This Hole-in-the-Wall Life
KAIRAKU-TEI RAMEN HOUSE, a softly lit Tustin jewel that seems plucked from a Kurosawa epic, has boiled noodles for a couple of years but always seems to lack customers. Its outdoor patio is perpetually closed; the owners shut down the restaurant for days at a time. Granted, sharing a strip mall with the excellent Kappo Suzumaru and being located across the street from the extraordinary Sushi Wasabi guarantees fewer customers, but something else is at play: the ghost of Momofuku Ando.
Late last year, newspapers across the world ran obituaries for Ando, the inventor of instant ramen. They hailed him for introducing the flash-fried dish to a war-torn, desperate nation and introducing the soup to a global audience. Thanks to Ando's vision, ramen is now as common as clouds—Nissin, the company Ando founded and makers of Top Ramen sold 85.7 billion servings last year alone. But Ando's success came at a cost in the United States—the authentic version rarely passes through the lips of Americans.
So you'll probably be the only person in Kairaku-Tei's small dining room when you visit—definitely one of the few gaijin amidst the Japanese diners who come for the gospel of ramen. There are a couple of non-noodle entrées—lean pork sausages that come three to a order, a side of Japanese-style kimchi, some salads and juicy gyoza as soft as marshmallows. But the emphasis here is on ramen—fresh, hand-pulled noodles with an eggy taste soaking in a broth redolent of beef bones boiled for hours.
The noodles and broth are the canvas for multiple creations. Curry ramen is murky, sweet and not spicy at all; kimchi ramen singes taste buds but unfortunately doesn't have much of the spicy cabbage. Chunks of barbecued pork bob in the chasu ramen; the beef ramen can warm up the frostiest nights. You can garnish the ramen with condiments available at each table—oil, chili flakes, soy sauce and something that tastes and smells a bit like vinegar but is a bit sweeter. All the ramens excel, even the veggie ramen. It curiously forsakes Japanese vegetables like edamame and mushrooms in favor of all-American greens like carrot and corn bits, an obvious nod to eaters whose only exposure to the godly noodles is in Styrofoam cups heated while studying for finals.
KAIRAKU-TEI RAMEN HOUSE, 17292 MCFADDEN AVE., TUSTIN, (714) 368-0233.
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