Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ramen Iroha, Gardena - A Tasty Play On Colors

Another shout out to reader (and fellow ramen fan) Junichi who tipped me on Ramen Iroha at Marukai Gardena. (Hey you gotta email me one of these days so we can go have noodles!)
Known as Menya Iroha in Japan, they're a shop originating from Toyama, a relatively quiet prefecture now famous for giving birth to the Toyama Black Ramen.
I first heard of the 'Toyama Black' around three years ago when I assume the Japanese ramen media was desperately searching under the last unturned rocks of regional ramen for another distinctive bowl to report on. From what I've learned it was a very salty, intensely black shoyu flavored ramen that supposedly evolved the way with the post-war blue collar Toyama workforce so to be eaten along side white rice. Yup, you can say Toyama Black was maybe the first ramen to evolve as an Okazu, ha.

Fast forward to present times and Iroha with their slightly tweaked Toyama Black fine-tuned more for mainstream acceptance ranks top sales at the Tokyo Ramen Show three years in a row ('09, '10 and '11). The buzz is that Iroha was now testing waters here in So. Cal. with a temporary pop-up in Marukai Gardena until 9/16. This btw is the other O.G. Marukai off Artesia, not the one next to Ramen Mottainai and Akane Chaya.

It may be a total coincidence but I like the phonetic play on words of Iro meaning color and the three distinctive Black, White and Red choices of ramen offered. Was also impressive to see how many bowls the approximate 20'x20' cubicle pumped out with only a handful of staff.
Anyhow I knew I'd only be able to try two out of the three. The Black is an absolute must try and so was an easy first choice. Went for the middle tier with flavored egg - Kuro Ajitama Ramen ($8.95).

The soup, at least for the Black is mainly of Chicken (whole) with a separate Niboshi (dried baby sardine) component which makes it a double broth according to the website. Having a first sip, the flavors of dark shoyu runs deep and generous like a soy sauce aquifer, also pretty complex with a little lingering of bitterness but one that isn't off putting in any sense. It's also surprisingly not as salty as one might think by the looks, and at least for me what I braced myself for. Still easily a completely different animal than even the most robust of Tokyo-style.
In TBR the ratio of Shoyu-dare (Shoyu flavor elixir) to broth is much higher than a typical Shoyu Ramen. Also made with a blend of several Soy Sauces, I hear it is first used to marinade and stew the Pork Chashu, but then further let rested over a period of time to develop that tar-like near opaque syrupy consistency. In the case of Iroha, dried fish is additionally incorporated for a more complex umami base and the selection of Shoyu for the blend done in a way to reduce much of the sodium levels. Otherwise it is assembled like any other with a final sprinkling of coarse black pepper that finishes things off in Toyama Black fashion.

Having said all this, it isn't fishy in the least bit, especially in the Gyokai-kei sense of ramen, but masters of umami, I'm sure if it weren't there there would be a void, sensation of missing flavor and lack of depth.

The Chashu with a dark outer ring (sorry, a much better photo is coming up) reminded me a cross between Ippudo's and one in Tsujita's Edo Soba. The slices ranged from leaner to fatty and guessing maybe was from being cut into smaller pieces for the almost full serving ~5/6th portion. Either way they were marinated stronger with a healthy dose of Shoyu flavor, more savory than sweet. May be slightly salty for some but something I personally enjoyed as I felt it enhanced the porky flavor. I totally would've made another Chashu-don if I also got a hold of these, ha.

With all this intensity you'd be needing noodles that are nothing short of fantastic, and these were. A medium thickness that was maybe ever so slightly wavy but for the most part would be described as straight. Firm, chewy, with a great nodogoshi, a Japanese term for an attribute of noodles that give a pleasant sensation going down the chute. Stained darker by the soup, I thought it was a great match with.

The eggs were soft and delicate, a little sweet and provided some of the needed break from the Taiko like beat of Shoyu drum. Ajitama btw is short for Ajitsuke Tamago, or flavored egg... Hanjyuku which you might hear time to time in reference to eggs in ramen, literal translation half-mature meaning ones soft boiled. Some Menma bamboo shoots and Kikurage wood ear mushrooms also help dress the bowl. I've heard the menma could be as salty as Tsukemono in some Toyama shops, but here it is flavored pretty standard.

After that bowl, I couldn't see myself trying the milder chicken Tori Paitan style (as collagen central goodness I've heard it was). If I planned better ahead, I would've started with the Shiro but not all braincells tend to fire when you're hungry. I just may be back for it but anyway I ended up with the spicy Red. I think this bowl with a minced meat flavor bomb of Maala numbing Szechuan Peppercorn heat was developed special for the Gardena showcase. Shown, Aka Ajitama Ramen ($9.95).

The delicate chicken broth base is easier to recognize here, drizzled with a little hot oil. Nice but I recommend immediately breaking down that scoop of spice flavored ground pork. The soup instantly thickens to another level of viscosity and depth of flavor while the addition of earlier mentioned Szechuan peppercorn really gives it the interest it needs to distinguish from many other "spicy ramens" out there.

The pork Chashu was a little fattier in this bowl than my first. Consistent in edging on the salty side but definitely delectable. The Nori seaweed sheet, eggs and sprinkle of green onions wraps things up nicely.

It's not like this Red bowl needs to get any spicier but their special Ra-yu hot oil offered to the side I thought wasn't to be missed. It's a great addition to any of your bowls in that it carries a lot of nice flavors along with a more rounded kind of heat profile.

Iroha would bring to So. Cal. a welcomed variety to a scene much too saturated with Tonkotsu (imho), a few old school shoyu and even less examples of good Miso ramen. An absolute great addition in L.A. for sure if they do decide to follow through with their first U.S. soil brick and mortar.
Another thing I like about them is that they don't seem to be afraid of experimenting and developing new ramen flavors which I feel contributed to their success in Japan. While the three offered in the Gardena showcase is pleasantly distinct, their online menu suggests something much more from a chilled ramen, dip tsukemen, spicy miso, yes even a tonkotsu... but also one made with another Toyama specialty the Glass Shrimp.

Come on down Iroha, the weather is great. :)

[Damn you crappy food court lighting!]

Ramen Iroha (in Marukai Gardena), 1740 W Artesia Blvd, Gardena, CA 90248


Mr. 3 said...

It looks great! I will give it a try.

Dennis K. said...

Hi Mr.3, thanks for dropping by and commenting!
I've since done a revisit post to Iroha but unfortunately the experience then was not the same and I haven't been back since. :_( So can't vouch on them at the moment but I'd still be interested to know what your thoughts if you make it. Cheers.