If you blindfolded me and fed me a strand of the noodles from the new Ramen & Tsukemen TAO in Buena Park, I’d tell you it was udon. These are the most bloated ramen noodles in Orange County. They have three times the line weight of the stuff I boiled in my college dorm room. Top Ramen is as distant a cousin to these noodles as Hamburger Helper is to a $100 steak at Mastro’s. This is most evident with the soup in which it floats. It’s so heavy, rich and viscous that it’s less like soup and more like Thanksgiving gravy.
Everything I tasted in that first bowl of Ramen & Tsukemen TAO’s miso ramen is indicative of the Sapporo style—its heartiness is designed for harsh Hokkaido winters. After fortifying themselves with bowls such as the one I slurped, I imagine the Japanese island’s residents waddling out of ramen shops warmed and satiated, but with heightened cholesterol levels.
I’ve also never been to any of the restaurants from the Tsujita empire in LA. I mention Tsujita because Toshimasa Sano—the young chef at the center of Ramen & Tsukemen TAO—is said to have come from the original Tsujita in Tokyo. He worked there 10 years before moving here to start this venture. And if you compare TAO’s menu to Tsujita’s, you’d have to conclude this restaurant is a carbon copy of it down to the cartoon step-by-step instructions on how to eat the tsukemen. This is not a bad thing. Tsujita was slated to open its first Orange County store in South Coast Plaza a few years ago, but those plans were abruptly canceled. Sano’s shop is a more-than-adequate consolation prize.
The ramen at TAO comes two ways. In the white miso, Sano uses a thinner noodle, while in the red miso, he breaks out the weighted ramen. He does this to match the flavor. White miso is fermented with rice and tastes milder, thus the thinner strands. Red miso is fermented with grains and has a more assertive umami punch that calls for the chewier stuff. But if you tend to Hoover up your noodles, you might not be able to tell the difference. Past the tell-tale sign of diced green scallions for the white miso and reedy strips for the red, the subtleties can be easily missed.
Sano also adds softened bean sprouts and strips of lacto-fermented bamboo shoots called “menma” into every bowl he produces. If you want a soft-boiled egg, with the yolk exhibiting a familiar jammy texture, he charges an extra $2. If you want to spice up your bowl, you can ask for a $1 scoop of a chile paste called “daruma” that turns your soup into a doppelganger for Malaysian laksa.
You can also add extra pork for $4.50, but it’s unnecessary. When the soup itself is essentially a pack of bacon rendered down to a liquid during a 40-hour process, the one piece of chashu will be more than enough. Even if you take out everything else, the soup alone can fill you up as if you ate a full rack of ribs. You need to only look at the frothy bubbles that shimmer on top of the liquid to realize you’re about to consume your monthly allotment of melted pig blubber in one sitting. Tucking a napkin over your shirt before slurping is also recommended, as the splatter will leave oil stains.
The best application of the soup is as a dipping sauce for the tsukemen, the restaurant’s signature dish. In this form, the liquid tastes slightly sweeter than the usual broth, with more chashu and veggies hidden in its depths. It’s also thicker, but not by much. The real difference comes with the noodles, which are chilled and served with a lime wedge and a sheet of nori. As soon as I bit into them, I experienced a bubble-gum chew that was absent in the red miso ramen. These were the noodles at their most resilient.
After you chew your last strand, you can ask for some “soup wari” to dilute the rest of your leftover dipping sauce. Thinning it with the ramen-pasta water finally renders TAO’s broth into something resembling normal soup. Afterward, you’ll likely be so full you won’t want anything but ice water. This is probably why when you order one of the three rice bowls (a.k.a. dons), it comes at the beginning.
The chashu don—bits of chopped pork spread over rice with charred scallions—is worthy of its own restaurant. I also contend that TAO’s spicy-tuna don runs laps around any poke bowl. Besides being a great appetizer, the fish dish also possesses some omega-3 fatty acids in case you want to slightly counteract all the saturated fat in the ramen. Note that I did say “slightly.” Don’t kid yourself: Eating here means you’re saying, “screw it” to your general heart health for at least a week.
Ramen & Tsukemen TAO, 10488 Valley View St., Buena Park, (714) 699-1078. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Ramen and tsukemen, $9.95-$13.95; dons, $3.50-$3.99. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.