Surely you've heard about the recent study that linked instant ramen to heart attacks and diabetes and that the chemical preservative tertiary-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ, a petroleum byproduct) is an often-used ingredient. This is why you should shun those freeze-dried packets of cheapness and convenience and instead eat more real ramen. I'm talking about real noodles in a made-from-scratch soup full of porkiness. And the city where you can get it has always been Costa Mesa. OC's Ramen Town is home not only to the venerable Santouka, with its rich-as-gravy broths; Ramen Yamadaya, with its equally weighty bowls of liquid bacon; but also to the indies Mentatsu and Ramen Zetton, which has a vegetarian ramen that's perhaps even better than the one made with pig.
Before it closed earlier this year, there used to be Kohryu, a cult favorite famous for bowls flecked with its signature deep-fried, charred bits of green onion. But we don't call it Ramen Town for nothing. Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai quickly took its spot in August–the first U.S. store of a chain that has about 60 locations in Japan.
Kitakata makes great noodles, perhaps the best of the entire bunch. The strands here are particularly bungie-like and elastic, with an imperfect crinkle that's wide in parts, flat in others, curly throughout–and sort of bloated if you compare it to the noodles at Santouka, Yamadaya and the rest. It's that way because Kitakata–partly named for the small town from whence it came–makes its noodles with a lot more water than usual. The resulting product possesses a considerable chewiness, with a line weight just a few degrees below udon and a textural similarity to Chinese hand-pulled noodle.
Another distinctive feature of the bowls from this area is the broth, which is clear, not milky. When you sip Kitakata's soup, it'll be light–virtually spring water when compared to the rich sludge of the Hakata-style broths popular around these parts. This isn't to say it's not flavorful–it is. But you don't drink your sustenance here; you eat it in the form of those noodles and the thick, roasted pork belly slices of toro chashu layered on top.
This meltingly tender pork belly is another trademark of Kitakata-style ramen. The restaurant adorns all the bowls with the toro chashu in near-perfect squares. In its most expensive option, the chefs carpet the entire surface of the soup so completely with pig it blots out everything else beneath. Less pork-endowed but just as substantial is the green chili shio ramen, which has a tuft of shredded scallions piled on top, resembling Pebble Beach's Lone Cypress. The soup hides strips of red onions, Napa cabbage and thin slices of chile hiding near the bottom. It's not particularly spicy for the first few sips–but then you run into those chiles.
No matter which bowl you get, the portion sizes are generous. You still probably want to add an egg for an extra buck, though, and it's perfect. The yolk is flawless–halted at the state of matter between liquid and solid. Also great: the deep-fried shishito peppers flavored with soy and the chicken karaage (greaseless, moist boulders of dark meat twice the size of a McNugget that are just the right amount of crispiness). If you're so inclined, Kitakata offers the same chicken over rice and also another rice bowl blanketed with more of that pork. But a sort of brick-red fried rice made with the house umami chile paste is a revelation.
The best thing you can order at Kitakata is the tsukemen, which highlights the noodles' mesmerizing qualities like no other dish. There are two options: cold, or kept hot in a big vat of its cooking water. In both, grab the strands with your chopsticks, dunk them into a smaller bowl of a reduced broth intensified by soy, and then slurp, slurp, slurp, disregarding all the noise your mouth is making.
Right now, the place can get extremely busy on weekend nights, and the frustratingly tiny parking lot it shares with Kitsch Bar and Manpuku fills up too quickly. Only after my third visit did I find out you're allowed to park in the overflow lot at the Newport-Mesa Unified offices behind the plaza–which is good because Ramen Town is in need of more Ramen Parking.
Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai, 891 Baker St., Ste. B21, Costa Mesa, (714) 557-2947; ramenbannai.com. Open Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. & 5-9:45 p.m. Meal for two, $15-$30, food only. Beer and sake.