Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tsujita L.A. Artisan Noodles - Quick Visit

Interesting how the two premier L.A. tsukemen specialists couldn't be farthest apart in their approaches. On one side there is IKEMEN with chefs sporting fedoras and listening to 70's Rock music that create dips inspired by Hollywood movies... And then there's Tsujita L.A. with a more formal approach that would make you think they're actually a fancy Kappo restaurant that happens to serve ramen and tsukemen by day (I've only discovered recently how their dinner menu is entirely different). The dress code behind the counter at Tsujita? White itamae style coats and headband.

Like who's heard of ordering Omakase at a ramen-ya?! Haha. In any case the first time I made effort to eat at Tsujita L.A. it was only half-hour past opening time and there was already a large waiting crowd out. That time I just decided to drive on by. This day though I made sure to be there at 10:59AM, a minute before. I was still seventh or so down the list.

My order was actually taken before entering by the efficient waitress. Since I knew I'd be going to Ikemen afterward my conservative order was the Aji-tama Tsukemen (their tsukemen with flavored egg, $10.95).
At least for lunch it was nice to know that the vibe was pretty much classic ramen-ya. (Dude, the chefs were like ON.) A slightly weathered counter that is a visual reminder of loyal patronage with giant pitcher of ice water set to the side. Your chopsticks and renge spoon perches and a surprising amount of condiments for L.A. standards from benishoga (pickled red ginger), karashi takana (spicy pickled mustard greens), shichimi, soy sauce, rice vinegar... They even had those cute hand-cranked grinders filled with roasted white sesame seeds that I honestly haven't seen outside of Japan (you can get them at Daiso though).

Whoa, this was the regular portion and it was pretty plenty! The photo is a little deceiving but basically the bowl is a good size ramen vessel filled close to the brim with extra thick tsukemen-style noodles.

In Japan (the shop known as Nidaime Tsujita (or "Second-Generation" Tsujita..)) they would be from Mikawayaseimen as most top tier ramen and tsukemen houses (at least those who don't make their own anyway) but very respectable stand-ins delivered locally from Sun Noodle are used here. Shock-chilled in cold water then quickly thoroughly rinsed, they're impressively resilient with a good chew, maybe only lacking slightly in fragrance (of pleasant milled flour) and flavor.
Also would be accompanied with Sudachi citrus but here the close cousin wedge of lime is used for sake of availability.

So let's have a dip and do some slurping. As expected pretty good! But it was actually maybe about 85~90% concentration of my first sampled few years back during a showcase visit (before Tsujita had their current brick-and-mortar shop). The style is the more ubiquitous extra-viscous savory gyokai tonkotsu that is familiar, but Tsujita's version somehow I feel I can eat multiple times without tiring. Maybe it's the light acidity, maybe the subtle spices, who knows. But I definitely still missed the crack-like more intense bowl I originally had that left me with such lasting impression.

Could it have been a rare off day, or maybe because I had one of their very first bowls served the morning? Can't say for sure until I do a few more consecutive visits but I'll probably end up having their ramen next anyway.

Other things noticed, gone were the domino-like thick pieces of menma bamboo shoots and instead the dark well-marinated version seen in the last Edo Soba served at Mitsuwa. Still very good, just different. The eggs are the same jewel orbs of soft yolkaliciousness flavored on the lighter side. Since this wasn't the Chashu version there are only a few smaller pieces of the pork in the broth dip, the fattier kind that melts and delicious.

Halfway through the meal I use the lime wedge for a change of flavor. The instructions here say to squeeze over the noodles but I actually prefer into the broth.

Then at the very end when all the chewy noodles are consumed, you can ask for a soup-owari to cut the dip with a stock so to enjoy as a soup. The idea easy to see inspired from soba houses that do the same with Soba-yu and your leftover tsuyu.

ごちそうさまでした!Hopefully it won't be another year before I visit again... :)

Checkout a nice writeup on Eat, Drink + Be Merry. And another quickie post from Go Ramen!

Tsujita L.A. Artisan Noodles, 2057 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025

Saturday, November 24, 2012

IKEMEN Hollywood - Quick Visit

Hey there, hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. As last year I spent mine with close friends up in L.A. The family being of Spanish/South American descent it's always neat to see things done a little differently, like how the potato dish is made with flaky-moist yucca and of course you can't forget the black beans side. Delicious. :) Otherwise it was a good ol' traditional turkey day with copious amount of gravy and great stuffing (made proper in the bird yo!). While I admit at the time not being able to even think about my next meal, I took advantage of the extra day off yesterday to check out a couple places I've been meaning to for quite some time.

Tsukemen specialist IKEMEN I've been longing to try a bowl of theirs for a little over a year now. Not in O.C. for a change, the location deep in Hollywood was one hurdle, but actually it was more the fact that they weren't open for lunch on the weekends, Sundays being closed altogether.

A quick background, this is the second shop in So. Cal. produced by Shigetoshi 'Sean' Nakamura (of Nakamuraya fame) who started the original Ramen California in Torrance (now sold and under different management). A little pop culture trivia, the lighthearted naming Ikemen is actually a slang for a good looking fellow in Japanese and the word's ties to the tsukemen go back several years to a comedian that entrepreneured the rhyme as a catch phrase for his skits.  スタッフゥ〜!(jk), but a bit blurry image of the current menu can be found here (sorry was taken with my phone under low lighting).

Nestled in a tiny strip mall in the Northern end of La Brea, several blocks past Pink's Hot Dogs, references online describe the place straight out of a Tarantino movie, and for the lack of my own perfect analogy I'll just say I fully agree. The vibe inside is definitely the closest I felt in being in a bar in say Shimokita, with a cozy eclectic rock atmosphere, the chefs themselves sporting fedoras. In short, to me Ikemen is surely an attractive shop inside and out.

I noticed they had a few more ramen bowls than I first learned in early researching, all sounding tempting especially the Bonito Dashi Ramen that leaves no subtlety in description and guaranteed to be something I can sink right into.
Of the tsukemens (which they call "dip ramen" here) all are Tonkotsu based which the soup dip they describe as Au Jus. The Johnny Dip is a slightly Italian inspired interpretation with basil, green onions and cherry tomatoes while the also admittedly intriguing Ghost Busters Dip is enriched with cream, sauteed mushrooms, a little truffle oil, and roasted marshmallows.(!) Those who love extreme heat are not forgotten with the Back Draft Dip sure to fit the bill with extra spicy ground beef chili paste.

While having the house Ikemen Dip sounded perfectly fine to me I ended up with the Zebra Dip ($9) from recommendation of the kind waitress. The name comes from a drizzle of the Kumamoto inspired black maayu - charred garlic oil (in SD seen at Yamadaya). A choice of Chicken or Pork Chashu here (went with the pork), additional toppings I chose were an Onsen Tamago ($1) and Sauteed Mushrooms ($3).

From what I gather the thick springy noodles are an impressive Sun Noodle production. You can say pretty much the standard now as Tsujita L.A. uses the same (though they may use a version custom to them). The dip is actually not too "Tonkotsu" without any of the pork bone funk sometimes associated with. It's lighter and perhaps something not surprising coming from a chef known for his delicately nuanced Shio Ramens. Still great tasting and actually refreshing to me to the otherwise popular "once you've tried, you may have tried them all" uber viscous gyokai tonkotsu as impactful they tend to be.

If anything the dip maybe could have a little more emulsified texture so to adhere to the noodles better, but there's still plenty of body (collagen and some fat) where most shops that serve an inferior bowl is probably first to fail at having.

The pork chashu was leaner and only mildly seasoned though pretty tender despite. An aburi style where they're lightly torched. The sauteed brown buttons turned out a surprising match! The distinctive meaty umami of mushrooms complementing and also giving some extra flavor and texture to the slurping experience.
Onsen Tamago is served here instead of the usual flavored aji-tama egg and lightly dressed with what seemed to be a basil pesto oil. Sometimes shortened to on-tama, it literally means "Hot Springs Eggs" but they're let to soft-set in their shells at low temp (unlike poached eggs that are cooked in water with sometimes a dash of vinegar). They don't have that tell-tale white skin layer of poached but it's the same yolkalicious runny orb of deliciousness that coated the noodles and were dunked straight into the tasty rich broth, every last chewy strand.

Without saying my meal was great and as cliche as it may sound I really can't wait to be back so to check out more of their menu offerings. Those steamed bun Ike-sliders were tempting to try as well as the Japanese gyozas... But alas this was my second meal less than an hour after Tsujita L.A., haha.

While I won't argue that the ramen and tsukemen served at Ikemen is fusion, it's simultaneously actually more commendably authentic than most in town in the use of quality ingredients (some very traditional such as bonito) and their non-hesitancy to incorporate ample amounts of it that isn't dumbed down adapted for the masses. Ikemen takes a proactive step forward in creating ramen dishes that I didn't know I was missing, and this new breath for a change is indeed very handsome.

Check out a few other ramen blogger's take on the place: Edjusted's The Ramen Blog, Brian's Ramen Adventures, Keizo's Go Ramen!, and of course one from Rameniac.

IKEMEN, 1655 North La Brea Ave, Hollywood, CA 90028

Sunday, November 18, 2012

RakiRaki Ramen And Tsukemen - First Month Post

Sharing a collection of meals I've had at San Diego's newer ramen and tsukemen specialist RakiRaki. Apologize in advance for the longer marathon post but if you're a regular reader you may be used to them by now. Although they've had a few additional weeks in soft phase, placing again my courtesy "First Month Post" in the subject line as I've found them still experimenting with standard topping items and also portion size. Their most recent updated menu can be found here with extra items such as some crazy rolls, yakisoba and takoyaki. Things I usually don't associate with ramen but in So. Cal. probably necessary and the influence I would guess from researching longer established Japanese restaurants along Convoy.

[RakiRaki chicken-based Tsukemen]

Don't want to spend too much time with their claimed background which can be read a little here, but it seems to be run by a parent company in the alkalized water purification equipment business (JYOSUI). A bottle of their Enagic water is served complementary on every table and said to also be used in all of their cooking.

With the company's ties to Nagoya, a prefecture well known for their own brand breed of Jidori (called the Nagoya Ko-chin), RakiRaki's focus on quality hormone-free chicken wasn't too surprising while the health conscious message continues with use of premium pork.

Aside from the dip tsukemen which I'll get into later, the ramen that RakiRaki serves (both the Original and Premium) are classic Torigara Shio. A lighter soup base made mainly from chicken that is flavored with a shio dare (or "salt flavor elixir" if you will). You can say the style is furthest opposite to the ever-popular opaque and (usually) rich pork bone based Kyushu Tonkotsu.

[Karaage Rice Bowl (taken with iPhone 4)]

For me the mindset of when having this most simple of ramen styles Shio Ramen, I sort of describe to how I enjoy a very fresh free range soft-boiled egg with good pinch of kosher salt (Mmm). Or maybe easier to relate would be that bite right after an also generous dash from a handheld shaker onto a glistening grass-fed beef burger patty (Mmm X2!).  Most elemental and because of this, Shio Ramen has always been said to be the more difficult to pull off right. No velvet curtains of rendered pork bone marrow or sparkly tinsels of Shoyu flavoring as distractions here.

[RakiRaki Original with Pork Chashu]

The photo above is what RR calls the Original which is the lightest with choice of pork or chicken chashu (pork shown). This day it leaned on the saltier side but something I enjoyed, especially the sodium having a more rounded profile. I felt it gave the bowl an edge to it in a good way. The heat can be upped in two stages if it's your thing. The chashu tends to be on the leaner side but tender and held together with a few fattier veins.
Noodles in the ramen are a thinner, straighter and pale yellow with decent resiliency, the type a time proven match and what is typically seen in these lighter Shio. Other toppings were serviceable pieces of off the shelf-ish menma (marinated bamboo shoots), minced green onions and a large sheet nori.

[Soboro (minced chicken) Rice Bowl]

With all this organic poultry and premium pork you do pay a price in quantity where I feel it's about the ~5/6th portion I'm used to having at Mitsuwa's ramen showcases. But as with Yamadaya you can separately order an extra serving of noodles here for a buck or so which is nice. If you do decide on the kaedama route don't forget to order it halfway through your bowl as it takes a few minutes to come out. :)

Since I only tried the Original once and early on, I'm not sure how it might've evolved if any over the weeks. It's a good Shio and something I can see myself enjoy on occasion but my personal two go-to's at RakiRaki are the richer "Premium" ramen and also the Tsukemen.

I congratulate RR for bringing the first decent tsukemen to SD, a relatively solid bowl that I can recommend to friends without losing too much sleep worrying over consistency. Even cooler that it is an all-chicken based which is fairly rare even in Japan, most being a Tonkotsu/Gyokai blend (pork bone and dried marine products), sometimes with chicken but as an additional component.

[The concentrated Tsukemen Dip]

Their menu explanation of tsukemen is way exaggerated and a bit humorous. Basically if you ever had a Zaru Soba the experience isn't that far off, though even closer would be a Kamo Seiro (鴨せいろ) with its additional animal protein and fat. The concentrated soup is meant to be dipped into and intentionally saltier. Although not as thick as some I've had, the special chewy noodles are a good match to offset. The lime wedge I like to squeeze partially through the meal into the soup dip, but I hear some do it to their noodles.

Of the four I've tried only one felt a little thinned out and most all were a good guilty tasting. Something easiest described as if it were made with those pan drippings after roasting a whole chicken maybe. Here also a pleasant, albeit subtle note of dried gyokai marine umami and a little tingly heat in the background.
One day I was mistakenly served the Spicy version (+$0.50) which I thought was ok but still prefer the regular. The spice is a straighter Ichimi (red ground chili pepper) type of heat which doesn't seem to contribute much in additional umami. But if you like spicy I say go for it and a portion of the spice can be purchased separately as an 'Akadama.'

[RakiRaki Akadama Red Spice]

If anything the toppings for the tsukemen are on the skimpy side though for the $8.75 price of the regular probably fair. The egg is unfortunately hard boiled but has a pleasant light marinade flavor which seems to now be standard as of couple weeks ago

[Spicy Tsukemen]

I'd personally ask for extra menma and extra chashu, it be pork or their chicken (now found resting in the soup dip). And although not necessary, slurping does help bring out the flavors (though there's a correct way of doing so).

But anyway my immediate thoughts were that RR should have on the menu a recommended house 'Deluxe' topping option that highlights their hard effort instead of having patrons guess. (Just my humble opinion.) It's also too bad that you're not offered a stock to thin the dip out so to enjoy as a soup in the end. In fairness not all places do but even with my sodium tolerance I can only have a few sips. Depending how much is left I've opted to take home as leftovers, ha. ;)

My first sampling of their Premium Ramen (the most recent bowl sampled below) was actually during my inaugural visit that had left a good impression on me. Aside from the close second tsukemen it's pretty much my go-to meal here. This probably had been the most inconsistent over the month and half but luckily none were any I'd consider bad. (And I'm all aware that often ramen served earlier in the day may taste lighter than that during dinner.)

[RakiRaki Premium Ramen with Chicken Chashu]

There are other ramen joints around that use the term "Premium" to describe one of their upper tier offerings but in the case of RR it essentially means a Kotteri (richer) version. The kotteri adjective is all relative of course and compared to their very light assari Original, it is indeed richer, but not quite to the extent of the look of the opaque bowl pictured in one of their posters (yes, the one that says "Unexceedable").

[Soft Shell Crab Roll]

I haven't seen the sheet nori in a while which I kinda miss. In exchange of the larger chicken chashu had first, the pieces are now smaller but also accompanied with egg, menma and some par-cooked moyashi (bean sprouts) garnish. The fact that I don't care for bean sprouts in ramen doesn't help but I feel it makes the bowl seem old fashioned (古くさい). I think instead some mizuna greens would've been a more modern interpretation and better match to the forward feeling and message of the restaurant. I'd even maybe prefer some wispy finely shredded white leeks as shiraga negi than bean sprouts... but that's just me. (もやしよりミズナ、または白髪ネギのほうがラキラキのモダンなコンセプトに合うと思います。。)

[RakiRaki Premium Ramen with extra Pork Chashu]

The biggest surprise was that when asked one of the chefs (casually when he brought my bowl over), he mentioned that there was absolutely no Bonito (or Niboshi) used when making their ramen. He's either pulling my leg or maybe I didn't phrase the question right as there's usually some (even if little) dried marine component to most ramen as a kambutsu (乾物), it be dried scallops (hoshi kaibashira), seaweed or the usual dried fish (bonito or niboshi is most popular but sometimes that of Ago (flying fish) or even mackerel though rare). Curiously since it had the least gyokai notes during the last couple less salty bowls, I could guess it may be used in the shio dare.

Fyi, I won't be posting all my photos for sake of redundancy, but above is one with extra pork chashu where the edges were a little unpleasantly bitter of lightly scorched soy sauce flavor. Otherwise it was pretty fine.

The Premium bowl that looked most like the "Unexceedable" poster was the one above had couple weeks back. This was the most "Tonkotsu-like" visually and the chicken based alternative as described on the menu. So while phrases found online like, "It didn't even taste like Tonkatsu" is ridiculous in many levels I maybe don't blame some that felt were misled?

[Japanese Gyoza]

As for sides the Japanese Gyozas were probably the biggest disappointment. If there were a check list of what I don't look forward in a plate they were all there. Fragile and already torn skins, a very veggie based filling, and lack of a crispy bottom. As my friend Kirk of Mmm-Yoso often says, "You can't win them all right?"

[Soboro Inari]

Pure fill standpoint, if on a budget the Soboro Inari fit the bill for $3.75. Sometimes called "footballs" here these are filled with rice mixed with minced chicken (also found on the Soboro Rice Bowl shown earlier). I actually liked that they were fluffy and loosely packed, just would be careful when lifting the ones upside down as the filling will fall out.(!)

The California Spicy Crunchy Roll ($4.25) were fresh tasting and not bad but maybe rather unmemorable in the flavor front.

Portions are also smaller which I first questioned the price of but maybe if some full 'crazy' rolls start from ~$10 I guess these aren't too off. For fifity-cents more I enjoyed the Soft Shell Crab Roll more so.

The Tempura Jalapeno Stuffed Roll ($4.75) below had once for dinner was ok. For me seemed to suffer from bang-for-the-buck value. Supposedly real Alaskan King Crab meat is used but I thought all were lost in the double sriracha-mayo and sweet eel sauce.

Better may have been if they kept the stuffing fake surimi Krab, doubled the portion or decrease the price. Again just mho.

The Karaage is quite good here resting on some sprite greens. Larger and juicy as they should be with a tasty crisp outer coating to boot. The portion may have been upped recently as well. I'm not the biggest fan of the ponzu dipping sauce with but also available is the ubiquitous dollop of Japanese mayo. I feel it's seasoned well enough to be eaten as-is though.

The Karaage Rice Bowl where the same tender fried chicken pieces are dressed with a little sweet-sour-spicy sauce was also quite good and a fair deal for $3.75.

Things I haven't tried yet are the Ox Tail topping that I didn't hear great things about from Kirk, and also the fried rice which Kirbie didn't seem to enjoy too much. The service was pretty attentive all visits with mostly a younger but eager crew that is likable and definitely means well (more than one occasion I was asked how my meal was in the middle of a huge slurp).

I can find a few areas RakiRaki can better exceed at but for the most part I'm very excited at having them become the newest member of SD's ramen scene. Latest rumor from the one seasoned waitress (which I think is the owner's wife) is that they're already working on a Tonkotsu and also a Miso Tonkotsu. Something to look forward to in the near future, but I'd be happy if they kept refining their Premium and Tsukemen myself. ごちそうさまです! :)

RakiRaki Ramen And Tsukemen, 4646 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111

A quick 101 tsukemen primer dating back from 2007. Yes we are behind, but gotta start somewhere right?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Just Watched The New Japanese Iron Chef...

And it's pretty good! Has it really been thirteen years since the last airing of Ryori no Tetsujin? I'll definitely miss Takeshi Kaga (not sure who won't) as the chairman but Hiroshi Tamaki does a decent job if much less eccentric. The deciding factor for choosing the actor may have been his voice (which btw isn't the narrator in the preview of the first episode below).

[Youtube links to official preview of show number two and three.]

Is it as great as the original show? Probably not but I think fans will still be happy with the resurrection of a classic where the format has been very little tampered with.

The Iron Chefs are all new and will probably take time for them to grow on me. Gone is the Allez Cuisine!, and it is now "Good Gastronomy!" (which I couldn't figure out what was being said at first). The moody video bios as introductions to the challenger chefs are still there, dramatic and great, but otherwise pretty much all business once they reach the kitchen (with the ice cream machine still well alive and kicking, ha). The lack of any superficiality thereafter is very refreshing which I feel Iron Chef America suffered a lot from and kept me from being a fan of the show (though in fairness it did gradually get better, especially after Michael Symon came on board). It also seems to have a less frantic vibe which I'm glad for as I find by now the slew of inspired American shows and their amped frenzy more than a bit annoying.

Theme ingredients for the first four challenges below (the first two bouts were from a two-hour special). Spoilers to the winners (in Japanese) with images of the dishes can be found on the challenge links.

Challenge One: Salmon (chosen to revisit the same ingredient from the very first show)
Challenge Two: Agu Okinawan Pig(!!)
Challenge Three: Akaza-ebi (a Japanese Lobster)
Challenge Four: Five Japanese Mushrooms (enoki, shimeji, shiitake, maitake, nameko)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chicken And Pears Dish By Christopher, Random Snack Chips Find @ Mitsuwa SD

Hello there! Hope everyone is doing well whomever you all are (according to Sitemeter and Statcounter anyway). I'm playing catchup with my own blog reading list myself but wanted to post something (anything?) tonight.

Mr. Walken makes a Chicken and Pear dish:

Gosh, it's really him. Looking forward to more of these, in fact wish he'd have his own show.

Definitely more proper food posts on the way but I needed something easy for tonight and totally lucked out in finding some fun content at Mitsuwa on the way home that I thought I'd share. A bunch of really random snack chip flavors that was admittedly surprising even for seasoned Japanese junk food ol' me. Like they made the usual Okonomiyaki and even the seasonal Pumpkin Soup flavored seem normal and boring. They also must've been stocked relatively recently since I've never noticed most of them before.

The one that triggered the iPhone photo session was this "Too much cheese over pasta" flavor. Omg, so perfect for me haha!

The official name that is a mouthful is "Kakesugi ga Oishii!!! Cheese Tappuri Pasta-aji." A small relief that this totally embarrassing tendency of mine was in fact mainstream enough to become a chip flavor. I am not alone (though must clarify it's only when having the Italian American style pastas.)

Next, Ozack's Fish and Chips flavor.. 'Allo 'Allo!

As it's a potato based snack the "chips" portion is halfway there but written is also a tartar sauce component, not to mention the fried fish flavor a curiosity. Wonder if there is also a hint of malt vinegar.

Weirder though is this Ika no Shiokara flavored... That's your Japanese salt fermented squid. The blue cheese seasoned next to it seemed so mundane in comparison.

Even your Calbee's Ajiwai Shioaji was a claimed fancy blend of Sicilian rock salt and Australian sun-dried sea salt.

Another Calbee product below, a flavor combination I wouldn't have thought of putting together (for a chip anyway), Salt and Vanilla. Hmm, but still willing to try it once maybe.

Smoked Bacon flavor below which may not seem too special except that House Foods' "The Smoky" series goes as far as using smoked potatoes as a main ingredient for the chips.

Other flavors in the series are smoked cheese and smoked curry (now that I want to try!?).

I remember having ramen flavored chips before but I thought one to taste like Miya-Kishimen was pretty random... Kishimen is a type of flat udon popular in Nagoya btw.


The rest aren't super weird but still found interesting. These potato rings are a Korrokke (croquette) and Sauce flavor. I like how they went for the texture here as well, coating with panko bread crumbs. I'll have to try one of these days but afraid I would demand my potato snack chips to always be coated in panko from then on.

Pizza flavor is certainly nothing new but below is Mentaiko-Mayo flavored. Spicy cod/pollock roe and mayonnaise, oh and pizza. Eh, it's a Japanese pizza thing.

This Yamatono Aji-Karee seems a pretty typical retro curry flavored. Always love them in that pale Japanese cafeteria curry taste that brings back a lot of memories. なつかしい!and like the packaging too.

Was in Vegas a day and a half end of last week work related. My feet are still in pain from all the crazy walking. ;)

But did manage to have a pretty good burger that happened to be conveniently located in my hotel (thanks for the suggestion Erin!). Looking forward in writing about the meal in detail soon.

Otherwise been relying on energy drinks for my total rock star lifestyle. (Sarcasm)

Interesting how they most taste like Lipovitan. To another couple months until Winter break... ファイト!!一発!!