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Lost in Tampopo 

Thursday, Apr 29 2004
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

“THEN poke the pork.’’

There probably hasn’t been a review of a ramen restaurant in the last 18 years that hasn’t referenced the movie Tampopo, more or less The Passion of the Christ for people whose Stations of the Cross include certain Tokyo noodle shops, and this isn’t about to be the first. It has long been impossible to visit a ramen parlor without seeing at least one college student caress his pork with chopsticks, tap it against the side of the bowl to drain it and reverently inhale its aroma. Because of Tampopo, ramen has become a yardstick of general food obsessiveness; of the possibility of essentialness, even of perfection, in the humblest of things.

“What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon.’”

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Tampopo lends its name to a small chain of ramen shops in the South Bay, all of them pretty good. The noodles at Sanuki No Sato in Torrance have their unmistakable pull. You will almost always find a line outside Ramen-Ya on Olympic in West Los Angeles, although its spotless dining room and briskly cheerful service are probably more appealing than its bowls of rather ordinary shoyu ramen.

The hub of the ramen cult at the moment is probably Daikokuya, a long, narrow lunch counter that has been around for a couple of years but feels as if it’s going on 50, a center of steam, noise and garlic at the heart of Little Tokyo’s noodle-shop district, just a few blocks from the Music Center among other things. Most Japanese restaurants in the United States tend toward either Meiji-era gracefulness or the hypermodern Tokyo thing, but Daikokuya looks like a set from a 1960s Imamura picture, decorated with rusted advertisements and faded postwar movie posters, furnished with straight-backed vinyl booths that seem plucked from ancient coffee shops, lubricated with endless mugs of Asahi beer on tap.

The cooks are probably working their way through USC film school, but they out-yakuza the yakuza behind their vats of sputtering liquid, sporting fierce tufts of beard, hair cut with an artful brutishness, and complex, reptilian tattoos almost alive beneath athletic sheens of sweat. A television blares at one end of the room, soap operas mostly. At lunchtime, the counter fills up with impossibly hip local high school students; after hours, you are unlikely to see clothing in any color but black — except for the sneakers, which might as well be on loan from a rare-Nike museum. Even the menus, stained documents printed in a blocky midcentury font, look like relics from a junk shop.

There are decent gyoza, fragile pan-fried dumplings that will inevitably fall apart on the way from the serving dish to your mouth, a small selection of basic sushi rolls, and a side dish of tempura that is fairly tasty if you don’t think about it too hard. The various bowls at the restaurant, topped with fried pork and egg, salmon roe and seaweed, chicken and egg, or fish, or tempura, would be fairly delicious if the rice underneath weren’t so often mushy and overcooked. Still, the side dishes at Daikokuya are like the salads at In-N-Out: available, perhaps, but irrelevant.

Most ramen shops offer an endless list of possibilities, from the basic shoyu ramen to ramen seasoned with miso, butter or pork; garnished with seaweed, corn, or vast handfuls of slivered green onions; spicy or less so; servings huge or merely large. At Daikokuya, the choice is taken out of the equation — you will have the house style of ramen, thin, curly noodles in pork broth, or you will have no ramen at all. But the pork broth is a formidable liquid, made from the bones of the same tasty black pigs you find on the menus of the better Korean restaurants these days, opaque and calcium-intensive, almost as rich as milk. Floating with the noodles are slices of seasoned bamboo shoots and a boiled egg per bowl, also plump slabs of simmered pork so tender that they tend to break up under vigorous prodding, separating into soft, gently flavored striations of sinew and long-cooked fat. If you are used to the sharper, leaner varieties of ramen, Daikokuya’s version may come as something of a surprise, but it only takes a few mouthfuls of the broth to underscore the inevitability of the style, especially when you improve on the kitchen’s excesses by spooning in minced garlic from the jar on the table.

If Daikokuya is the Asian equivalent of a neo-retro burger stand like Café ’50s or Johnny Rockets, where all the signifiers are so artlessly reproduced that it seems hokey to anybody who may have experienced the original, I don’t really want to hear about it. Because from this end of things, the restaurant feels exactly like Japan.

Daikokuya, 327 E. First St., downtown, (213) 626-1680. Lunch Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner Mon.–Sat. 5 p.m.–3 a.m., Sun. noon–8 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Street parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13–$25.

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