Little Tokyo's array of ramen eateries attests to the dish's versatility -- and booming popularity. There's Daikokuya's rich pork broth. Shin-Sen-Gumi's thin, Hakata-style noodles. The blended soy-pork broth of Men Oh Tokushima. Orochon's super spicy "Special #2." Possibly two dozen types at Mr. Ramen. Plus the noodles at Japanese-Chinese diners Suehiro and Kouraku. Too bad Chin Ma Ya just closed, depriving us of chicken-pork broth infused with sesame paste.
Now, yet another variety has set up shop: Ikemen Ramen, opening today in Little Tokyo's Weller Court. (Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) Ikemen may be new to Little Tokyo, but not L.A. -- it debuted in a Hollywood strip mall in fall 2011. The style? Just call it "Hollywood," says co-owner Max Kawabata. The menu -- and techniques behind it -- aim for innovation rather than tradition.
Tsukemen, or "dip ramen," is Ikemen's specialty. Instead of slurping noodles from soup, diners plunk them bite by bite into a concentrated broth Ikemen describes as "au jus." Most are based on tonkotsu (pork) flavoring, with some unusual twists -- and funky names to match: roasted garlic ("Zebra Dip"), tomato and basil pesto ("Johnny Dip"), mushroom and fire-blasted marshmallow ("Ghost Buster"), and hot chiles ("Back Draft"). A vegetarian miso broth is available, too. Although the Hollywood location also offers ramen soups, the new spot will serve just "dip ramen," and only thick, not thin, noodles.
But you can expect plenty of katsuobushi -- umami-loaded flakes of dried bonito shaved by machine, to order. Consider it Ikemen's hallmark. "There are just two of these machines in the U.S.," Kawabata tells us. "Hollywood and Little Tokyo." Ikemen's general manager, Takashi Adachi, imports the bonito from his father's company in Japan, where the fish are dried, fermented and smoked. These blocks tend to "look more like works of art than food, and maybe they are," Japanese food maven Sonoko Sakai recently wrote. In contrast, most U.S. restaurants use presliced, packaged katsuobushi.
Another key player for Ikemen is Shigetoshi Nakamura, a co-owner and one of Japan's celebrity ramen chefs. He guided Ikemen's launch and created its noodle recipe, distributed by Sun Noodle. (Purveyor to such esteemed restaurants as New York's Momofuku and L.A.'s Tsujita.) Now he's running Sun Noodle's Ramen Lab in New York, experimenting with recipes and training chefs in his innovative, break-the-rules style. (Which some Angelenos may remember from the short-lived Ramen California.) According to Kawabata, Nakamura also is prepping for Iron Chef Japan.
The new Ikemen is narrow and compact, seating just 25 people. (Its last incarnation was as Curry House's take-out counter.) But the design flourishes are grand. A bright sign over the kitchen declares, "NO RAMEN NO LIFE." Padded chairs with tall, ornate backs line sleek, black tables. A poster of the late Japanese action movie star Yusaku Matsuda adorns a wall. The actor seems to epitomize "ikemen" -- Japanese for suave, sexy men but also a pun that roughly translates to "chic noodles." (Thanks, Rameniac.) To make the point, Ikemen's crew dons fedoras, vests and skinny ties.
Kawabata believes ramen's stateside popularity will persist, that the recent rash of ramen-shop openings mimics the rise of sushi bars in the 1980s. Of course, ramen has been Japan's national obsession for decades, its status clinched by the invention of instant ramen in 1958. Various regions boast distinct styles.
Several of these are highlighted at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, which features a food court modeled after a bustling Tokyo neighborhood, circa 1958. The museum has carefully selected purveyors to represent Japan's finest ramen in all its diversity. Now it's making room for another, says Kawabata: Ikemen Ramen of Hollywood, coming this spring.