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Red Menace

Orochon's test of bravery: Special 2 ramen (Photos by Anne Fishbein)

{mosimage}I’d like to begin this week’s column by pointing out that while I enjoy a certain level of heat in my food, I’m not a chilehead, not a real one anyway. A roasted habanero is delicious in its place, and I enjoy the more emphatic aspects of Thai cooking, but I’m not fond of the kind of extreme sauces whose labels brag about the level of harm the contents may wreak on its fans’ gastro­intestinal systems, and I’ve never thrown a red savina chile into a stir-fry just for fun. The idea of Pure Cap, a concentrated extract of capsaicin, the chemical that makes chiles hot, is frightening. I have fallen — once — for the gag of eating a chip loaded with a quarter bottle of Dave’s Insanity Sauce, and I am here to report that it hurt, a lot. I don’t know about you, but I am persuaded that a condiment powerful enough to temporarily blind its consumers is probably a condiment one should avoid.

It was not accidental that I had been avoiding Orochon Ramen, a Japanese noodle shop in the pleasantly decaying Weller Court restaurant mall attached to the New Otani hotel downtown, and perhaps the most calculated spicy-food shrine in the Los Angeles area. Orochon serves all the usual ramen-shop extras: the rudimentary gyoza that look and taste like charred river pebbles, cubes of cold tofu dressed with flakes of dried bonito, slivered raw cucumber served with a miso dip, and salted radish in all its guises. It is possible to order a chicken-teriyaki plate or, in summer, a plate of cold noodles.

The important dish at the restaurant, and the one ordered by nine out of 10 visitors, is the ramen, available in broth flavored with soy, miso or salt, garnished with whatever you decide to pay a buck or so extra for, and served in any of nine levels of spiciness, starting with Non-Spicy and Osae, then through Impact, Hyper and Extreme, and up to the hottest, Special 2: an elemental, dusty-red concoction bearing the disclaimer “Eat at Your Own Risk.” If you manage to consume an entire bowl of Special 2 within 30 minutes — weird vegetables, sliced hot chiles and all — Orochon will snap a picture and post it on both its Wall of Bravery and its Web site, your small feat of conspicuous consumption chiseled into Google cache for eternity. In general, it is also wise to avoid a restaurant that dares you to finish its most famous dish.

Here's to you, chilehead.

In the current era of hyperspecialized ramen styles in Los Angeles, the ramen at Orochon seems to be from no region in particular. Its thin, buzzy broth has little of the deep, porky smack you find in the bowls at nearby Daikokuya, and the noodles haven’t the firm, wheaty presence of the ramen at Shinsengumi. The basic bowl isn’t especially expensive, but Orochon soaks you for the scallions, boiled egg and sliced pork — a thick, meaty slab sliced off a round resembling pancetta — that most of the other places manage to toss in for free.

But there is the matter of that spice, a complex, glowing substance, providing a good portion of the flavor, that barely touches the ramen on the lower end of the scale (Osae, Osae-Osae) and explodes into scarlet life when you get up to Special 1 and Special 2 — the red menace that attracts the Japanese punk rockers who stretch a half order of fried rice and a bottle of cold sake into most of an afternoon, the chile-crazed college dudes unconstrained by the sign posted on the patio reminding them to launch neither spittle nor projectiles over the railing, the local line cooks and hotel workers who make up a huge percentageof the customers in the late afternoon.

The first time I visited Orochon, I was timid enough to order the Impact ramen, a mere 3 on the non-special continuum, and it was fine, if not much spicier than, say, Ramen-Ya’s product is once I get finished dosing it with togorashi pepper. A brimming bowl of Hyper ramen, one notch up the scale, was for all intents and purposes identical, tinted almost a cherry blossom pink, with a restrained power that felt like the culinary equivalent of the sweet spot on one of those oversize tennis rackets.

Special 1, the milder of the two ramens to carry the disclaimer, was somewhat hotter — your forehead will probably mist with sweat, the way it might after five minutes on an elliptical trainer. And Special 2, enhanced with a big handful of sliced fresh serrano chiles, tends to be plenty hot, but nothing that would bother anyone who regularly eats Thai boat-noodle soup or the fierce side of a Mongolian hot pot, to say nothing of Sichuan water-boiled fish or a properly dressed Merida panucho. I was envisioning a dish that would cause my tongue to curl into ash like a sun-struck vampire when what I found was closer in intensity to the time Uncle Hagop put too much Aleppo pepper in the chili. And yet you will not find my face on the Wall of Bravery.

“Do you guys actually eat the Special 2 ramen?” a friend asked a group of lunching hotel cooks.

“I have eaten it,” said a slender man in a chef’s jacket, poking through his bowl for a bamboo shoot. “Once was enough.”

Orochon Ramen, 123 S. Onizuka St., No. 303 (Weller Court), Little Tokyo, (213) 617-1766 or www.orochonramen.com. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10:15 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted, minimum $20. Beer and sake. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13-$20. Recommended dish: ramen.

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miles
Orochon Ramen

123 S. Onizuka St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

213-617-1766

www.orochonramen.com


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