after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

An Ode to SF Ramen

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t says:  When thinking about what SF is best at, I am often tempted to say: “separating you from your money”.  If you have $10, $100, or $1000 in your wallet, SF will have innumerable options on how to spend it … all of it.  Consequently, g and I have had to show a little more restraint when it comes to eating out.  In what I will now call “The Midatlantic Years”, we’d go to dinner, blow $100 at some of the “best” restaurants in town and be super-satisfied that we pretty much got “the best” of whatever was available.  Now, in the “The Bay Area Years”, we are a little bit more cautious.  There’s always some chef somewhere who wants to find a way to squeeze in a little bit of foie, or truffle, or saffron, to bump prices.  Or they want to use the chicken they raised in their backyard along with the fish they raised in their bathtub.  Or they want to use the fruit that was hand-harvested by blind, armless monks.  Fortunately, SF also has a ton of answers to the tasting menu insanity, with an abundance of reasonably priced places weaved throughout the wallet landmines.  For g and me, ramen is one of these answers.  For g, it’s like pasta … a nice al dente pasta … which really tugs at her South Jersey Italian heart strings (which are right next to her adopted kimchi-loving Korean heart strings).  For me, it’s the way something that’s supposed to be so “homely” is so full of persnickety precision – an existential crisis in food.  And we both love that it’s never over $18 (or if it is, we refuse).

As we mentioned last time, we hit up Itani Ramen in Oakland.  It was ok, but you could probably gather from my tone that I wasn’t as pleased with it as I had hoped.  And now, after a bit more “research”, I can say without a doubt that it is the worst ramen we’ve had in SF (coming second even to the ramen food truck).  Welcome to our ramen showdown …


The first ramen place we went to was highly recommended.  A Japanese work colleague, who has admitted to being kind of a ramen fanatic, managed to visit over 10 ramen shops in SF and said that without a doubt, the best ramen in the city is Orenchi Beyond.  That’s some pretty high praise.  Now I don’t know the identity of the other 9 shops, but hey – if he says it’s the best, then we knew we had to get there and have it be the standard by which all others were judged.  We. Loved. It.  g was shocked.  Having gone for the “Beyond Ramen”, g loved the porky, salty, smoky flavor combination (and she’s not one to really like pork above any other meat); I had instant food envy.  There was something about that bowl of soup – it was just a very intense mouthful (you better like garlic).  The noodles were of a pretty good consistency and flavor as well, but let’s face it, the real champ here was the broth.  It was so good that we took the remaining broth home and made our own ramen using some instant ramen noodles we picked up at the Korean grocer (we’re cheap like that).   I still can’t figure out why this place didn’t have a line out the door – must be it’s awkward location.



While at Orenchi Beyond, I did the Tsukemmen, which is a dipping noodle.  The sauce was delightful (with a nice spice in there), but baby corn and the brussels sprouts just didn’t quite do it for me.  I feel like they tried a little too hard to California it.  Additionally, while I know that the noodles are supposed to be not-hot (i.e. room temp), they were a bit too congealed for my taste.  Alas, I wont’ be having any food dreams about the Tsukemmen … only the Beyond Ramen above.



Next up is Iza ramen.  Now this place did have a line out the door, but it sped through nicely.  I have to say that noodle for noodle, I enjoyed Iza’s better than Orenchi.  Also, the pork was superb, and the kimchi-on-the-side option featured some pretty decent kimchi to accompany the ramen … but that’s just it – I felt like I needed the kimchi to give the broth some extra oomph.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d be absolutely thrilled if Iza was our local ramen shop (I’d go there all the time!), but the broth just won’t unseat Orenchi Beyond’s.  I will say that Iza does get extra points, however, for having a Three Twins just across the street.


So now we go to Coco Ramen.  This place is a little peculiar.  We knew that it clearly said “Coco’s Ramen” on the sign, but I think there was another sign that said “Coco’s Sushi” or something like that (and I think our check said “Crazy Sushi and Ramen”).  My advice is find the address, stick it into your GPS, and persevere – you will be rewarded with food bliss.  Above is obviously not ramen, rather it’s the Kabocha.  This is essentially a Scotch egg … but instead of meat, there’s squash (?pumpkin?), and it’s drizzled in what is essentially the “eel roll sauce” and the “spicy mayo sauce” that you typically see at Americanized sushi joints.  But it was delicious.  A weird cross between fried ice cream (thin shell and sweet eel sauce) and spicy sushi and savory egg.  I still can’t figure out why I liked it, because as I write this, I realize that it sounds so totally gross.



So enter the ramen.  Now this ramen was amazing.  I’d say it was Orenchi-good.  While not having the same amount of smoke or briny salt, you could elect for just a smidege of spice (which I did), and it was perfectly balanced.  And that pork belly – oh that pork belly – it was magically tender and full-flavored – so much more than just a braised piece of belly (I wonder what they braised it in?).  But wait.  The real ingredient that pushed this bowl into greatness was the bean sprouts.  These were crisp and flavorful – almost peppery – cutting through the more unctuous and umami flavors.  They were like super-sprouts, moreso robust than those in any other ramen dish I’ve had.  Between how wonderful the ramen was, how much fun the other appetizers looked (I wanted to order so much more), and the great “neighborhood joint” feel (no million dollar ambience here), I think this place is my fave.  However, g and her friend ventured the Shoyu, and while she can’t recall specifics, she knows that it was not better than Orenchi Beyond (too bad she didn’t have any of my Tonkotsu).  So we’ll call it a “tie” for now … I guess we’ll wait for the revisit!



And here’s where Coco gets a second little extra nod from me: nearby ice cream.  This grasshopper pie ice cream (with fudge) is brought to you by local ice cream champ Mitchell’s.  Known for a lot of “crazy” flavors (less like Bi-Rite concoctions, rather, more “natural”/”seasonal” flavors), we did play it a bit safe (none of us got any of the fun Hawaiian flavors), but next time … oh next time …


And for our final ramen visit, enter Nojo Ramen.  Knowing its location in Hayes Valley, I knew that they’d have to bring some thunder to survive.  After reading the little synopsis on Eater and hearing that g’s colleagues labeled it more “California style”, I was suspicious that locals loved how “unique” it was, as it was chicken-based rather than pork.  Consequently, I ready to hate all over it – like ALL over it.  I know what you’re thinking: “why even go?”.  Well, it was convenient … and I needed this post to have a bad guy – I couldn’t just say “all these ramen places are great” and leave it at that, because what’s the fun, right?  As we waited outside for our name got closer and closer to the top of the list, a starving g and t pondered: which would we get?  With the absence of a tonkotsu option, I knew I was going to have to get “the one with the chicken leg” … and so was g … so we each got the “chicken paitan soy sauce”.  It. Was. Insane.  Like really insane.  Like I almost hate myself for liking it so much.  I really do.  Every single thing was perfect.  The chicken was perfect, from the texture of the meat to the browning of the skin to the dark meat flavor (it was braised wonderfully).  The egg was perfectly soft-boiled.  And while pork was absent from the party, there was instead a creamy miso and briny fish powder for the soup base, accented with a fistful of super-bright, super-fresh scallion.  And gawd: that fried gobo was an unexpectedly delightful addition.  Wait wait wait!  But did it beat Orenchi Beyond? …  Kinda?  Maybe? … It’s complicated … It’s not another “tie”, rather, I think of Nojo’s dish less like a “superb bowl or ramen”, rather, “the best chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had”.  (To this end, the noodles lacked the alkaline punch that most ramens have, so it was textured like a ramen noodle, but not quite flavored like one). So in the end, Nojo is a winner of a different category.  And you can bet your bunsen burner that we took home our remaining broth – this is going to be a wonderful second dinner (it’s in our fridge right now!).  We also know that we’re definitely going back to try out the rest … (I will say, though – the desserts looked kinda weak-sauce … I wonder where are the best ice cream joints in the area … ?)

Written by afterdinnersneeze

19 November 2016 at 3:51pm

One Response

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  1. Inquiring minds want to know–when will you post a photo of eating ramen while wearing ramen socks?


    22 November 2016 at 10:45am

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