A few months ago, I drove to L.A., paid for parking in one of those Little Tokyo parking labyrinths, and waited for over an hour to get a seat at Daikokuya, a highly-regarded L.A. ramen shop — all for a bowl of noodles that would've disappointed me if I had only waited a minute.
After their first slurp, my friends — Daikokuya devotees who had convinced me to meet them there — also admitted that it wasn't as good as they remembered. We thought of a myriad of excuses for it. An off-night? An absent chef? Ultimately, I decided that the commute was too ugly for another go round.
But despite that lackluster bowl, I was hopeful when I heard that Daikokuya was unveiling a branch in O.C. With its soft opening a few weeks ago, it makes Costa Mesa — a city that already has Santoka and others — the ramen Mecca of Orange County.
At first glance, the new O.C. store bears no resemblance to the original. For now, there is no wait. At their stall in the Marukai food court — where the typical lunch crowd barely constitutes more than a trickle — I was the only customer.
An abbreviated menu sampling was scribbled on a chalkboard no bigger than a sheet of copy paper. It was a warm-up list of the basics, which my Latina cashier (who greeted me in Japanese) said were the only items available at the moment. There was one ramen, gyoza, a rice bowl topped with shredded pork, and a combo of the three.
The ramen ($8.50) came in a trough big enough to immerse your entire face in. The required components were all present; slices of pork, a whole egg, bamboo shoots, the noodles, and the broth.
But as soon as I took my first sip, it felt like a repeat of that first experience. The milky-brown, caramel soup was luke-warm when it should've been boiling hot — and the flavor was muffled when it should've been bold. My palate could still make out the words and hear the melody of pork, salt, and sweetness; but it wasn't enough to make it dance.
What my mouth got instead was a merciless beating by green onions. Gobs of it overwhelmed every spoonful, interfered each slurp and fouled up my breath for no good reason.
Without the support of the broth and because of the persistence of the scallions, the subtleties of the noodles slid further into the background. The pork slices, on the other hand, were blubbery things. They were braised so long, they couldn't be lifted out of the broth without disintegrating. Fatty and unctuous, it's what I enjoyed most in the bowl.
Then I encountered the egg. As I bit off a chunk, I uncovered a raw yolk surrounded by a still-clear albumen. This, I did not expect. I have marveled other ramens featuring eggs with yolks that were just barely set; but never raw and bleeding. I pushed it aside, and made sure it didn't tip over to muck up the broth.
So I'm back where I started with Daikokuya. However, since this is just their soft-opening, rather than being incredulous, I am still hopeful. Plus, because it's in the neighborhood, it will be easier to give them another shot to be great. Here's hoping they can.
2975 Harbor Blvd., Suite 5
Costa Mesa, CA 92626