Of all the commonly available foodstuffs for which Bay Area residents gleefully wait in line, ramen might be the most mystifying. I see the hey-why-not appeal of authentic New York bagels, even day-old ones — if you've never had one and someone's been (erroneously) whispering “It's the water, it's the water” in your ear — and I understand waiting for Swan Oyster Depot, Tartine Bakery, any of the hybrid pastries at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, and even the xiaolongbao at the Santa Clara Din Tai Fung.
But then there's ramen. A couple summers ago, I covered the ramen component of the J-POP Summit in Japantown and pivoted from evaluating different bowls of noodles to interviewing various people who'd queued for soup for two-and-a-half hours. Consensus: Even the good ramen wasn't worth the wait, and some people trashed theirs without finishing.
Yet ramen remains foodie catnip, driving web traffic and sending electric thrills through central nervous systems. Maybe it's because I'm put off by the word “slurp” the way most people react to “moist,” but I don't entirely get all that. I merely like ramen, a lot.
The wait at Itani Ramen, now open across the street from the Fox Theateron Telegraph Avenue in Uptown Oakland, is short. I visited on three different days of the week, at different times of day, and got my food within 10 minutes without fail. More importantly, Itani departs from the strict parameters of ramen to become more of a ramen-centric concept restaurant. Chef Kyle Itani won acclaim for the Japanese-inflected menu at his upscale diner Hopscotch, and this project flows logically from that.
The menu is much smaller than Hopscotch's, however: four appetizers, two types of gyoza, a few mini rice bowls, and four ramens, with half a dozen types of sake, shochu, and beer. But if some places are as good as their best or worst dish, Itani Ramen is as good as its most unusual.
And the Egg 3 Way ($15) — which reads not as “eggs three ways” but as an oeuf ménage a trois — is my nominee. A Japanese friend turned me onto the ascetic pleasure of a raw egg mixed into a hot bowl of brown rice serving as breakfast — umami-nimalism, if you will — and this is that same premise, cranked way up. The fat pearls of ikura, the rich jidori egg sprinkled with sesame seeds, and the generous helping of uni conspired to make this my favorite item, with or without the sheet of nori to wrap it in. It's marvelous.
A close second was the Nanban Zuke Ramen ($12), or “Southern Barbarian Pickle,” which is served cold and which the counterperson said I shouldn't add any supplements to. (Whenever someone dodges an opportunity to up-sell, I obey.) Full of pickled Monterey sardines, jicama, and green onions, its broth was wonderfully fragrant, a pleasantly softened acid bath for the fried fish to marinate in — and the house-made quality of the noodles really shined.
The more standard ramens are pretty good, too, although the intensity of the shio spring ramen (with chashu pork, sweetish yu choy, bamboo shoots, and green onion, $13) varied considerably between visits. Overall, I'd give a slight edge to the shoyu (with ground chicken and a soy broth, $12) for its consistency and the flavor of the chicken. And if you order the $0.75 El Scorcho hot sauce, you almost can't overdo it; it's rather moderate. Of the gyoza (five for $7), the pork were quite good — especially with plenty of chili oil, also house-made — but the sloppy stickers, bedazzled with a thick soy sauce, Kewpie mayo, and a full pencil sharpener's worth of bonito flakes — tasted great even to this mayonnaise-averse fusspot. And, however minor they sound, smaller sides like a $5 bowl of pickles or a $5 salad with miso dressing hold their own without being overpowering. The mapo moyashi (ground pork, spicy miso, and bean sprouts, $6) stands squarely on two feet, although I wish Itani offered a more ambitious variation. And while I appreciated the akitabare flight ($12 for three 1.5-oz. pours of sake) for covering a lot of terrain while pairing well with the food, it's the Chu-Hai ($8) that won the day. A hollowed-out grapefruit with a bitter-tart shochu cocktail that you drink through a straw, it's simply a cool idea.
If you want bowing and scraping, or traditional ramen-house elements, you won't find it. Instead, there's helpful hipster staffers, bathrooms labeled “raMEN” and “raWOMEN,” blown-up photographic art, a back area that screens films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and hand-scrawled marginalia on the menu board letting you know what the staff likes best. Itani Ramen also has a vending machine selling (mostly) Japanese frozen snacks. I gained a new appreciation for the red bean cakes ($2.50) served cold and — stale cone aside — for packaged sweet corn ice cream treats ($2), but damn if the donut-shaped Baumkirchen chocolate cakes ($2.50) weren't some of the foulest things I'd ever tasted. (One wavering thumb up for the randomness element, though.)
My main objection is the price. Dinner's a different story, but spending $36 on lunch for one — nanban zuke and Egg 3 Way, plus tax and tip — feels slightly absurd. Granted, I went from famished to super burrito-level, cusp-of-total-unproductivity-for-the-rest-of-the-day full, but ramen alone would have been insufficient. Strictly speaking, these bowls cost the same as you'd find at, say, Orenchi Beyond, but the portions are noticeably smaller. My secondary quibble: There are four ramens, but how come no tonkotsu? It may be that as Itani roll out seasonal menus in the months to come he'll include such a broth, but overlooking it right out of the gate feels like a weird omission.
Ultimately, your opinion might come down to this: What can you get here that's bigger and better and badder than other places? My favorite ramen in San Francisco remains the eponymous bowl at Katana-Ya near Union Square, a cure for the common cold that comes with two pieces of pork, two gyoza, corn, half an egg, and plenty of seaweed. Is it hip enough to pair with citrus and a cocktail umbrella? Nope. Does it leave me satiated to the core? Yep. Big points for Itani Ramen's well-executed eclecticism, but sometimes it's risky to leave them wanting more.