Ramen Wars!

Photo by Tenaya HillsThis year marks the 20th anniversary of the Japanese film Tampopo, the movie that did to ramen what Spellbound did to the National Spelling Bee. Foreign audiences got a wonderfully appetizing look into the serious world of these thin noodles, noodles that most Americans unfortunately still consume within the confines of a Styrofoam cup. It's a tragedy, really, because while gaijin largely experience ramen via boiling water and a foil packet of flavored dust, the real thing involves hours of gentle bone simmering, noodle cutting and vegetable pulling, all in the name of Earth's perfect soup. In fact, ramen shops in Japan proudly post signs outside their business proclaiming how many hours it takes to make their broth.

Ramen chefs are notoriously protective of their culinary secrets, and Tampopo lovingly pokes fun at their rivalries—many hilarious fights and angry shouts ensue in this noodle Western. But in Costa Mesa, Bristol and Baker Streets line up like cross hairs for Orange County's own ramen war: four shops sell a broad range of styles within a quarter-mile of this intersection.

You wouldn't expect the food court at the massive Mitsuwa Market—purveyors of more instant-ramen brands than there are trophies in Ichiro Suzuki's study—to boil good ramen. But late last year, one of Japan's largest ramen chains, Santouka Ramen (665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-434-1101), opened its second California outpost here.

Despite its chain ownership, Santouka's soup is stately, with cooks offering ramen from different regions: Tokyo (heavy with soy sauce, with a whisper of dried bonito flakes), the miso-flavored liquid pride of Hokkaido, and another style, shio ramen, simply flavored with salt. One of the more expensive options (if you call $10 for a monstrous bowl expensive) is their specialty, toroniku chashu. Like the fatty tuna belly meat called toro, this meltingly tender, premium braised pork is a cut above their standard chashu—more substantial, deeper-flavored, wonderful. Regardless of style, all of Santouka's ramens feature the same deeply satisfying tonkotsu broth, a murky, fat-slicked nectar native to Kyushu derived from the perfect unison of pork bone, fat and meat.

Goofy name aside, the folks at Oki Doki(3033 S. Bristol St., Ste. O, Costa Mesa, 714-540-2066) are serious about their soup, even if it doesn't initially appear so. Their ramen is buried under lists of so-so Vietnamese and Chinese entrées—though, the mabo nasu, eggplant sautéed with ground pork and red-chile powder, is delish.

Oki Doki primarily draws in folks for their chicken ramen, a refreshingly light anomaly in the pork-centric ramen world. Chicken-based ramen is like a sharper version of the best midwestern chicken soups, though now laden with sturdy noodles. Most of the toppings are typically Japanese: the chashu, hardboiled egg, bean sprouts and scallions. The delicious, fried crunchy bits of garlic, though, are an atypical, probably Vietnamese influence that are more than welcome as they provide a great tweak of sweet bitterness.

Ostensibly a ramen shop, Dadami (688 Baker St., Ste. 7, Costa Mesa, 714-979-2755) also makes Orange County's finest Japanese curry rice, ramen broth transformed into a dark, acutely spicy curry richly glistening with golden fat. But I digress. Dadami's soy-rich Yokohama-style ramen is also prepared with a hearty tonkotsu broth.

Dadami also offers a tasty deviation from the scalding bowls of other ramen joints: cold dip ramen.In this dish, cold ramen noodles come on the side—it's up to the eater to dip them into the hot broth one twirled mouthful at a time. Unfortunately, Dadami has been on a mysterious hiatus for the past couple of weeks—please, Almighty Whoever, let them reopen soon!

While the OC Ramen War rages fiercely in Costa Mesa, the actual victor resides far from Ground Zero. Walk into Shin Sen Gumi Ramen(18315 Brookhurst St., Ste. 1, Fountain Valley, 714-962-8971), and you're greeted loudly with a sing-songy shout of welcome (or victory?). SSG, as the regulars call it, serves only a macho, tonkotsu ramen the color of Mom's pork chops and as comforting as a blanket on a cold night.

But SSG ultimately trumps its competition due to the options they offer to customize your ramen. Want more pork fat for a creamier flavor? Just ask. How about an extra heap of noodles? Just 95 cents, please. And an infusion of their ultra-secret soup flavoring? Want it light, medium or uranium-thick? You can even request how firm SSG should cook your noodles—order them firm, the better to allow them to cook in the bowl and revel in the spoils of gustatory triumph.


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