Ramenwell Focuses on Doing a Few Things Right. But Is It Enough?

There can be a virtue in having a small menu.

The mushroom shoyu is the picture of bounty. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

It’s safe to say that ramen-mania has long since peaked, although it hasn’t yet entered its drag-racing-in-Miami or hotboxing-its-private-jet phases. The days of people deliriously waiting for hours and hours for soup are seemingly over, but ramen shops are still opening up in San Francisco. In the case of Ramenwell, which took over the space once occupied by the beloved Ken Ken Ramen — which closed for “a variety of personal, financial, and professional reasons” on March 31 — the focus isn’t on outlandish attention-grabbing but on doing just a few things properly.

Chef-owner and Chicago native Harold Jurado serves only four bowls of ramen — each in the $14 to $15 range, with add-ons — and four appetizers, one of which is edamame and another of which is a daikon-seaweed salad that is exactly the same as the sum of its parts. Dessert? There is soft-serve, in matcha green tea and taro. (Taro is better if you’re acclimated to dessert being sweet, but more so because the texture is so much richer — almost Smitten-esque.) Fun sakes, like a melony-creamy Dassai Nigori, and admirably off-the-beaten-path beers like Evil Twin Bushido and Marz Community Jungle Boogie, populate the alcohol list.

For starters, the beef tataki ($17) is beautiful and snappy, a combination of yuzu and garlic on the flash-seared meat. Should it melt in the mouth a little more? Possibly, but it evolved out of an earlier carpaccio presentation — and you can tell there’s arrested ambition busting out in any given appetizer that costs more than all the mains. But the pork tonkotsu stands out from its rivals in town in that the chashu is very bacon-like in texture and flavor, with a sort of barbecued smokiness that translates well to the broth.

The mushroom shoyu, though, is one-dimensional. Alternating between spoon and chopsticks, it’s very hard to escape what might be the most irresponsible statement in food criticism: “I wanted to like it, but….” Just peer into the bowl, with its half dozen mushrooms, from shiitake and king trumpets to slender enoki wrapped in a bouquet, plus the requisite yolky egg, and it’s impossible not to glean the labor and love that went into this. The broth itself is tea-colored, like a pond in a virgin ecosystem untrampled by humans. But it’s under-seasoned in a particular way that salt would not improve and chili oil really only masks. Earthiness is the X-factor of Kingdom Fungi, but these mushrooms get lost in a crowd.

The spicy tori tantanmen is the best ramen, although you might say the center of gravity is in the chicken and not the broth. The soft-poached egg functions best in this context, and the chicken looks almost like ground beef and tastes somewhat like seafood — with just enough chili oil to break into a sweat.

Even with these minor variations on expectations, the thing is, does the dinner-only Ramenwell have enough personality to attract a following? The walls are millennial pink, trendy to the point of basic, and while one of them has a quilted-looking objet d’art that could have come from the studio of Judy Chicago, the space feels unfinished. Add to that the severely pared-down menu, with its list of toppings that can easily make an average-priced bowl of ramen into a fairly expensive one, and Ramenwell doesn’t seem to signify a virtuoso’s inward-facing determination but a state of incompletion.

Ramenwell, 3378 18th St., 415-589-7680, no website.

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