Tsujita Ramen LA, West Los Angeles. And Along Comes Another Solid Ramen Shop.
By now, you’re used to seeing this style of ramen. A bowl of what appears to be a milky, unctuous liquid topped with braised pork, a hard-boiled egg with a soft yolk, seaweed, bamboo/fungus and scallions. In about 3-4 minutes, the top of the soup will begin to slightly congeal, resulting in a thin, transparent “blanket” of fat. Health freaks and vegetarians would be appalled by this. But for ramen addicts, this is everything they fantasize about and surely the cheapest way to experience true Japanese cuisine minus the $800 plane ticket or week-long jet lag. And this style of ramen is delicious. Long gone are the days when we only had a choice in either shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt) or miso ramen – which is referred to as assari kei ramen, meaning lighter than its heavier cousin, kotteri kei. This style of kotteri kei ramen, known as tonkotsu ramen, has become somewhat of a a new standard in Los Angeles – at least in my eyes. Tonkotsu broth can only be achieved after 10+ hours (even 15+ hours depending on how psychotic the ramen chef is) of boiling pork bones, particularly the leg bones, over low heat. The “white, milky” broth is the fine result of boiled marrow and collagen over a long duration of time. The combination of salt, a soup base (tare) and in some cases, various seafood makes this one of the most highly complex, desired types of ramen in Japan. J and I spent almost 3 weeks in Japan traveling up and down Japan experiencing ramen from some of the best prefectures such as Hokkaido, Tokyo and of course, land of the tonkotsu broth, Fukuoka (Hakata). Although each region of Japan has its favored style of ramen, the tonkotsu ramen continues to be wildly popular.
But this new trend in ramen styles didn’t happen overnight. Along some cave wall in LA, you might find hieroglyphics and Caveman drawings depicting the ramen evolution in LA. Thinking back as far as 2003 AD, I can actually remember my experiences at Los Angeles ramen shops, particularly in the West Los Angeles area. Sawtelle Blvd. was originally inhabited by Japanese botanists and gardeners in the late 80s and they formed a small Japanese community between Santa Monica Blvd. and Olympic Blvd. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Osaka” to distinguish itself from its larger cousin, “Little Tokyo” in Downtown Los Angeles. The shopping centers offered various things to eat and quickly became a haunting ground for UCLA students. The most popular places being the ramen shops. “Little Osaka” was the go-to spot for many Westsiders craving ramen-like objects.
It’s also interesting to note the ramen shops I used to love. It’s interesting how age and money play a huge part in what you thought was once delicious. My first time eating ramen was at Ramenya and thought it was the best thing ever. I never liked Asahi Ramen and actually preferred Kinchan’s shoyu ramen. I never understood the allure of the ring-of-fire-inducing Orochon in Little Tokyo either. All of the Sawtelle Blvd. places were pushed aside once I tried Shin Sen Gumi in Gardena and Daikokuya in Little Tokyo. It was the first time I was exposed to a pork-bone broth ramen and it was awesome. Only one dollar for extra noodles? Yes please! But in 2006, I went on my first trip to Japan and came back fatter, inspired and yearning for the ramen I ate nearly everyday. It was life changing and I completely forgot about Shin Sen Gumi and Daikokuya. I befriended a ramen freak named Rameniac (Rickmond Wong) who frequented Japan 8-10 times a year. We had a mutual love for ramen and talked about it all the time. I lived vicariously through many of his ramen-focused trips. It was he that kept me up to date with the ramen shops that seemed to pop up quite frequently. A few years later, he informed me about a ramen franchise from the South Bay and Costa Mesa area called Santouka that had everyone running towards the Mitsuwa Marketplace in West LA. I think it was Santouka’s emergence that really put Los Angeles on the US “ramen map”. In Rameniac’s words, “it’s getting better here in Los Angeles.” A few years later, I was sent over to try two places in the South Bay (Gardena and Torrance), Yamadaya (now also in Culver City) and Mottainai – both are solid. Although, way more rich, I felt Yamadaya took over the #1 ramen spot in my book. And just when I thought things had plateaued with Yamadaya, the attention is again shifted away from the South Bay and back to West LA. We are presented again with yet another addition to the ramen gene pool in Los Angeles. And all of a sudden, the ramen rankings have been reshuffled.
Tsujita LA is the latest ramen shop from chef/restaurateur Takeshi Tsujita from Tokyo and at only 32 years old, his empire is now five stores strong. Tsujita had opened a few months ago and to everyone’s surprise, he was not serving ramen. But he made a surprise debut at Mitsuwa Marketplace in West LA and knocked it out of the ball park. It was Tsujita’s preemptive strike on ramen freaks in LA and a sure indication that ramen would be served at his Sawtelle location. He started to offer ramen only last week and foodies all over cancelled any existing plans they may have had to get a taste of Tsujita’s mastercraft – with waiting time up to 45 minutes.
On the fifth day of ramen service, I met up with my friend TN for some heavy noodling. And as expected, there were about 15-20 people waiting outside this tiny, packed restaurant. Once we were called up, we asked for the ramen bar for the best seats in the house. There you can watch stone-faced ramen cooks work meticulously like robots. I remember one tiny ramen shop in Tokyo that had nearly 5 ramen cooks. Each guy has his own “station” if you’ll call it that. One guy cooked the noodles, one guy carefully ladeled broth in to the bowl, one guy placed the toppings, one guy did the final look at the bowl and wiped away any drops of broth and one person served the ramen to us with a huge smile. Freaking Japanese, so technical I love it. Sitting there at the bar, I could only hear two things: the slurping of ramen and Japanese zither music playing, which tells me that Tsujita isn’t clowning around. It was pretty hilarious. And that’s a good sign because that makes everyone serious about their food. “No talking, just eat!” In Japan, there are some ramen shops that offer only standing seats with only a curtain to separate you from another diner. Japanese mean business, even when they eat.
Tsujita’s main specialties are the tonkotsu ramen and the dipping noodles known as tsukemen. We ordered one of each. On the tables, Tsujita has provided you with an assortment of condiments such as Japanese pepper, Japanese seven-spice pepper (shichimi togorashi), pickled ginger, pickled Chinese preserved vegetables, soy sauce, vinegar, tonkotsu sauce and tsukemen sauce. The last two are provided for extra flavor if you happen to add extra noodles to your ramen or dilute your cold dipping noodles. I tried the Chinese preserved vegetables, and they were delicious. I was surprised to find that it was actually pretty spicy, considering the Japanese don’t really spice up their food. But in the ramen game, every chef makes up his own rules.
And from behind us, we heard the cute-sy, Sanrio-like voice of our Japanese server. It sounded something like, “Aiyeeeeeee-ehhhhhhhhhh hehehe!” I’m not sure what that actually means in Sanrio talk, but I know it to mean business time. She set the bowl down and it was simply beautiful. I went through my ramen checklist and made sure all the toppings were there. At least two to three pieces of melty pork, light-brown egg, Japanese mushroom fungus, scallions and a piece of seaweed – good to go. Are you like me when it comes to ramen? Because ramen is so complex and well-thought out by the chef, I kind of perform these little tests just to see how good of a chef he is. Ramen can be looked at as one whole unit, but for me, I see several things going on in a bowl of ramen. As I always do, I go in with the soup spoon first. The broth was great with just the right amount of thickness and sheen. It was very forward on the sea salt taste but very light. I can definitely taste Tsujita’s addition of seafood to the tonkotsu broth.
The second test is how well he understands the “bite” of a noodle. The noodles themselves were very good and cooked al-dente. Thicker than the ramen noodles you would usually see at Shin Sen Gumi but thinner than Yamadaya’s “thick-cut” noodles. Like pasta and tomato sauce, the Japanese have different noodle cuts depending on the thickness of the broth. Here, Chef Tsujita offers a medium cut ramen to go with a rather “light” tonkotsu broth. You wouldn’t be able to eat more than 5-6 bites of this if the broth was thick as mud with tagliatelle noodles. I’ve eaten an extremely thick chicken-bone broth ramen in Hawaii and found it simply inedible because there was such an imbalance. So soup density and noodle thickness have to have yin and ying.
The third test is probably my favorite since I love eggs. In American cuisine, we highly covet the 63 degree egg. In Japanese cuisine, they covet the ramen egg. It is semi-hard boiled but with a rich, melty egg yolk that oozes out once you’ve punctured the egg with your fangs. The Japanese have cleverly created this by pricking a raw egg with a needle and boiling the eggs in a soy-sauce based broth for hours. And the result is simply masterpiece. Tsujita’s eggs were amazing, maybe even one of the best ramen eggs I’ve ever eaten. I love it when a whole egg is given versus an already-sliced ramen egg. It is an experience itself cracking open that egg, like eating a juicy, Chinese soup dumpling (xiao long bao). I could taste the yolk and I could taste the simmering base.
And for the final test, the cha shu pork itself. Traditionally, pork shoulder and belly can be used to make this pork topping. I’d imagine there’s some ramen chef out there using pork cheeks and neck and it’s probably amazing. This was beautiful and easily the tastiest cha shu I’ve had in Los Angeles. I am almost certain Chef Tsujita grills the pork after it has been braised for that extra texture and flavor. Two pieces of cha shu were more than enough for me.
But to my surprise, Tsujita’s ramen wasn’t actually my favorite. It was the bowl of Tsukemen my friend TN was eating. Don’t you hate when you have food envy. When you’re so sure you’ve ordered something delicious, but your dining companion actually has something better. TN offered me a few strands of noodles. I ate it and it was delicious. I couldn’t help but eat my ramen and continue glancing over at his. He caught me a few times and offered some more. I declined, lying that I enjoyed my ramen more. But I kept looking at his. This continued on for the next 30 minutes until I gave in and asked to eat some more. That is an example of food envy. Anyway, if ramen is one family unit, then tsukemen is the divorced family. Versus compiling a bowl of noodles in broth, you are served a bowl of noodles and a bowl with warm or cold dipping sauce. This was something I was never really into. Not because of the crane-like work your arm engages in with dipping and eating. But because I love soupy things. But I was completely free from that mentality on this day. I had never tasted such a delicious bowl of dipping sauce. I’m a huge fan of bonito and the dipping sauce is simply rich with that flavor. With the tsukemen, Tsujita also offers a slice of lime. According to an LA Weekly interview, Tsujita traditionally uses a Japanese lime-lemon called sudachi, but is currently using a lime until he can import the actual sudachi. I think TN was too hungry to even remember the lime was there.
Inside the dipping sauce were also small bits of pork. The pieces themselves were slightly hard because they were possibly burnt bits/end cuts. I’d imagine that Tsujita reserves the best pieces for actual cha shu toppings. In any case, it’s still tasty.
So there you have Tsujita, which I’m quite sure has re-arranged the ramen rankings for tonkotsu/kotteri kei ramen lovers. I don’t eat tonkotsu ramen very often because of its richness and possible 1,500+ calorie count, but if I do, I’m going to go for the gold. As far as ramen goes, I still prefer Yamadaya (South Bay) over Tsujita’s ramen. Yamadaya is definitely way fattier and rich but the broth has amazing depth. Tsujita’s broth almost seems too forward on the sea salt. Not salty, but overtones of salt water. But it is still delicious. As far as tsukemen, Tsujita is my current favorite. I’d recommend going with a friend and ordering the way TN and I did so you can get the best of both worlds. Enjoy and thanks for reading.
If you’re interested in tsukemen, I’d recommend checking out Zach Brook’s great review on Los Angeles tsukemen on his blog, Midtown Lunch.
Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles
2057 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025