Ramen has gained a solid foothold within the fast-casual niche in downtown San Diego. Oodles of noodle houses have opened all over the city. Sure, they’re trendy. If they wind up being a flash in the bowl, so be it. I’m going to enjoy them while they’re hot. The average price of a ramen bowl—usually in the $10 range—does seem high. Price point, though, is adversely affected by many people’s relationship with the image of a less-than-a-dollar, grocery store Cup of Soup.
Putting aside the chopsticks, here are my notes from Little Italy’s Underbelly and Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen, and three spots in East Village—Ramen Yamadaya, BeShock Ramen & Sake Bar, and Tajima Ramen.
Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen
I invited my buddy, Luis, here for his first-ever bowl of restaurant ramen. He was more familiar with the grocery store offerings. But I was buying, and off we went. At Rakiraki (2254 India Street), you order at the counter, get a number, find a seat and wait for your ramen to be delivered to the table. Every bowl comes with noodles topped with bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, wakame seaweed, garlic organic sesame, green onions and a five-spiced pickled egg. My friend, a topnotch IT guy, went basic and added chicken. I went for the BBQ chashu pork, “black edition,” meaning it was fermented with organic garlic oil. That evening, I noticed my buddy had posted this “first” for him on Facebook. And his friends and kids liked the post. I don’t think this will be Luis’ last bowl.
Underbelly was an early adaptor to both the ramen trend and the expansion of Little Italy eateries to Kettner Boulevard (technically it’s the corner of Kettner and 750 W. Fir Street). Over the five years they’ve been in business I’ve visited here a half dozen times—afternoon and evening. The unique indoor/outdoor seating is a real draw. I can’t stop ordering the $12 Belly of the Beast ramen bowl, with a soft-boiled egg, oxtail dumplings, smoked brisket and a hoisin-glazed short rib. (I’m waiting, wink, for the diet version of this bowl.)
I invited my spirits entrepreneur friend Ray to lunch on a recent Sunny weekday. I didn’t expect Tajima (901 E Street) to be nearly full. I grabbed the last table available–outdoors– while Ray finished a phone call. Ahh, those multi-tasking entrepreneurs. He got the Vegan Ramen bowl…which I hear comes with vegetables. I envied that he ordered a Sapporo beer. I was teetotaling, and went with the Tajima Ramen—original Tonkotsu soup with pork belly, fried garlic, green onions, half an egg, chives, bean sprouts, sesame seeds and Japanese seaweed. Ray, who does a lot of his entrepreneur stuff in East Village, says Tajima is almost always full. And the waitresses are all, well, dishy.
Even before it opened last year, I would walk past the storefront at 531 Broadway and sing Ramen Yamadaya. I like the way it sounds. And I love the way the ramen tastes. I’ve taken my gal, Jules, here several times. And I’ve ordered pick-up twice (and biked it home with the food bags stashed in a backpack). Jules always go vegan. I’m always on for the melt-in-your-mouth Tonkotsu pork, the omnipresent half a hard-boiled egg and bamboo shoots. Eating at the rancher-style Broadway location is a little like stepping into a Japanese noodle house. Service is friendly…but never in a hurry.
Beshock Ramen & Sake Bar (1288 Market Street) is also a new, authentic looking Japanese noodle house. First time here, I ordered the Tantan ramen, with pork sesame broth, spicy pork soboro, bok choy, leek and chili pepper. Note: this bowl is akin to liquid lava. Hotter than hot. Be forewarned. However, Jules and I have made this spot (with full bar and fantastic sakes) a go-to place, and have taken several groups here. On latter, visits, I’ve gone for the Gorgonzola Cheese Ramen (topped with the creamy cheese and including slow-cooked chicken chashu, avocado, prosciutto and Tokyo negi). Highly recommended.