Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 3), we'll be bringing you periodic lists of some of the best things we've found to eat and drink around town. Ice cream sandwiches and bowls of tsukemen, fish tacos and dan dan mien, cups of boba and glasses of booze. Read on.
Los Angeles has been in the midst of a ramen craze for the last few years, a glorious trend that has made it somewhat easier to dream our Tokyo dreams without actually getting on a plane. More recently, those ramen shops have been serving tsukemen, a variety of ramen in which the noodles arrive separately, cold or at room temperature, along a bowl of intense broth into which the noodles are meant to be dipped. The customary ramen accouterments -- chashu, boiled egg, menma, nori, etc. -- are usually nestled ontop of or alongside the noodles, and the happy diner dips the lot into the extraordinarily rich broth.
Tsukemen (pronounced TSKEH-men) is kind of like ramen deconstructed, with the added bonus that you don't have to rush to eat your noodles before they lose their chewy bounce in the hot broth. Of course you'll eat them just as quickly anyway, since they're astonishingly good. It's a modern variation on a favorite old Japanese dish which first started showing up in Tokyo about five years ago, when some brilliant noodle practitioner decided to get creative, further reduce tonkotsu broth, and serve it separately with the noodles, rather as one serves soba.
Happily there are now a considerable number of local noodle shops that serve pretty terrific tsukemen, not only in the heavily Japanese neighborhoods of Gardena and Torrance, but also closer to the center of town, in Sawtelle Blvd.'s Little Osaka and downtown's Little Tokyo. Turn the page for seven of the best.
When Ikemen opened in a Hollywood strip mall in 2011 -- there are two branches now, both the original and another in Little Tokyo -- it was one of the few places serving tsukemen in L.A. The dip ramen is Ikemen's speciality, and the little shop likes odd variations on the dish, based less on tradition than Hollywood itself -- which is probably fitting, considering that "ikemen" roughly translates to "metrosexual." A tomato and basil iteration is called Johnny Dip, for example; and one called the Ghost Buster Dip comes with cream, sauteed mushrooms, truffle oil and roasted marshmallows. You can order not just ramen but, of all things, a burger and a side of Hollywood (read: truffled) french fries. The basic tsukemen is fairly mundane, with medium-sized noodles, chashu pork, a bowl of broth pretty heavily spiked with bonito -- it's dropped into the broth tableside, the bits of shaved cured fish curling up prettily -- and an odd garnish of lettuce. 1655 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; 323-800-7669.
Trek down the 405 or 110 to Gardena, and you'll find much more traditional tsukemen than you will in, say, Hollywood. Mottainai serves pretty classic ramen, pork-intensive and with the happy sides of pickled ginger, minced raw garlic and lots of chile sauce to elevate the heat to your own tastes. In the colder seasons, you can get a nice hot bowl of broth with your tsukemen; in the summer season, which this year began on July 17, the tsukemen broth is served cold. Dip your noodles, thin and nicely chewy, into a smal bowl of the broth, which is made not with pork but fish, both bonito and niboshi, the tiny dried sardines that give the name to Mottenai's dish. 1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; 310-538-3233.
Daikokuya's tsukemen may not be the best iteration of the dish in town, but we love it for sentimental reasons. Daikokuya was where many of us first had ramen in L.A., at the happily grungy Little Tokyo shop, which is as permanently crowded as the Ramen Museum in Yokohama -- which replicates old Tokyo, circa 1958 -- and looks like it was designed by the same people. Daikokuya's tsukemen is pretty much just a deconstructed version of their hugely popular tonkotsu ramen ("the broth is saltier," claimed a server when asked), the broth housed separately, the chashu grilled and plated. But the nice thing about separate bowls is that the noodles stay al dente and you can add what you want at your leisure, happy to be entrenched in one of the comfy booths instead of in the long line inching down First St. 327 E. First St., Los Angeles; 213-626-1680.
Not so very long ago, you had to trek to Torrance for Yamadaya's seriously pork-intensive bowls of ramen and tsukemen, to a little strip mall near the freeway, where the bowls came slicked with black garlic like a happy oil spill. These days, there are outposts of the shop all over Los Angeles, for which we are decidedly grateful. Yamadaya is probably known best for its kotteri broth, a super fatty iteration which plays awfully well with the thick, chewy noodles. The terrific tsukemen is even more intense, and also laced with the addictive black garlic oil. (One suggestion: please don't overcook the eggs.) 11172 Washington Blvd., Culver City; 310-815-8776 and other locatons.
It is a maxim of food life in Los Angeles that strip malls can hide some of the best, most improbable dining in town. This is particularly true in Torrance, where the smallest, grungiest concrete way-stations contain fantastic noodle shops. Umenoya Ramen Co. is off in a sun-bleached parking lot off Crenshaw Blvd., a tiny shop with some beautiful bowls of ramen. Their tsukemen is composed of garlic-intensive broth and a large bowl of thick noodles which also comes hidden, tucked under not only chashu but diced white onions, a beautifully cooked egg -- and blanched cabbage. The cabbage is a terrific addition in much the same way it provides balance to a chile-laced bowl of Sichuan boiled fish. With the onion and lemon, it's a bright counterpoint to the insane richness of the broth. 24222 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance; 310-530-3177.
Jidaiya is one of the new wave of ramen shops in Torrance, a sleek retro shop in a large strip mall off Western. Inside, the decor is like a newer version of Little Tokyo's Daikokuya, in that it too feels like Yokohama's ramen museum, but much shinier. The ramen is wonderful, and the tsukemen is particularly glorious. You can get either regular or large bowls -- the bowls themselves are lovely too -- of thick, cool, chewy noodles, with slices of chashu, menma, pretty pea shoots, nori, and a perfectly cooked egg. The broth is a dense, rich ode to pig, overwhelmed by neither garlic or chile. For your trip south, you're also rewarded by takoyaki and a strangely enormous collection of non-alcoholic beer. 18537 S. Western Ave., Torrance; 310-532-0999.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Little Osaka's ramen palace wins this one. When Tsujita opened in 2011, people lined up along Sawtelle for the duration of the lunch hours, the only time the shop served tsukemen. Two years later, they're still lining up for bowls of the stuff, despite the recent expansion to the Annex across the street. The two shops both serve outstanding tsukemen, although they're quite different iterations of the dish. ("The same would be boring," as one server put it.)
The original shop reduces their tonkotsu broth, already pretty condensed, until it resembles a French demi-glace, which is served with bits of pork, scallions and menma. The second bowl is filled with noodles that are much thicker than the restaurant's ramen noodles, cool and al dente. Chashu and a beautifully cooked egg if you want them. Across the street at the Annex, the tsukemen -- which is served all day -- comes in huge bowls, one each of similarly thick, chewy noodles and broth, not so much demi-glace as a bowl of garlic broth heavy with red chile. The tsukemen at the Annex is about twice the size, and more an ode to garlic than to pig. Which version you prefer might depend on many things, but you'll be very happy on either side of the street. 2057 (Tsujita, L.A.) and 2050 (Tsujita Annex) Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-231-7373.
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