View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Ramen Freaks and Noodle Geeks: Get Schooled in the Finer Points of Broth.”
Life is too fleeting, as we have noted, to squander much of it arguing barbecue with Texans, beef noodles with Taiwanese or chicken rice with just about anyone from Southeast Asia. Do you like your hamburgers thin and crisp? You are probably sitting not 10 feet from somebody who prefers them loose and juicy, compact and dense, or made with the tailings from a soy-processing plant. Those hours you spent listening to the guy who insists that good pizza is impossible in Los Angeles because the water isn't right? You're never getting those back, pal, and the indelible memory of that acrid slice from a place called Ray's is going to take years of therapy to work itself out.
But as fanatical as food guys can be, as many hours as they will spend trying to persuade you that espresso brewed at 12 atmospheres is barely espresso at all, they have nothing on the ramen freaks, the guys — they're always guys — who go on about noodle tensility and the fineness of minced naganegi and the number of days required to boil a proper bone; the regional variations between miso favored in Sapporo-area villages and the purity of Hakata-style broth. I feel lost in these discussions most of the time — I came of age at a time when ramen meant mostly the salty dried stuff you bought for 19 cents at Ralph's, followed by the dishwater ramen you could get at Japanese noodle dives in what later became Koreatown, the vastly superior ramen at Tampopo in the South Bay, and then the delicious, pork-intensive ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo.
Some of my noodle-loving friends refuse to eat ramen in California, saving their appetites for 200,000-calorie swings through the famous noodle-shop diaspora. Some of them pop up every spring, when the Mitsuwa market in Torrance has its annual ramen festival, importing well-known noodle masters from the motherland. (This year's festival featured a renowned beef-tongue ramen that packed in the noodle geeks six deep.) What is universal is their disdain for my tastes, as if I were a coffee drinker who stubbornly refused to move beyond Starbucks.
“You know a lot about food,'' wrote the future noodle-blogger Rameniac when he was still in high school. “But you will never know as much about ramen as I do.''
This could be true. But it was nice to learn, maybe 15 years later, that Rameniac and I finally agree about a place.
Jinya is a new, sleekly modern noodle shop hidden behind a Studio City department store; a shaded sliver of patio, a few wooden tables, and a counter that faces, through jars of obscure condiments, onto the open noodle kitchen. A deli counter up front specializes mostly in takeout salads, dry glops of cold couscous, corn with tofu, and bell pepper–flavored rice salad that would make you pretty unhappy if you ended up with them as your lunch. (Oddly, a baby-green salad with a kind of grated-daikon vinaigrette is almost perfect of its kind.) Waiters, some of whom are just a few weeks out of Japan, bear plates of delicately crisp gyoza loosely stuffed with minced chicken; bowls of rice glazed with plutonium-dense Japanese curry; and forest-hued glasses of iced green tea. The owner, they are quick to tell you, owns seven restaurants in Tokyo well-known for their use of organic vegetables, and plans to open a robata restaurant near the Beverly Center.
Does this feel like a funky noodle joint? No. It feels like a restaurant in a mall. You can even get a tarted-up ramen version of cioppino, although I wouldn't recommend it: soft, angel hair–thin noodles served in a tomato-enhanced seafood broth with scallops, shrimp and various tentacles.
But then the ramen comes: big, earthen bowls of the house ramen made with strong chicken stock and garnished with seed-studded chicken meatballs; of the greenery-rich vegetable ramen made with the same stock; and of the tonkotsu ramen, made from long-boiled pork bones and fortified with generous spoonfuls of pork oil, which transform the dish into a flavor bomb. The noodles are long, springy, resilient to the bite, soaking up just enough broth to become almost part of it yet retaining a sort of wheaty integrity of their own. The slices of chashu, fatty simmered pork, were meltingly soft, barely coherent enough to be lifted from the noodles with chopsticks. There was a boiled egg, of course, with an explosively yellow yolk.
Best of all was an odd, strong-smelling tonkotsu ramen, whose pork broth had been pumped up with industrial quantities of dashi and dried fish, a broth on steroids, a broth that seemed to be trying to establish the record for the most umami per milligram. Can tongues pant? After a few bites, you may feel as if yours had just run a half-marathon without bothering to notify the rest of your head.
Was I surprised to see Rameniac peering over my shoulder, trying to gauge my reaction to the soup? I was not.
“That's what everybody's doing in Tokyo now,'' he said.
JINYA RAMEN: 11239 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 980-3977, jinya-la.com/ramen. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Underground-lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, about $26. Recommended dishes: ramen, gyoza.