There ought to be an addition to the official list of mental afflictions. Let's call it Noodle Disorder. Its symptoms are a focused, irrational search for the perfect noodle. No distance is too great to drive, no amount of argument ("But darling, there's a perfectly good noodle very nearby") will dissuade the sufferer. The perfect noodle must be found.
Another closely related condition is the current food-enthusiast obsession with two words: "authentic" and "best." It's not enough that a noodle, or dumpling, or piece of pizza is good, great, delicious, fan-bloody-tastic. It must be authentic. It must be among the best. It must be part of a collection of experiences that gives you credibility so that you might be able to declare the best one of these days.
The experience of it — the pure, in-the-moment experience — is perhaps less important. Is it the best? Is it noodle nirvana?
In a city as sprawling and varied as Los Angeles, these ailments, combined with the recent explosion of ramen shops, make for conditions that basically qualify as full-on insanity. There is so much ramen, so many opportunities for sufferers of Noodle Disorder to spend days driving around, muttering obsessively about tonkotsu and tsukemen, kotteri and kakuni.
Why, for instance, when there is so much good ramen quite close to my home and office, would I find myself driving 45 minutes (on a good day) to Torrance to slurp up an $8.50 bowl of noodles and broth at the relatively new Ramen Hayatemaru?
It's not surprising, though, that our quest for the perfect noodle would center around ramen. At its heart, ramen is a story of obsession. To be a successful ramen chef in Japan is to be completely single-minded, to spend your life pursuing the perfect noodle, and a broth that takes days to make and then is gone in a matter of minutes. Is it so odd, then, that as customers we absorb some of that passion?
And it's that passion that has brought me to Hayatemaru in Torrance. Hayatemaru is a Japanese chain out of Hokkaido, where miso-based, Sapporo-style ramen is king. Apart from its regionally specific ramen and fantastic gyoza, the restaurant has a few other things that distinguish it. It's kind of ... fancy for a ramen shop. Classic jazz plays over the sound system. The tables are a touch sleeker than you might find at the regular strip-mall joint; the booths are basically private rooms built into the side of the restaurant; and there's even a tatami room, which is a rarity for ramen shops, and should be like catnip for the Noodle Disordered who might like to have a ramen-flavored birthday celebration in style.
Hayatemaru imports its medium-thick curly noodles from the chain's factory in Sapporo, along with all its sauces. Fittingly, the restaurant offers a variety of miso ramen options, but it also offers "Hokkaido ramen," in a pork-rich tonkotsu broth, and "Hokkaido shoyu ramen," which is soy sauce–based.
Across all the ramen choices, the sliced pork was tender and delicious, although in the shoyu version the overall saltiness of the broth overwhelmed the mellow, porky flavor of the meat.
The intensity of the soy in the shoyu version set the stage for the white and red miso versions, both of which were positively thick with miso. In Sapporo's cold climate, I can imagine soup like this being a warming balm to the soul — in L.A., it's a heavy meal on a hot summer afternoon. But such is the price we pay for authenticity.
Perhaps my favorite of the ramen choices on offer was the jjigae ramen, a Korean-Japanese mishmash with a spicy seafood-tinged broth, shrimp, flavored egg and ground–pork sausage. But in this ramen and others at Hayatemaru, the flavored egg was cooked a bit too hard, robbing me of that eggy magic that happens when a yolk is neither soft nor hard and therefore somehow becomes a part of every bite in the bowl.
Hayatemaru offers some relief for the wannabe ramen lover who also has food allergies and therefore has had to abstain. Ramen can be a minefield — who knows what seafood and gluten lurk in those murky depths? Each ramen description at Hayatemaru has a full list of specific allergens contained in that bowl. They're not going to make you a soy-free version, but at least you'll know what you're dealing with.
But for me, the triumph at Hayatemaru wasn't noodles at all but dumplings. The slippery, thin skins of Hayatemaru's gyoza are so delicate that eating them has the quality of memory before they're even gone. Inside the gyoza, the bright tang of scallion rules, tempered by pork and then zinged at the edges with ginger. It's hard to resist burning your mouth on these beauties, or using your chopsticks as a weapon to slay your tablemates so you don't have to share.
OK, I admit it. I have Dumpling Disorder.
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What else? There's fried chicken that suffices but doesn't wow. Go for another order of the gyoza instead. But get there early: The gyoza runs out fast.
In the end, I probably spent more on gas to get to Hayatemaru than I did for my dinner. In some circles, this would give me bragging rights, and perhaps rightly so. Was it worth it? For me, the gyoza made it worth the drive, as well as the jjigae ramen. Is it noodle Nirvana? Not exactly. But its slightly upscale setting, its tatami room and its Sapporo-specific ramen set it apart.
For those with a burning case of Noodle (or Dumpling) Disorder, Hayatemaru gives us one more outlet for our madness.
HAYATEMARU | 1644 W. Carson St., Torrance | (310) 212-0055 | Lunch and dinner daily | Beer and wine served | Lot parking