This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Orange County's culinary black hole is 688 Baker St., Ste. 7, in Costa Mesa. This tiny space—a counter, a kitchen and a couple of tables—has swallowed at least four different Japanese restaurants in the past two years. But the latest tenant, Ramen House Mentatsu, is fighting off the curse with a ramen so delicious that the area's many Japanese residents keep the place bustling daily until late into the night.

Mentatsu offers 22 types of its ramen, each delivered in a bowl bigger than your head, each perversely cheap—the most expensive runs $6.75. The No. 1 choice is shoyu: noodles, roast pork, boiled egg, bamboo shoots, fish cake and green onions bobbing in a soy sauce-based broth. Atop this simple foundation, the chefs construct other ramens—shio butter is topped with sweet butter slices (instead of pork lard); wantanmen adds plump wontons.

In addition to the shoyu ramens, Mentatsu offers a couple of rarities. Miso ramen is sharper in flavor and cloudier in color; tanmen is saltier. Hiyashi chuka is a cold-noodle version brimming with ham, cucumbers, tomatoes and seaweed; though chilled, beware the potent dash of Japanese mustard. Best of the special ramens is the curry ramen, chicken bits floating in a mild Japanese curry broth tinged with ginger and sugar. Regardless of ramen, each soup warms your insides and intrigues your palate with its contrasts in flavors—the scalding, pork-flavored broth cooks the vegetables further, releasing their flavors, which the ramen soak up for an intense charm. You can top your ramen with an assortment of sides—some extra chasu (roast pork), seaweed, a Japanese take on kimchi and ginger slivers—and elicit other flavors with the help of oils, sauces and pepper flakes available at each table.

Even ramen haters can enjoy Mentatsu's cutlets, bento box lunches and the best non-Persian rice dishes in Orange County. The tenshin chahan—fried rice topped with a shrimp omelet and gravy—tastes and looks like a distant cousin of the Hawaiian loco moco. Mabo tofu-han, a massive mound of spicy tofu and ground pork over rice, is a meal designed for one but filling enough for couples. But all roads lead back to the ramen—order it in bulk lest Mentatsu fall to the Curse of 688.


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