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The cult of tonkotsu ramen is taking over San Francisco 

Wednesday, Oct 20 2010
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While the cult of ramen flourishes in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and San Jose, we San Franciscans have remained mysteriously agnostic. Japantown's noodle shops are always busy, but ask a local where he or she goes for a good bowl of ramen and the answer will start with an apologetic "Well ... " Why are we so half-hearted in our adulation of Japanese noodles? Is it because that one sublime ramen shop has not manifested here? Or are we simply pasta Unitarians, our hearts flush with love for all noodles rather than a blinding, blinkered passion for one pure strain?

San Francisco may be seeing the birth of an evangelical movement, if not a full-fledged cult, proselytized by a cluster of ramen shops, stands, and pop-up restaurants that have appeared since the beginning of the year. Most of them are attracting attention for a particular style of ramen: tonkotsu, with its pork-bone broth.

Often associated with the island of Kyushu, tonkotsu ramen, with its milky color and its unabashed meatiness, comes with its own mystique. The chefs must boil pork bones and fat for 12, 24 — no, 60 hours! It is so potent that it can't be sipped straight! Tonkotsu ramen, or at least the myriad ways it's being interpreted in the Bay Area, is the antithesis of the 25-cent dinner, the omega to the alpha of Cantonese wonton noodles. There is no packet of powder on earth that can replicate the broth's depth of flavor.

Consider the ritsu tonkotsu ramen ($8, or $10 with pork belly) at Izakaya Sozai in the Inner Sunset. The sole bowl of noodles on the menu of Ritsu Otsuka's 8-month-old restaurant, it was the first of the tonkotsu ramens to gain a following. The broth is creamy and opaque, the whitest of the tonkotsu broths around, belying its two days on the stove and all the collagen, marrow, and fat emulsified in the liquid. A few curls of noodle break the surface, on which a marinated soft-yolked egg, a few hunks of pork, and some shaved scallions float. There's a pronounced porkiness to the broth, which intensifies when I chase down the droplets of pork fat huddling around the edges, and the meat is trailed by the dusty prickle of white pepper. The noodles, which have a burnished gold tint, have an elastic snap to them that doesn't fade as the noodles soak up broth. And while the chashu, or braised pork shoulder, is chewier than I'd like, the layers of fat in the striped cubes of pork belly dissipate on the tongue. The ramen is the best thing on Sozai's menu. By far.

A slightly more traditional ramen shop opened in August, a few blocks down Irving from Sozai. Saiwaii Ramen comes from the same family that owns Sawaii Sushi on Kearny and Otoro Sushi on Oak: indeed, the Sunset shop does sushi, but it also serves the four base ramen styles: shio (salt), shoyu (soy-sauce-flavored), miso, and tonkotsu, all $7.95. Its tonkotsu broth — the cook I talked to says it's a 16-hour process — is respectably porky, the gelatin giving it a lip-smacking quality. While Saiwaii's crinkly noodles would horrify purists (most tonkotsu ramen is served with a skinnier, straight noodle), they're cooked a proper al dente. The thing to do is to add on a side order of buta kakuni ($3), or pork belly braised with mirin and soy sauce until chopsticks can easily shred the meat. The marinade's caramel-like sweetness leaches into the surrounding broth, darkening and enriching it. When the pork belly disappears, the meal can be considered over.

Then there's the new San Francisco Centre branch of Ajisen Ramen, an international chain based in Kumamoto and big in Shanghai and Guangdong. Ajisen's signature, Kumamoto-style ramen is on par with Sozai's, that is to say, not flawless but solid — and it's certainly the best dish I've ever encountered in the shopping center's upscale food court. The opaque, 10-hour pork broth is capped with a spoonful of an aromatic brown sauce, and its noodles have some of the same bounce as Sozai's. Skip the signature pork ribs ($9.95) for the standard Ajisen ramen ($8.95), with its slices of rolled, braised pork belly.

The tonkotsu-style broth with the most press would have to be Richie Nakano's Hapa Ramen. The former sous-chef at NOPA quit his job six months ago to make a California-Japanese ramen, and Hapa's evolution from preview dinners to farmers' market stand has been heavily chronicled. (Note to Nakano watchers: He's hunting down a permanent location.) Nakano says he's taken the same approach to making pork-bone broth as he did making French-style sauces, simmering the stock in several phases over the course of three days, incorporating bones, pork skin, chicken, dashi, and aromatics at different times.

Hapa's ramen has gotten better each time I've visited the stand, and now there's considerable polish to it — in the roundness and balance of the broth; in the pure animal flavor of the quivering cube of pork belly; in the way the slow-cooked egg melts into the soup, coating the noodles in a buttery richness. The big daddy bowl ($12), which supplements the pork, egg, and seasonal vegetables with crisp fried chicken, is the one to get. Hapa Ramen's organic egg noodles, which Nakano and his assistant made in-house until contracting them out two weeks ago, don't have the same bounce as traditional ramen noodles — an adjustment I have warmed to. Given his willingness to depart from convention, all his ramen wants now is one swaggering, charismatic element, something to provoke the id as well respect for his technique.

Swagger is the defining characteristic of the "bitter pork" broth at Ramen Dojo in San Mateo, which has made pilgrims out of more than a few San Franciscans. If ramen eating were a sport, its "stamina ramen" ($8.95) would be the half-pipe. Ramen Dojo storms the palate with thicker noodles, fattier broth, and dude-ish rushes of umami. The broth doesn't just thwack you with the aroma of roasted meat, it back-slaps you with toasted garlic and sesame oil as well. Droplets of pork fat jostle against one another at the rim of the bowl, and there's more of the same in the form of Dojo's pork belly.

With the meat comes the heat: At the standard spice level, the broth turned my cheeks pink; the spicy version kept my entire palate buzzing. The thing that puts Ramen Dojo's noodles over the top is a spoonful of "chicken gravy," ground chicken sautéed with garlic and ginger — it's meat on meat on spice on meat. To call stamina ramen heavy is an understatement. It's brawny and burly, a galumphing oaf of a dish. I had to push the bowl away from me long before it was empty — not because the onslaught had broken me down, but because I was already stuffed.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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