I’ve been itching to hit up Mensho Ramen ever since it opened in February 2016, but the line at the Tokyo import’s Geary Street outpost is always an impediment. Normally I can suck it up and join in yet another queue for otherwise commonly available foodstuffs, but as I learned a few years ago at the ramen festival, people will wait three freaking hours for a bowl of it. A couple times, I tried to be clever and go late at night, but as the sign says, they’re open until 11:30 or the soup runs out.
It’s hard to tell how put off Mensho’s staff are by it, as they seat you with a “Thank you for waiting” and present the check with a “Thank you for making the time to come in” — yet the Michelin blurb posted in the window complains about the wait quite thoroughly, with a bonus slam against the neighborhood’s “aggressive panhandlers” thrown in for good measure.
Kvetching about being asked for money while waiting for your almost-$20 soup is not a cute look, but more to the point, the spicy lamb chashu ramen ($18) is probably the richest, most intensely flavored ramen I’ve ever had. Although I waited outside more than 45 minutes and it took me from hangry-anxious to satiated-stuporous, I regret nothing.
This miso ramen with ground lamb and double chashu (i.e., two slices of pork) is not even a broth, properly described. It’s practically a creamy salad dressing with noodles and menma. But it works: The mung sprouts, quite possibly planet Earth’s humblest, least exciting plant matter, played off it better than they would against a thinner soup. And the flavor had a power-chord quality, like a hand splayed to pound as many piano keys as possible. It was umami-forward, full of red pepper and a lip-coating afterburn that’s like a delightfully evil chapstick, and when you pick through the al dente noodles and the flecks of lamb to get to that pork, it’s like finding a fifty in a Kinder Egg. One caveat: I notice my palate becoming more and more salt-tolerant, and this bowl came right up to the edge for me, so many people could reasonably conclude it’s overly salted.
Maximum ramen, in other words. Chef Tomoharu Shono is known for decadent, unusual bowls — Mensho celebrated its first anniversary with a $35 bowl of duck ramen with foie gras and freshly shaved black truffles, limited to 10 per day — and his passionate intensity jumps off the very walls, emblazoned with text-heavy deep dives into the science of glutamic acid. And for what it’s worth, I also had the oysters in shoyu dare oil ($5), a bowl of earth-brown bivalves that felt like they’d been buried under the roots of a haunted tree and turned into animal hearts or some kind of indeterminate but irresistible offal.
Thank you, Mensho. Now please open for lunch.
One block up and nine blocks over, Hinodeya Ramen Bar has a fuller menu, and it’s certainly less cramped than the 28-seat, communal-table-filled Mensho. It’s mid-superblock in Japantown, having opened in the place that was once the S.F. location of the vegetarian-friendly, Mountain View-based Shalala Ramen. The interior is now completely different, having swapped dark for light (although the Hokkaido-goth chandeliers are pretty dark, in every sense).
S.F.’s Mensho is the chain’s first location outside Tokyo, and Hinodeya is also something novel, using dashi in lieu of pork-bone-based tonkotsu. (A fish stock base is more often seen in other Japanese soups.) Yet its parent restaurant dates to 1885, making it simultaneously unconventional and traditional. The $14 Hinodeya ramen’s broth comes from bonito, kombu, and scallop, and it’s light and full of moderation. While objectively less salty than the spicy lamb chashu ramen, it had so little else going on that the salt stood out more. The clam-based Hamaguri ramen ($18) is a little more strident and generous with the shellfish, but in both cases, the noodles felt wan. They lacked much springiness or chew.
What really shone were the other dishes, especially ones containing dashi. A little bowl of marinated, cubed “cheese royal” ($5) was a close cousin to Laughing Cow, only with wasabi on top. The age-dashi fried tofu ($6), slathered with bonito flakes that danced from the heat of it, was also mighty fine. I have to applaud the perfect evenness with which the shishito peppers ($5) were cooked, and the fact that a pinch of saffron threads was scattered on top, but the most curious little morsels were the heavily fermented takowasa ($5), or raw octopus in a wasabi sauce on a single endive leaf. If you’re put off by things like okra slime, it won’t be up your alley, but if the idea of octopus in octopus syrup isn’t a dealbreaker, go for it.
I got to try something else I’ve long heard about: Iwate Kura Japanese Ale Sansho ($9), made with a floral peppercorn. Although the base note is pretty close to powdered iced-tea mix, there are sage and citrus tones in there, and the various bites I took brought out this and that. At one point, it was as piney as anything brewed with Chinook hops.
Whereas Mensho goes for science, Hinodeya is cuter. Servers wear — and hand out — “I Heart Dashi” stickers. But there’s a through-line connecting them: origami paper cranes. Mensho has a few in the Hario coffee siphons that separate the counter from the kitchen, and Hinodeya presents one with the check. Eat a meal at each, fold 998 more, and your dreams will come true — if they haven’t already.