Confounded by an inability to make delicious ramen, searching for a shred of insight into a craft that he spent night after night practicing and experimenting with, Takehiro Tsujita did the only thing he hadn't tried before: he climbed into his stock pot and sat inside.
"I thought that maybe if I got inside the pot, I'd learn what it feels like to be soup," recalled the owner of West Los Angeles' newest ramen restaurant, Tsujita LA.
Ten years ago, a 22 year-old Tsujita helped manage a washoku, or traditional Japanese food, restaurant in Tokyo, but his dream was to be in the kitchen, creating ramen. The restaurant itself didn't serve ramen, so he begged his boss to let him use the kitchen after the rest of the staff left at 12 a.m.
He would prepare his ingredients, add them to his stock pot, turn on the heat and then lay a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor so he could sleep. From Monday through Friday, he worked all day and then experimented with ramen stock through the night. On Saturday night, he'd let himself sleep at home. Sunday was reserved for doing all the laundry that had accumulated and for traveling around Tokyo to taste all kinds of other ramen.
He admits that climbing into the stock pot that one night didn't give him even a hint about how to make his ramen better. But after a year of self-teaching, he created the perfect bowl of tonkotsu gyokai ramen, a mixture of pork and fish broths that has recently become very popular and something of a regional specialty in Tokyo.
From his first restaurant -- a tiny place that only served eight people at a time -- Tsujita now owns and operates four restaurants in Tokyo, one in Beijing, one in Bangkok and now one on Sawtelle Boulevard. Located in what is unofficially called Little Osaka for its density of all things Japanese, Tsujita LA is his first American location and a dream realized since childhood.
"It was watching movies as a kid. My dad loves American movies, and at home, he'd let me watch with him," he explained. His father was a supermarket consultant, and he often visited America to study the American model. When he came back home, he told his son all about his travels. "There's that dream of America. It's very cool, the whole country. The atmosphere. The American sky. The nature."
Despite his love for the country, he doesn't speak any English. When he's not inspecting and serving dishes, he spends hours standing in front of his restaurant, wordlessly opening the door for customers with a bow and a gesture of the hand.
In a twist that disappointed local ramen-heads, Tsujita LA currently only serves dinner and no ramen. Tsujita himself will return to Japan on Friday but come back in about a month to teach his kitchen staff the lunch menu, believing this will give them time to master the dishes bit by bit rather than overwhelm them.
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Even after they've learned to produce perfect ramen, he wants to keep ramen only on the lunch menu. "If you offer ramen at night, they won't eat too much of [the washoku] menu. Only ramen." After all, Tsujita LA was a vision that he's been excited to see come to fruition -- a restaurant that serves both ramen and other traditional Japanese foods -- a rarity in his home country where restaurants often specialize in only one type of dish.
The dinner menu features dishes like red snapper ochazuke, vegetable sushi and seafood gratin. Ochazuke comes here as a bowl of rice with slices of red snapper sashimi on top. Tsujita's dashi, a dried fish and kelp broth that forms the backbone for much of Japanese cooking, is poured on top, cooking the fish. Vegetable sushi comes roasted, sautéed, boiled or raw and in a variety of seasonings. Seafood gratin, a popular Japanese dish similar to an extra creamy and rich risotto, is served here inside an apple.
Among the noodles, Tsujita is most proud of his tsukemen, designed to change its taste while eating. Tsukemen is a plate of undressed noodles meant to be dipped into an accompanying dish of extra intense soup. But because the impact of a dish can lessen through the course of eating it in its entirety, Tsujita's tsukemen is made to first be eaten plain, then eaten with the addition of a Japanese citrus fruit called sudachi and then eaten with a spice blend he's created. Because sudachi is unavailable in the US, he's experimenting with lemons and limes.
As for now, Tsujita LA is packed, the wait reaching 45 minutes a few nights ago. But when asked how he feels to see it so busy despite not doing any advertising, his response reflects those nights spent sleeping on the kitchen floor: "I'm happy, but what would make me happiest is to see the dishes come out of the kitchen correctly."