So, what were you doing in November of 2005? I tell you what I was doing....I was eating at Chopstix maybe 2-3 times a month. In those....quite sad days actually, there were really only four choices for non-sushi Japanese in the area; Ichiro, Tajima (under previous ownership), Chopstix, and Izakaya Sakura. Tajima, be it ever so humble was king of ramen (sad, huh?) and Sakura was the main choice for Japanese. In those days, it was easy to be satisfied with what I call the "American-Japanese Diner Cuisine" of places like Ichiro and Chopstix. In fact, with the state of food in San Diego at that time; it was quite easy to get into "just happy to have it" mode. Something I threw off by the beginning of 2006........
Other than a quick visit to Chopstix in 2009 I hadn't been back. Since I've done circling back posts on Ichiro and Tajima, I just thought it would be right to do the same with Chopstix.
The changes in décor at Chopstix has been fairly subtle; the queasy pink exchanged for a more neutral color, more comfortable banquet chairs, better televisions on the wall.
The menu remains the same....other than the addition of various crunchy rolls and such....not really my thing.
The Katsu Curry was one of the few dishes I used to order regularly here. Dark, thick, with vegetables literally melting from a long stewing, and also having a little kick of heat, I thought it was a nice dish here. So what's the 2015 version like?
After ordering the Tonkatsu Curry, I realized I used to order the Chicken Katsu Curry. Oh well.
First off, I used to grumble that the miso soup here was always too....now it's the opposite, weak.
The curry is now much lighter and while still having a decent spice, it lacks the beefy flavor I used to enjoy. To their credit; there's still actual, discernible meat in the curry, but other than the heat, it's kind of flat.
That tonkatsu was breaded and seasoned well, but was tough and dry.
Not the best meal I could have had.....but I needed to return for at least one more visit.
So I returned, having had no breakfast, I was starving and decided on getting something that I thought had always been decent at Chopstix, though it had been over a decade since I'd had it. I started with the Agedashi Tofu.
This was fried perfectly, light, crisp, the tofu molten. I just wish the tsuyu had some flavor. It was quite watered down. The ramen broth had more flavor.
Which of course means that I had the ramen.
There are two consistent things about the ramen at Chopstix. the first being the charshu which has a decent flavor, but is bone dry and not very pleasant. The second being how I've consistently, never had a consistent bowl of ramen here. Every bowl of ramen has been different. This time, the broth was way too salty, there was much more scum than I'm used to, and the noodles were over-cooked. I'm used too the over-cooked egg, but this time it was also cold...insult to injury I say. Definitely second tier ramen.
The customers I saw were pretty much the Ichiro crowd. Service was efficient and pleasant. Even though it's not my cup of tea; it's nice to see that they are doing well after all these years.
I never knew you could get the intestine "fried first" to give a bit more texture. I was told on this visit. At $6.77, this is priced right. Good swiney, earthy intestine, the pickled vegetable is typical, but this is a good value and I have no complaints.
Nice folks....I still get a kick that they call me "sir"......
777 Noodle House 4686 University Avenue San Diego, CA 92105
Come Tuesday it was on the chilly side...so it was over to Yakyudori for some Shio Ramen. Hard to believe the place was empty when I arrived.
Went for the shio ramen. It was interesting; I still think they changed the salt they use for this a while back...it just doesn't have the same flavor. The broth was also a lot darker than I recalled. The chashu was better than what I've had before. At least it wasn't ice cold. The boiled egg was lovely....not the best, but decent. The noodles prepped well.
The service was a lot less surly than what I've recently experienced. As I left, the place was getting crowded.
Yakyudori Ramen and Yakitori 4898 Convoy St San Diego, CA 92111
They've done a bit of renovation since the last time I was here.
I really love the texture of the crisp and light kakiage. And though the broth and udon is nothing special; it's the sum of the parts that works for me. That onigiri still seems like overkill to me....but I'm not complaining.
Plus, it's still $8.95.
Izakaya Sakura 3904 Convoy St #121 San Diego, CA 92111
By Thursday, it was in the 80's. It was time to treat myself to a nice Hwe Dup Bop.
And Sam know just how I like it. Easy on the rice, a good amount of cho-jang...crisp, fresh, a little spicy. Just what I needed to refresh.
Sushi Yaro 7905 Engineer Road San Diego, CA 92111
The weekend came and it was a bit cooler again....so I guess it was back to the beginning.
So here's more Ramen; one by request (Ototo) and the other because of a sign I saw.
I guess it was inevitable based on the discussion in the comments of this post. A couple of folks asked me what I thought of the ramen here...including Taka-san at Taisho. You know I'm not a "rolls" kind of guy, so otherwise, this second restaurant from the owner of Sushi-ya really wouldn't interest me.
The décor is simple, but modern, with an area of stool and bar type tables, which I thought was kind of neat.
The menu features 3 types of ramen; a red (miso) based, a white tonkotsu, and a chicken based version. I went with the Shio White Tonkotsu. The young lady and gentleman serving me were quite nice, but on the slow side. I watched my ramen come up and stay in the window while they gathered themselves to do...well, I don't know.
Eventually, the ramen made it's way, first to another, then finally my table.
My first reaction was, "is this tonkotsu"? Where was a the nice milky richness. The broth had a yellowish tone and even smelled somewhat "chicken-ny". It had a decent amount of oil, but was still not very rich. I'm wondering what kind of salt they use, or perhaps it's a bagged base, because it tasted kind of bitter to me. The boiled egg was quite good, the chashu, hard, cold, flavorless. The noodles were mushy and overcooked....perhaps it had waited a bit too long to reach my table?
In my opinion, overpriced at $9.50. I'll take a pass on this.....
Ototo Sushi Co 5651 Balboa Ave San Diego, CA 92111
I saw a flier that mentioned Oton was serving Tonkotsu style ramen for lunch. So I thought I'd go and check them out.
A small, by the book salad accompanied the ramen.
Which when it arrived looked totally like it came from the Tonkotsu 101 manual. But let us first spend a moment admiring that lovely orb of goodness, the egg. This may be the best ajitsuke tamago in terms of cooking time and prep in San Diego. The noodles were also a perfect texture for me.......mass produced, but prepared well.
The broth was very white, but also too thin, and almost fully defatted which took away from the "coat your tongue" feeling you get from a good tonkotsu. The flavor was also mild, but passable. The chashu was cold, hard, though it had decent flavor. What's up with serving a solid piece of ice cold pork?
Not bad, but I'd rather go several other places before coming here for the ramen.
Oton 5447 Kearny Villa Road San Diego, CA 92123
So where do I think these rank in the now crowded world of ramen in San Diego? Well, Otot, umm Ototo is definitely second tier. Oton, is higher second tier, perhaps along the lines Ouan, or maybe even better.
So last week the mercury was flirting with the 80's. I was thinking about which taco shops I needed to visit. This weekend it's cloudy and now it's starting to rain. Go figure......
The one silver lining....this gave me a chance to revisit a couple of ramen shops.
Since they are open all the way through from 1130 on weekends, I decided to check them out at 4pm, thinking they'd be fairly calm.
I surprised to see how busy they were....not a full house, but at least 3/4 full. They had the seat yourself thing in place, so I had a seat......they saw me, but still, I waited, and waited......and waited. Another group arrived after me and they had water served and orders taken......a couple sat on the table next to me....and they waited......while I had my order taken and another group who had come after them were being served...the woman decided to take matters into her own hands and just grabbed one of the servers......so they could finally get some water and get their orders taken. The place just seemed much more disorganized than I recalled, even with three working front of house. They seemed to spend a good deal of time huddled at the POS and doing things like organizing chopsticks while dirty tables sat.... They were really nice kids, but it seemed like they needed someone running the front of house.
When I did get my order taken - Kotteri, with Kakuni Pork, noodles extra firm, things went fairly quickly.
The Hakata style noodles were exactly as I like them. While the broth isn't quite what I'd call "kotteri" it was passable, if a bit too mild in the flavor department. Two things kind of killed this for me. While the broth was served at a decent temperature, the egg was ice cold....now if you serve it on the side, I'd be ok with that, but in my soup, no thanks. Ditto with the buta kakuni, which was adequately tender, if a bit on the bland side.....but ice cold.
Ramen Yamadaya 4706 Clairemont Mesa Blvd San Diego, CA 92117
Yes again. Though the Missus is over "the Santouka effect" and is now, kinda, sorta, back on planet Earth, we're able to enjoy Santouka in context.
This was the status quo.....on this day, they were giving out the eggs......overcooked for us. The pork cheek was tender and porky, the noodles had a great chew. The broth, shio, which ironically is the least salty of all choices was scalding hot...the thick ceramic bowl kept the temperature "right" for the whole meal. The broth coated our tongues and bellies....and while it would not make us forget the best of what we had in Japan, it did the job.
Santouka Ramen 4240 Kearny Mesa Rd(In the Mitsuwa Marketplace) San Diego, CA 92111
Our first day in Kyoto was pretty tiring......I gotta admit, I get pretty wiped out when we travel; but man, the Missus was totally fried as well. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow and up before 5am. After encountering the crowds at Fushimi Inari the day before, I just knew that the best way to experience the place would be early in the morning or late at night. So we got on the Tozai line, transferred at Yamashina to the Biwa line, got off at Kyoto Station, which wasn't quite as confusing as the previous and got on the Nara line....getting off at Inari Station. Fushimi Inari-taisha is literally right across the street.
Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of Inari Okami, the Kami.....which is hard to describe in English, let's just say it's the spirit, god, or deity of most importantly, rice, but also fertility, sake, and foxes...... which, if I recall serve as messengers for the Kami. At the entrance of the shrine, you'll see a statue of a fox (no, it's not a "doggie") holding the key to the granary. I remember learning about the kitsune serving the rice god in elementary school....funny what you recall at odd moments in life.
For most folks......us included, the most stunning feature of Fushimi Inari are the 30,000 plus gates that line the paths up the mountain, which is also named Inari. Each torii (gate) is paid for and donated by businesses....which you totally forget about when you see it.
It is both beautiful and haunting seen at dawn with nary another person around. Just the sound of your footsteps and the wind whispering through the trees.
No loud chatter or folks brandishing "selfie poles".
This is what I saw in my mind's eye when I thought of Kyoto.
After taking in the atmosphere of Fushimi Inari, we headed back to Inari Station, got back on the Nara line, getting off at the first stop at Tokufuji and hopping on the Keihan line, getting off at Kiyomizu-Gojo. from there it's about a 20-25 minute walk past all the shops.
This most well known feature of this temple complex is the veranda of the main hall, which has great views of Kyoto. Though, I think more people take photos of people taking photos on the veranda.
I understand that not a single nail is used for any structure in the temple complex.....
Heading past the three story pagoda and down below the main hall is Otowa Waterfall. Drinking of the water from the waterfall is supposed to bring good health and a long life.
So of course the Missus had to partake!
Heading back down the mountain, you'll notice some steps and a sign to your right, this leads to Sannenzaka, then Nannenzaka. Two well preserved neighborhoods.
This was one of the most pleasant walks we had on our trip. It was early, with few tourists, so you could really enjoy the restored structures. It felt like a trip back in time.
We took a break at a little shop near Yasaka Pagoda and Kodai-ji Temple.
The coffee....all pour over, was great and restorative. We made plans for what we'd do on our next leg. It was nice respite.
We'd head up to Maruyama Park and Chion-in Temple.
Somehow, we got a little of course and ended up at Higashi Otani Honganji. There was a large service going on.....
As we righted our course and headed toward Maruyama Park, we could hear country and western music playing.....the singing was of course, in Japanese. Apparently there was a Country and Western Music Festival close by....it was just another one of those strange and rather surreal moments.
Past the park is Chion-in Temple, which was going though some major restoration at the time of our visit.
By now we were "hitting the wall". We'd seen the places we really wanted to see and temple fatigue was setting in. It was time to change our focus.....so we headed bacl to the machiya to freshen up...and then off to lunch.
We had decided on a ramen shop I had heard off named Karako. The address 12-3 Okazaki Tokusei-cho was a bit difficult, but it looked like it was right on Higashioji-dori....which is kind of where we found the place.
We were the first customers to arrive and the older gentleman pointed to some seats at the end of the counter.
We quickly placed our order and he spoke the only English I heard our whole time there, pointing to the hijiki, tofu, and green salad on the counter he said, "helpu you self....."
The prices were very reasonable - ¥650 for the Kotteri Ramen.
The chashu was wonderful, full of flavor, just melt in you mouth delicious. The noodles were fine, just chewy enough. In spite of being "kotteri", as in extra rich, the broth really lacked the tongue coating texture and the richness in flavor I enjoy. This was my least favorite bowl of ramen during our trip.
The Missus got the Chashu Rice Bowl ¥320 - which had the wonderful chashu.
The one item which was a total surprise was the karaage. It has got to be one of the best I've ever had.
Light and crisp, moist and succulent, with wonderful flavor, a touch of ginger, slightly sweet, shoyu tones, and something else.....deep and savory. And a bargain at ¥500 - like five bucks!
This was just fantastic fried chicken......probably worth a side trip to Kyoto!
A few minutes after we sat, folks started streaming in. The older gentleman ordered the special, which was a bowl of ramen, a bowl of rice, and chicken....which turned out to be an entire order...five pieces for ¥880!
We kept watching to see how he heck he was going to finish his food...well, he's got his own system down. He ate the ramen and took the rice and chicken to go!
We actually tried to return to Karako the next day, but they were closed.....bummer. But hey, next time we know what to order, don't we? As in this old saying.
Karako 12-3 Okazaki Tokusei-cho Kyoto
There was of course, a requisite short nap after this lunch, so we headed back. Little did we know that we'd be having another wonderful experience for dinner.
Strangely, during the whole time, the Missus kept saying...."you know, this is not as good as Santouka!" Say what?!? I love Santouka and all, but really! Perhaps I should have gone to Santouka in Kyoto just to set things straight. I'm thinking She really didn't care for the stronger niboshi flavors.....but She also wasn't impressed with the richness of the broth! Nagi Ramen? Rokurinsha? Really?
If She believed Santouka is that much better than anything we had, then fine. I wanted some confirmation. So, this past Saturday, it was off to Santouka, which by the way, is my favorite ramen in San Diego.
We ordered just as we did in Japan. The Missus, minimizing the carbs......She almost fell out of Her seat the first time She saw someone having ramen, rice, and gyoza! Ramen and rice?!? Anyway, She'd have a bit of noodles, a bit of rice, usually a decent amount of broth, and sometimes more than 1 egg. She did readily admit that the eggs in Japan were just that much better.
Anyway, one sip of the broth did it. "Huh, it's kind of thin, sort of bland....... I don't know what I was thinking?" Yes, She had somehow mentally put the broth and everything else at Santouka on a pedestal! We all do this....but not usually with items we've recently had....food nostalgia strikes us all. But I've never seen this in the short term.
No, it wasn't quite as rich, nor robust in flavor, as much of what we had. The noodles, well, the Missus doesn't care for Hakata style noodles, yet the texture in each bowl we had was excellent.
"You know, I feel kind of disappointed....I don't feel that I enjoyed those bowls as much as I could have. I put Santouka up on a fictional level. It was all in my head....."
"Doesn't it suck when you find out that Santa Claus doesn't exist? Oh, and....as an FYI.....neither does the Easter Bunny"
"I feel gypped......"
"Hey, we can always circle back. I'm more than willing to return to Japan. And, we can even check out Santouka while we're there!"
Like I said. Santouka is our favorite. But a little perspective is always good. And maybe, just maybe....we'll be able to sample more good ramen in Japan again soon.
Santouka Ramen 4240 Kearny Mesa Rd(In the Mitsuwa Marketplace) San Diego, CA 92111
Back in July, having just returned from Belgium and the Czech Republic, the Missus sent me a text. Something along the lines of "let's go to Japan." To which I replied, "great, so next year, we'll go to Japan". Her response? "No, I mean let's go to Japan in October, after seeing my parents." And so it came to pass....
For some strange reason; I'd never really been motivated to visit Japan. But now, the wheels set in motion, I just couldn't wait. Though busy at work and time was short, I did some research, and found things I needed to know; the somewhat confusing address system, making sure I had photos of the storefronts of the places we needed to be at. I got us apartments in Tokyo and Osaka, and even a Machiya in Kyoto. Had friends make reservations at two places in Tokyo. We don't really plan much in the way of activities; mostly just broad outlines. The Missus likes to do most of that when we reach our destination. This can be a challenge, but She does it based on where we need to be.
All in all, Japan turned out to be one of the easiest places we've ever visited. It's amazingly orderly, folks at the worst are polite and everyone we met was helpful. That the Missus could read Kanji proved to be a major plus as other than the hiragana and katagana, and Japanese pronunciations, She could cull out meaning. I know a handful of words though my phrasing is (sometimes hilariously) woeful. When it comes to food though, I understand much more.
Well, enough of that....I'll get more into it in future posts.
As things turned out, all you really need is a Japan Railpass, Suica Card, the Hyperdia App, addresses both in English and Japanese, the word "sumimasen", and a little patience and you'll do just fine.
I really thought Tokyo was going to be a bear and was prepared to be overwhelmed, and in a way we were, but not exactly in the way we thought we'd be. First off, getting around in Tokyo was very easy for us. Finding exact locations weren't. Tokyo itself is made up of 23 wards.....think of it as 23 cities packed into one mega-city. Yes, it's busy, but also very quiet. The train/subway can be packed to the gills and yet, there's not a single word uttered in anything above a whisper! Folks line the stairs and escalators...all to the left in Tokyo, letting folks pass to the right. They walk...a lot...they eat tons of carbs and are very thin...folks do not eat while they walk, it's bad manners, even though there are very few public waste receptacles, the sidewalks are extremely clean.
We arrived in the neighborhood of Yotsuya and found the business of the person we were renting our apartment from with rather minimal problems. She was in the middle of teaching a class, so we dropped off our luggage, we travel super light, and set off to get something to drink, and to do some exploring. We walked down one of the side streets....
Seeing the sign above we walked down the alley like street and were totally over whelmed by all the restaurants and bars......which led to the big question. How does one actually make a choice here? There are so many places and options. I'm sure Tabelog and Gurunavi would help, but man, there's just so much. The Missus made the comment, "man, there are more restaurants in this little street than all of Clairemont Mesa!"
Luckily, I had reservations taken care of for the next night, had a plan for this evening, and had an outline of where to eat in the area for our last evening in Tokyo. In fact, we went looking for that Izakaya and actually found the place....using my really, really bad Japanese, I uttered one of the few phrases I know, "Yoyaku wo onegaishimasu".... actually getting reservations.
We finally got settled into our apartment, which ended up being in the Yotsuya Sanchome area. A bit more residential, busy main streets, but quiet side streets.
We were meeting an old friend of mine; Reiko for dinner. nothing major, I wanted some ramen, and it would be great seeing Reiko, who used to work for one of my friends several years (actually more than several) back. Reiko was born and raised on Tokyo, so I thought getting to where we wanted to go to would be a slam dunk...well, not quite. You see, first we had to get to Shinjuku Station, claimed to be the busiest in the world (according to Wikipedia, the station was used by over 3.6 million people a day and has 200 exits).
Shinjuku itself is a popular business, entertainment, and shopping area.... lets just say popular is an understatement. Tons of younger folks gather outside the station, just milling around, as it seems to be a popular meeting and socializing area.
The place I'd ask Reiko to find had several locations within Kabukichō, the red light district and the Golden Gai, so it goes to figure that Reiko isn't really familiar with the area. After passing the Robot Restaurant (if you really gotta know, you can read about it here.) and missing the photo op of a large group of business men taking a photo with one of the "Robot Warriors", she needed some help and got a bit of direction....
This was sensory overload....after a while, things started looking like this.
I was seeing blurred outlines by now...all the blinking lights, the neon..... the punk-goth Japanese girls, good god, I was ready to fade to black.
Just in time Reiko pointed and said, "there it is Kirk-san.... Nagi Ramen."
Yes, all this effort for ramen. Would you expect anything less from us? Of course, not just any ramen....
Then of course, there was navigating the ramen ticket machine. You enter in your money and press the buttons for the various options you want.
The tiny shop has a single counter with a few seats. Behind the counter, two guys do everything..... it's hot and hard work.
Nagi is famous for their hardcore niboshi broth. Vast quantities of dried anchovies are simmered for over 12 hours to come up with a heady broth.
The broth is hearty, thick, savory, packing a huge punch. Pungent and full of flavor, it's not eveyone's cup of tea. Indeed it was a bit too strong at first for the Missus. That first sip of the broth will do that to you. We both ordered the combination of noodles, the regular, kind of doughy-chewy noodles and the wide and flat "hirauchimen"noodles which the Missus preferred. The egg had that perfect bright orange orb of a yolk. I had ordered extra green onions which helped balance out the flavor of the broth. My only issue was with the chashu which looked medium rare and was very tough and chewy. Otherwise, this was love at first bite....though perhaps not for the Missus who was a bit overwhelmed by it all.
Leaving the restaurant, things seemed to slow down, everything felt like it was slowing down, all was right in the world, things were starting to make sense.... though I still didn't have an explanation for the Robot Restaurant!
During our recent hot spell I was really craving some noodles. In recent years though, I've kind of lost my affection for cold "bun" type dishes and I've yet to come across a version of hiyashi chuka in San Diego that I enjoy. So I thought why not do a couple of servings of tsukemen which invented in the mid-1950's by Yamagishi Kazuo at his shop Taishoken Ramen. He is such a legendary personality that there's actually a documentary called God of Ramen, which is sort of a Jiro Dreams of Sushi style movie.
Anyway, I thought it would be good to compare a couple of bowls over consecutive days.
RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen:
A yes, the home of hype..... Though I'll honestly say, the service here has been efficient, and Tsukemen I've had here has gotten better over time. It's now less salty, there's a bit of an almost citrus effect with the flavor of the broth. It also seemed to have gained some viscosity this time around as it coated my noodles, which were perfectly prepared (firm with almost a crunch), nicely.
There was a bit more pork than I recalled in the broth, though it was a bit too cold in temperature for me; I thought this was the best version by far.....except for that egg, which I thought should have been soft boiled.
RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen 4646 Convoy St San Diego, CA 92111
The broth is still to salty for my tastes, which makes it difficult to taste much else. In spite of the rich look of the broth, it doesn't coat the noodles well, which by the way, were done pretty good....I had expected it to be overdone. The chashu here is bland and dry, the egg was nicely done though.
Ramen Yamadaya 4706 Clairemont Mesa Blvd San Diego, CA 92117
So that was going to be it....just a head-to-head comparison. Until I mentioned this to someone and they told me I needed to include Tajima in the mix. Frankly, I thought after my last post, I'd be done for a while, but I guess not. So for due diligence here it is.
Tajima Ramen House:
Actually, the Tsukemen looked not bad.
That chashu was dry and tough, the noodles over-cooked, the egg was nicely done, good flavor, soft boiled...one out of three. The noodles are hard to forgive. That broth was weird, there a strange metallic aftertaste that I get from the broth at Tajima, also this had a slightly fishy tone to it; like it was based on niboshi dashi. Very thin, it did a lousy job of coating the noodles in fat and flavor. At least it was hot.....
Tajima Japanese Restaurant 4681 Convoy St San Diego, CA 92111
OK, so those were an interesting three days..... As I figured Raki Raki was my favorite and Tajima my least favorite. Still, it was a fun little comparison.
And as an added bonus - here's the trailer from God of Ramen:
The Missus was craving Jokbal Bossam and it had been a while since we've had it here, so the timing seemed perfect. I do wish they'd choose something other than napa cabbage, but other than that, this was porky goodness. In spite of the name, it's dishes like the jokbal bossam, heukyumso jungol, kimchi dolsot bi bim bap, and on good days the seolleongtang that works for us here.
The panchan on this day was good. I think folks have gotten used to the "quick kimchi" style panchan, and this sometimes is a bit too fermented or salty for its own good.
Grandma's Tofu & BBQ 4425 Convoy St. San Diego, CA 92111
Not much to say about this than I need a nap after eating this.
Homestyle Hawaiian Island Style Food 7524 Mesa College Drive San Diego, CA 92111
Santouka, that chain that originated in the coldest city in Japan, Asahikawa, has long been my go-to ramen spot. As with many places I eat at, there's one item I usually order. Here it's the shio ramen - toroniku style.
After going to all the major ramen shops in San Diego back in February 2013, Santouka still was my favorite. the rich, stick to your ribs broth, the nice firm noodles, and the pork which, when "on" has a wonderful, almost smooth texture with a nice pork flavor.
I know, it's really hot out....but on this, a cooler day, it hit the spot.