The history of the San Francisco-Los Angeles rivalry is well-documented in many fields, whether it's the Giants and Dodgers contesting the NL West (we're all aware of how that turned out this season) or a frank debate on which city offers the biggest and best representation of West Coast cuisine. In the realm of high-proof Japanese ramen, though, the superior city hasn't been as murky. We have Santouka; we have Daikokuya; and we are darn proud of it. Even in San Francisco, Yelpers end up comparing their favorite spots with two of L.A.'s undeniable heavyweights.
That's why it was something of a surprise when the newest ramen purveyor to roll into town was imported from the Bay Area -- well, sort of. The Los Angeles branch of Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, located in Little Tokyo's Honda Plaza across from the ever-bustling Sushi Gen, was preceded by the opening of 12 locations in Japan and two in San Francisco.
Men Oh specializes in a type of ramen that orginated in the Tokushima prefecture of Japan's Shikoku Island, a sparsely populated locale where pig farming is about as popular as cattle herding in Kansas.
The house special is undoubtedly the Tokushima ramen, a blend of shoyu and tonkotsu broth, that latter made from long-boiled Kurobuta pork bones. It's not as buttery as Sapporo-style ramen, nor as complex in flavor as Toyko-style, nor as densely porcine as Hakata-style. Its profile falls somewhere in the middle, in fact -- an opaque, caramel-colored broth that's not too salty or rich, and can be enjoyed spoonful after spoonful.
The noodles are thin and chewy -- high in wheat content -- and are sourced from a company that makes them especially for Men Oh.
The most exciting feature might be the toppings: diced green onions, a gooey soft-boiled egg (raw eggs are expected to be offered soon), thick strips of marinated bamboo and not one but two types of pork -- two fat-striped strips of seared chashu and little nubs of sweet, stir-fried pork belly.
In a final move of hospitality, once you finish your noodles the staff will bring you a bowl of rice to soak up extra broth.
The second type offered is a bowl of Tokyo-style shoyu ramen, a dark but clear soy-based broth made from chicken bones instead of pork. It's cleaner and lighter in flavor; a dramatic departure from the rich bowls of ramen common across town. Even the noodles, a slightly curly type of egg noodle, and toppings (a sheet of dried nori, garlicky spinach, diced white onion) are specifically designed to complement the more delicate broth. This is probably the closest good ramen will ever come to classic chicken noodle soup.
Upon a second visit, we discovered the Tokushima don, a rice bowl topped with the aforementioned double dose of pork and a reduced glaze used on the chashu. The bonito-covered takoyaki, snack-sized deep-fried balls of dough with a cube of octopus hidden inside, are superb, their crispy arancini-like interiors yielding to molten batter underneath. The pan-fried gyoza, with wrappers so thin and delicate you can see through them, and the chicken karaage, huge chunks of chicken fried in a thick panko crust, are worth a try too.
Since opening, Men Oh has added Sapporo beer on draft, which in some camps is a must when staring down a unctuous bowl of pork and noodles.
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All told, the Men Oh chain's expansion to L.A. is a heartening move, especially for those looking to expand into graduate-level ramen studies, where each bowl can be appreciated for its regional stylings and influences.
Video by Shako Liu.
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