This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

For years, Costa Mesa residents knew that the best non-supermarket ramen shop in town was Mitae Ramen, a dive just across the street from the LAB where the Japanese soup came in canteens and at insanely affordable prices. But Mitae closed shop about a year ago, and the vastly overrated Rooster Café now occupies the spot. A belated adiós, Mitae.

But you gotta love the free market—other ramen shops stepped in to replace Mitae in the past year, all good. I reviewed Ramen House Mentatsu earlier this year, now here's another: KOH-RYU RAMEN. Step into this 25-person-maximum-capacity restaurant around 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and you'll have to wait at least 15 minutes for a seat. Old, young, Japanese, gaijin afflicted with yellow fever—everyone is slurping from steaming bowls, twirling noodles into intricate crochets. You won't mind the delay—the warm, broth-scented air triggers your salivary glands and keeps you anticipating a great meal. And if you do get bored? Admire the posters of Japanese girls in bikinis hawking Sapporo, or the wall decorated with graffiti and pictures of Japanese golfers.

There are different ramens available, all suiting your sundry needs, some with fatty broth, others salty, spicy, even creamy. But all are built on a foundation of al dente yellow noodles, a couple of pork slices with creamy fat slivers, and green onions. From here, you can ask how hard or soft the chefs prepare the noodles, the strength of the flavor, even the amount of oil squirted in to add a burnt aftertaste. The mix-and-match doesn't end there: You can choose from 14 toppings, everything from corn kernels to fiery kim chi, a boiled egg, or deep-fried green onions. Purists may howl at some of the combinations available—on my last visit, I requested extra helpings of garlic and kim chi until my breath was strong enough to demolish skyscrapers—but purism is for neo-Nazis: Koh-ryu's soups are excellent regardless of combos. No matter how you prefer ramen, order a side of gyoza—hand-rolled, crisped on the thin edges.

Koh-ryu sells other excellent meals—the fried-chicken nuggets here can spin off their own franchise, while the rich black pork sausages look and taste as if they were stuffed that morning. A secret menu also hawks decidedly non-ramen sides such as croquettes, raw marinated squid and something appetizingly called “octopus ball.” And special credit goes to Koh-ryu for continuing to employ Mexican immigrants, even as Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor wants to kick them out of town. Hey, Al: The Japanese have been kicking our ass at most everything the past couple of decades. If they don't have a problem with hiring Mexicans, why should you?

KOH-RYU RAMEN, 819 BAKER ST., STE. B-21, COSTA MESA, (714) 556-9212.

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