sea infants are no bigger than a nickel and are supposed to be eaten whole—if you can get past the Fear Factor factor.
Ajisen’s desserts were also surprisingly good. There’s a coarsely textured, hot, red bean and mochi soup that’s an instant antidote for our spate of nippy nights. And there’s a pumpkin pudding with tapioca that initially looked more like library paste than food, but filled my mouth with its slowly spreading warmth and sweetness.
And despite the incessant thumping beats of Japanese pop music and the winking anime statue that greets you as you enter, the place is also everything Tampopo would want her ramen restaurant to be. Now if they’d only listen to the film’s lesson about the temperature of the broth.
Ajisen Ramen, 2700 Alton Pkwy., Ste. 145, Irvine, (949) 833-3288. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only.