Of all the inane or gonzo journalistic endeavors I’ve ever undertaken — chucking axes, getting pierced through the chest on the winter solstice, eating the still-beating heart of a salmon I caught in the ocean outside the Golden Gate — one of the strangest remains the ramen festival in Japantown a few years ago. It started out straightforward enough: I meant to eat as many samples as I could. But the queues were so dense that instead, I wound up interviewing the patient ramen fans, some of whom waited for three hours in a soup line, as if they’d rode the rails to California.
In fairness, some people had traveled far, and the whole imbroglio was as much the fault of a festival had attracted crowds far in excess of the organizers’ anticipation. But Jesus Christ, people, it’s a goddamn bowl of noodles.
Fast-forward a few years, and while charcuterie, octopus, and cocoa nibs have all long since peaked, ramen is arguably more popular than ever. Lines or not, it’s hard to argue with its merits, especially when tonkotsu broth achieves that divine state of creaminess after the pork bones were boiled for hours and hours. Still, the Bay Area keeps blowing past what I assumed had to be the saturation point, and as a result, I’ve had the pleasure of wonderful meals at Mensho in the Tenderloin, Hinodeya in Japantown, Shinmai in Uptown Oakland, and many others. Add another to the list: Berkeley’s Ippudo, whose name translates to “one wind hall.”
Owned by the same fast-food behemoth that operates Panda Express, Ippudo has a few tells that it’s a corporate subsidiary. Capitalizing on its popularity, it’s on an expansion blitz. There are a few dozen locations worldwide — with one coming to S.F.’s Yerba Buena Lane sooner or later — and if you go at prime lunch or dinnertime, you’ll see the crowds.
On one visit, I sat at the counter and watched the kitchen team’s semi-hypnotic motions as they churned out one bowl after another. I don’t think they can shave more than a second off their performance — although, being part of a global company, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were filmed and evaluated on that point. But even factoring in that efficiency and the availability of ramen within walking distance of Downtown Berkeley BART, you’re almost certainly going to wait awhile. And I felt rushed or very rushed every time — as if the servers were graded on how many tables they can turn. Twice, we were asked if we were ready to order, barely 30 seconds after we’d sat. If you go late on a Sunday night, they might also come around to inform you that it’s “last call for appetizers.”
Still, this is solid ramen. The noodles are thin and the broth clearly took almost a day of preparation. Nothing here has the punk-rock personality that Mensho Ramen’s spicy lamb chashu does, but the $19 Akamaru Special (with a soft-boiled egg, extra pork belly, and nori added to its thin noodles and “Umami Dama” miso paste) comes closest. It’s got a good helping of garlic oil, too — although so does the Karaka Special ($20), which manages to be both slightly spicier and somewhat milder all at once — and also, my egg was throughly hard-boiled. Order the noodles al dente, eat them quickly so they don’t soften too much, and call for Kaedama, or an extra helping for $3. (It’s remarkable how fast it all happens, although yikes, you’ve then spent $23 on ramen.)
Another indication that you’re in a chain is how much they push the upsell — on the menu and in person — a fact of life that sometimes gets under my skin and sometimes nudges me toward ordering more, just as intended. Ippudo rewards ramenistas with a more-is-more approach, but it might be more prudent to strip your noodles to the bare essence and round out a meal with things like the Goma Q, a cucumber with lots of sesame oil ($8). It doesn’t cleanse the palate, it teases it.
I’m normally a bun fan, but on two visits, I couldn’t find much to love in Ippudo’s pork buns, which are $9 for an order of two and much too tough besides. But I liked the satisfying oiliness of the chicken kara-age ($9) over a bit of dressed salad, especially when cut with a squeeze of lemon. And even something as ordinary as a tofu salad ($7) feels fresh and new with this many dried sardines raining on it. But the $5 to $6 rice bowls are an even better bet, especially if favor having one atypical thing on the table. Chicken kara-age is an option, and so is unagi rice, but chashu is better. I was particularly tickled by the mantaiko rice, which involves a scoop of spicy cod roe. It’s like an extra-soft sorbet from the bottom of the sea. While it took me a few quizzical bites to determine whether I genuinely liked it or simply appreciated the novelty of it — probably the latter, in all honesty — I give Ippudo credit for doing it, since the flavor profiles otherwise err on the side of the mainstream.
Ippudo, 2011 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-666-8807 or ippudo-us.com