With ramen houses opening across O.C. faster than the most dedicated noodlers can slurp, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Costa Mesa remains the center of our ramen universe. It’s there that shops such as Santouka dispelled the stereotype of ramen as just a college-age cup of noodles; rather, they showed how the Japanese noodle soup could be refined into the obsession it has become.
Ramen’s classic iterations are well represented in Costa Mesa. There are plenty of shoyu-based soups built from intense chicken broth fortified with soy sauce, and bowls of tonkotsu ramen, renowned mainly for its milky, ultraporky broth. But among the city’s new crop of ramen houses, the soup appears in even more regional and esoteric variations.
Ken Ramen keeps it simple. It specializes in tonkotsu ramen, but you also can build a bowl of Hokkaido-style miso ramen. Add a knob of butter and some corn to the dish and it assumes the stick-to-your-ribs style of Hokkaido, Japan’s icy, northernmost prefecture.
Jinya Ramen Bar, the county’s lone branch of a chain that stretches from Japan to Vancouver to New York, offers a bit more experimentation. There is, of course, great tonkotsu style, as well as monthly specials such as a hearty curry ramen filled with fat, squiggly noodles. But the chicken variety has all the creaminess of a good tonkotsu broth without the added heft of all that pork fat. It could become your new favorite.
At Ramen Yamadaya, a minichain spawned in Torrance, try tsukemen, a different breed of ramen in which a bowl of extra-thick noodles is served separately from a rich, concentrated dipping sauce. You grab a few noodles and slowly lower them into it, letting the flavor wash over every inch. It’s an interactive experience, one that kindles your ramen curiosity all over again.
Jinya Ramen Bar
1450 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 714-424-0377, jinya-ramenbar.com
562 W. 19th St. Costa Mesa, 949-645-4052
1175 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 714-556-0091, ramen-yamadaya.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
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This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.