Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Noodling Around
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Noodling Around

Hot stuff: Orochon Ramen lets you choose your level of heat. I opted for #3 and it was pretty damned warm.

When Erin and I were in LA last month, we ate dinner with her cousin Lisa Sasaki and her brother Eric and his wife Leah, at a very popular ramen shop, Daikokuya. The restaurant is one of several that specialize in Ramen on a block of First Street in Little Tokyo, just down the street from the Japanese American National Museum. The joint is hopping at all hours, with eager clusters of (mostly non-Japanese) people patiently waiting to enter, thanks to a couple of rave reviews including one from the restaurant critic from the LA Times, whose article is posted in the window. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long to be seated.

Lisa loves the combination specials: choose a ramen, and get a half-order of another entree, from tonkatsu pork cutlets and gyoza dumplings to fried rice. The fried rice was good, all right. Erin and I both thought the ramen itself (we ordered the chasyu ramen, topped with slices barbecued pork loin) was good but not awe-inspiring. The place was so popular and raucous, though, that it was simply a fun experience.

The next night, Erin and I were on our own and we went to a place down the same block, next door to the century-old Fugetsu-do sweets shop, called San Sui Tei. Now, I’m not a super ramen expert or anything like the wonderful blogger Rameniac (check out his review of Daikokuya, which he likes but thinks is over-rated, as well as his review of San Sui Tei, where he dined right when they first opened). But I liked San Sui Tei better, and so did Erin. Partly, it’s because the people there were just very friendly — service and personality go a long way for us. But I genuinely liked the food, too.

San Sui Tei also offers a combination special, where you can have a bowl of ramen (full, rich, and generous, which toothsome noodles in hot tasty broths) and a half-sized side order of another entree. I’ve now had their fried rice twice. It’s so good I should probably just order a full plate of it alone next time.

Now that I’m back in LA for a JACL board meeting, I’ve already returned to San Sui Tei, and had a terrific meal. I’ll try Daikokuya again sometime, but only when there’s no wait.

The block also features a cheesy-looking place called Mr. Ramen (nice fun sign, but it just looks blah inside) where I’ve never eaten. Rameniac rips it so I’ll probably stay away. When I’m traveling, I need to strive for inspired experiences.

Lisa did point out another ramen shop across Little Tokyo, near Erin and my favorite shabu-shabu restaurant. Maybe I’ll give that a shot for lunch today…. a final fling of noodles and broth before I head back to Denver!

Update Sunday, Feb. 10

I had a last ramen meal today before coming to LAX to await my flight home. Instead of another trip to San Sui Tei or another long wait at Daikokuya, I walked across Little Tokyo to Orochon Ramen, a little restaurant in the third-floor corner of the plaza strip mall that also includes the Kinokuniya bookstore and Eri and my favorite, Kushi Shabu.

The place was hopping, so I was seated in a tiny corner space underneath a corkboard covered with Polaroids of diners. The menu took me a while to figure out. There are three types of ramen broth: miso-based, shoyu (soy sauce) based or shio (salt). Then you add other ingredients like chasyu pork, green onions and eggs (my choices) for extra cost. You also choose your heat level — Orochon’s main claim to fame is its spiciness. Level 7 is no spice. It goes to level 1, levels with names like “Extreme,” and then simply, “Special 1” and “Special 2.”

If you can finish a bowl of Special 2 within half an hour, they take your picture and put it on the corkboard — that’s the wall of fame I was sitting under.

I had #3 and it was plenty hot for me. The ramen was tough and straight — undercooked — but the shoyu broth really was good. So good, in fact, that I wished I’d ordeed no spice so I coul actually taste it. Afterwards, though, I felt the skewed head rush of an MSG headache. I’m pretty sure the shop mus use a lot of MSG in their soup. I also had a side order of fried rice that was dry and chintzy on bits of pork, and generally tasteless except for the ton of black peppered sprinkled throughout to disguise its blandness.

Rameniac thinks Orochon is a restaurant with a gimmick; I can’t argue with that.