The Agony and Ecstasy of Ramen Champ
Photo by Anne Fishbein
What a world we live in, that a bowl of noodles and broth could be so contentious. It may just be the company I keep, but neither Hillary and her right-pointing H nor Drake and Madonna's kiss has inspired such passionate discourse as the controversial tonkotsu at Ramen Champ.
That broth — can we even call it broth? — sends people into fits of reverie or, conversely, sputtering tirades of disgust. The reason is that it's not a broth at all; rather it's a gravy, a sludge or, as owner Alvin Cailan explains it, "liquefied pork."
It's hard to describe to people who haven't experienced Ramen Champ just how thick and viscous this ramen glop is. Many ramen shops pride themselves on their rich tonkotsu broths, and the whole point of tonkotsu, in some circles, is to cram as much porky flavor as possible into it, so that it becomes milky and silken with fat, so that it coats your tongue and innards with slick meaty transcendence. But Ramen Champ's tonkotsu goes one step further, hovering between a liquid and a solid even when hot, clinging to the noodles the way cake batter might if it were repurposed as pasta sauce.
To some, this is the triumphant logical epitome of the tonkotsu form. To others, it's an abomination.
Ramen Champ is the work of Cailan, along with business partner Michael Sudjati and chef/partner Nathan Asamoto, who previously worked at Men Oh Tokushima. Cailan has had huge success with his other venture, Eggslut, one of those rare examples of a food truck serving as the jumping-off point for a successful business as a stand at Grand Central Market. The success is evidenced by the 40-minute line that stretches the length of a block for a $6 bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Eggslut is one of those brilliantly simple concepts: Make breakfast sandwiches with better ingredients and more love than most people do.
Ramen Champ is similarly simple. Cailan set up shop in the Far East Plaza in Chinatown, a two-story shopping center that has become a destination for the food-obsessed since Roy Choi's Chego took up residency there in 2013. Since then, the ice cream shop Scoops, and Andy Ricker's Pok Pok noodle shop also have moved in.
Ramen Champ is the first new restaurant to open on the top floor, next to Wing Hop Fung, a Chinese medicinal/department store with a wide selection of green teas, rice cookers and dragon masks. The ramen-ya is tiny, with only 22 seats, the best of which are at a counter surrounding the very open kitchen. The walls are covered in the work of New York artist Mike Houston, which might be familiar to you if you've spent much time with your head buried in the pages of Lucky Peach. In fact, this whole restaurant is geared toward the diner who lives and dies by the credo of Lucky Peach, a kind of hip-hop food-nerd sensibility.
The menu is made for quick decisions and cooking expediency. There are three kinds of ramen (the aforementioned tonkotsu, a chicken shio and a shiitake mushroom shio), three rice bowls and three snacks you can order to nibble on the side. Chicken belly (what's a chicken belly, you ask? Not a belly at all but two chicken thighs cooked sous-vide and then cut to look like pork belly) is fried and served with spicy mayo. The resulting crispy karaage is what chicken nuggets would taste like if the world was a good and just place. "Seasonal mushrooms" (they've always been oyster mushrooms when I've ordered them) are also carefully and lovingly fried, and served with a white sauce that tastes just like the kind you'd get at a knife-tossing Japanese steakhouse if someone dumped a truckload of yuzu into the batch.
The rice bowls don't have a lot to offer on their own merits, particularly the curried vegetable version, which tasted overwhelmingly of cardamom and needed salt, acid and really any other flavor you could think of outside of cardamom. But vegetarians need not suffer, because the shiitake ramen is perhaps the best thing on the menu, its mushroom shio broth clear but earthy and complex, its egg-free (!!!) noodles chewy, the smattering of mushrooms and scallion and radish hearty enough to fully satisfy. Which is a blessing because ...
I'm afraid I must side with the detractors on the matter of Ramen Champ's tonkotsu. As much as I love pork fat, and as much as I crave the comforting wonder of a super-rich tonkotsu on a cold day, I could not make it through even one-third of a bowl of this version. The texture was disconcerting, but more than that it's simply too one-note. The thick broth does nothing to set itself apart from the soft, blubbery chashu pork and from the beautifully cooked egg, which usually would add luxury and comfort but here becomes just another kind of wobbly fat. There's not enough contrast, and no amount of chile oil or garlic oil or any of the other condiments available could cut through the overwhelming corpulence.
I much preferred the chicken shio, which manages to pack a fair amount of schmaltzy weight into its clear broth — in a way that supports the puddinglike egg rather than obliterates it. Cailan sources the noodles from a local purveyor who makes them especially for this shop, and they really are quite miraculous in their bouncy heft.
At some point soon, Ramen Champ will open for lunch, serving bacon, chicken or mushrooms over rice, or over mazemen ramen, which is ramen without broth but with all the other fixings. I cheated and ate this dish at Ramen Champ's stall at Coachella before it was available at the L.A. shop, and if it's the same thing Cailan was serving in the desert (and I have no reason to believe it won't be), this will be one of L.A.'s great lunch dishes. The chewy noodles come showered in pea shoots and sesame seeds, and one of those soy-sauce eggs is allowed to shine all on its own.
It's a quick, loud, cheap, booze-free experience to eat at Ramen Champ, fashioned to resemble the noodle shops in Tokyo, a city where some of the most excellent food can be slurped down in 10 minutes in solitude for very little money. If you're the sort of person who would rather talk about noodles than world politics or pop culture, it's basically your duty to eat here. Because even if you come out as a Ramen Champ tonkotsu hater, there's plenty else at this little shop worth defending.
RAMEN CHAMP | Two stars | 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown | (213) 316-8595 | ramenchamp.com | Daily, 6-11 p.m. | Ramen, $10.99-$12.99 | No alcohol | Validated lot parking under Far East Plaza
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