Ramen Hood opened at Grand Central Market in early November as L.A.'s first all-vegan ramen-ya. And while the stall is the latest from Ilan Hall of Top Chef and Gorbals fame, the man you'll most likely find cooking behind the counter is chef Rahul Khopkhar. Khopkhar worked with Hall at downtown's now-closed Gorbals before leaving to go to culinary school, after which he interned at Noma, then traveled the world a bit, landing back in L.A. to helm the animal-free Ramen Hood.
Ramen Hood's broth — which has proven to be a polarizing liquid among both vegans and non-vegans — is made from sunflower seeds, an idea Hall and Khopkhar developed at the Gorbals in Brooklyn (inspired by the restaurant's sunflower seed risotto). Ramen Hood's vegan egg is also a feat of creativity, a molecular gastronomy creation that uses seasoned soy milk, nutritional yeast, B vitamins and beta-carotene to replicate the look and texture of a real half-egg like those found floating in porky ramen bowls across the city.
"A lot of people, when they cook, they look at ingredients based on flavor, but you also have to look at what you're trying to achieve," Khopkhar says. "Sunflower seeds have a natural amount of fat and starch, so it was about extracting that to help create that richness we're going for with the broth. When people go to make something vegan, they're thinking about what can I and can't I use. How can I replace certain aspects of things that aren't there? But you have to think about it on a more basic level. The challenge is interesting."
Khopkhar is not a vegan — far from it, actually. On a recent lunch visit to Ramen Hood, the half-Indian, half-Korean chef began talking about all the meaty goodness of a traditional ramen, and we couldn't help but ask for his recommendations.
With the caveat that he hasn't had a chance to sample the multitude of ramen-yas in the South Bay — and that he's not a big fan of hakata-style ramen — here are Khopkhar's five favorite non-vegan ramen spots in L.A.
"The tsukemen from here is the most awesomely savage bowl of ramen I've ever eaten. It's pork on pork on pork — unabashedly pork. They're not trying to tame it at all, they're just trying to knock you over with pork. It's a 60-hour bone broth recipe, and when you order it from them you watch the guy skim fat back off the stock, mash the fat back into your bowl and then pour the broth over. It's probably my favorite bowl in L.A. They don't include an egg, you just get the pile of bean sprouts and cabbage and pork. I got the idea to add the bean sprouts to our ramen from them." 2050 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle; (310) 231-0222, tsujita-la.com.
"This was the first bowl of ramen I had. Actually, it was the second bowl of ramen I had in L.A. but it was the first that was any good. My buddy from college who I moved out here with is Japanese but doesn't eat pork. But he said we had to go. Once a year I'm always like, 'Don't get me anything for my birthday — let's just eat a bunch of pork products together,' and we did go back for my birthday one time. It's close to where I live, and I can walk there. Their menu as a whole is very good, too. Their line's kind of a pain in the ass." 327 E. First St., Little Tokyo; (213) 626-1680, daikoku-ten.com.
"This place is new and next door to Daikokuya. Every ramen place has a story, but this one says they're from where ramen originated in Japan. The ramen is pork-based also, but they have miso in there, so it's the closest approximation to ours at Ramen Hood because we have white miso added to ours. They have a similar kind of richness to ours. They also have nice toppings on their stuff — ground pork or ground chicken." 321 1/2 E First St., Little Tokyo; (213) 613-9888.
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"Jinya is a chain, but they're all kind of different. The one in Studio City has one of the best chicken broths I've ever had. It's a nice departure from pork-based broths. Their pork-based one is good, too, but I've only had it at the one in Santa Monica. They have a garlic lovers bowl, which is my girlfriend's favorite." Various locations; jinya-ramenbar.com.
"Go there and get the mabo ramen, which is tofu and pork — a Chinese dish — on top of Japanese ramen noodles. It's not the place you go to get a bowl of tonkotsu. Every time I've been there I get something that's not a traditional Japenese-style ramen. They have some different stuff, weird stuff. But weird in a good way." 314 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; (213) 687-4972, kouraku.menutoeat.com.