I first encountered Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro two years ago in LA—well, really, it was Rancho Park, a neighborhood I can honestly say I’d never heard of. A friend told me about the eatery, and I was immediately intrigued; as Southern California crawls with build-your-own poke joints and ramen shops, this restaurant was among the first I’ve seen that attempts to do both. Ramen and DIY poke are two vastly different operating models. So, this was a completely new concept: a two-in-one. It was as though Chipotle started offering burgers.
The restaurant was set up exactly as I thought it would be. The poke bar was on one side, and the ramen counter, with its own menu, was on the other. But the dining room resembled a very charming uptown bistro. Fanciful sketches of commissioned art decorated walls made of blackboard. I could tell the owner invested in remodeling, making the restaurant sunny, chic and fashionable for sunny, chic and fashionable Westsiders. Even the poke assembly line was upgraded. It offered not only the usuals of ahi, salmon and shrimp, but also crawfish, which, in my opinion, is as good as lobster. In addition, there were complimentary toppings I’d never seen before, such as tamagoyaki, as well as some I have, such as Hot Cheetos.
While I liked the poke, I loved the ramen more. The noodles hit the chewy sweet spot: not too firm, not too soft. And they’re substantial—thick, almost udon-like—with the consistency of the Chinese, hand-pulled variety. And I knew I was in for a treat when I saw the shifting pools of fat floating above the creamy, 24-hour-simmered tonkotsu broth. There were other good things, including two pieces of generously thick, broiled pork belly gilded with charred edges.
Since my visit, Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro has expanded. It now has a second shop in LA and another in Buena Park, marking its first foray into Orange County. The latter takes over the space of another poke shop, but upon entering the Buena Park location, I realized Nishi had evolved beyond its title. The menu here also featured bento boxes with pork, beef and chicken. And to the right of the register was a small fridge with prepackaged sushi rolls that you can apparently also order as a party platter.
The dining room at the Buena Park store was also more utilitarian than the one in LA. A self-serve soda fountain stood in one corner, and empty to-go containers were stacked to the right of the cashier. On a dominant wall, glossy pictures of karaage and gyoza functioned as both art and advertisement. But it was the presence of the bagged chips on a rack just as you’d find at a Subway that suggests the place isn’t interested in being considered a hallowed ramen temple among the likes of Kitakata, Shin-Sen-Gumi and HiroNori. Instead, it aims to be the Japanese-restaurant equivalent of a neighborhood diner that has something for everyone.
This isn’t to say the ramen isn’t worthy of being compared to the rest. Although the noodles were now uniformly thin and soft, the broth was a balanced blend of long-simmered porkiness and seafood-y umami. Not too rich, too thick or too salty, this was decidedly a lighter tonkotsu broth than what’s served everywhere else. It’s even different than what I remembered slurping at the Rancho Park branch. But when I ordered a bowl, the cashier turned on the burner to boil up a serving of it in a small pot to ensure it scalds on the first sip. Once assembled, the ramen came with the familiar charred pork belly, a sheet of nori, a scattering of green onions and a wad of greens I suspect were bok choy.
If you order Nishi’s vegetarian ramen expecting the depths of flavors that HiroNori manages to achieve with its revolutionary vegan bowl of noodles, you will be disappointed. Nishi’s broth struggles to hit every note that HiroNori’s vegan soup sings with barely any effort. The tofu, corn and mushroom toppings will, however, make up the difference.
But if you’re carnivorous, don’t miss what I think is one of OC’s best chicken karaages, which the kitchen staff deep-fry into perfectly tender, juicy, lightly crisp morsels that never need the mayo-based dipping sauce the dish comes with. The fried calamari were excellent, too, served in thick, meaty spears that suggest they’re actually cuttlefish.
And of course, you won’t want to miss out on the essential ramen add-on of the soft-boiled egg—the yolk straddling the tenuous balance between liquid and solid. It’s done perfectly here, and it’s a fitting symbol of how this growing chain has managed to walk the tightrope of two genres, yet still be good at both.
Nishi Poke & Ramen Bistro, 6242 Beach Blvd., Ste. A, Buena Park, (714) 522-2667; nishipokeramen.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Ramen, $10.50-$12.50; poke, $10.95-$14.95. 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.