If you followed the explosion of L.A.’s formidable ramen scene over the past few years, you probably figure you’ve seen it all. You can parse shio broth from shoyu, Sapporo-style from Hakata-style, and have at one time discussed the proper methodology for consuming tsukemen.
The new ramen giant in town, however, has not landed in Little Tokyo or on Sawtelle Boulevard but rather in Old Town Pasadena, across from a cupcake shop in a space that formerly hosted a series of middling pizza joints. Ramen Tatsunoya, a highly decorated Japanese chain founded in 1999, opted to open its first U.S. location after hosting pop-ups at local Japanese markets and scoring high marks at the 2014 Ramen Yokocho Fest at Santa Anita Park. Apparently a trans-Pacific expansion had been in the works for years.
Tatsunoya hails from the Japanese city of Kurume, the place where pork-intensive tonkotsu broth originated and is taken as deadly serious as barbecued pig in the Carolinas (Hakata ramen, the style served at places such as Shin-Sen-Gumi and Tsujita, is based off the Kurume tradition). Popular legend has it that one of Kurume’s ramen chefs left a pot to simmer too long and too hot at his shop, producing a bone-infused, milky broth heavy with liquefied marrow and the stench of garlic. It became an object of obsession almost overnight.
At Tatsunoya, you have three choices. There's the signature “strong flavor” koku ramen, a high-test porcine assault that’s been flavored with flecks of pork fat, indecent amounts of garlic and a small dollop of chili-infused miso paste. It’s one of the most pungent, intense and flavorful broths in town, but even when your tastebuds feel like they're developing gout, it’s hard not to return for another spoonful. The next step down on the pork ladder is jun ramen, a slightly mellower, subtler broth that can be slurped in greater quantities. The last option blends in a slick of spicy miso paste, adding another dimension to the heady flavor of tonkotsu.
Toppings at Tatsunoya are kept simple. You’ll find thin strips of wood ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, green onions, a soft-boiled egg if you want it, and two or three slices of decadently soft pork chashu. House-made noodles, thin and straight with a dense chew, are a marvel on their own.
There are crispy, thin-skinned pork dumplings served with tart yuzu kosho paste, and an oddly addictive Kewpie mayo–and–fish roe–slathered sushi roll filled with what tastes like a Japanese riff on carnitas. Everyone is here for the ramen, though, and it’s apparent from the extravagant flower arrangements lining the dining room (sent by local Japanese businesses) that an overseas outlet hasn’t generated this much excitement since Tsujita arrived in 2011.
The best analogy might lie in professional baseball, another Japanese obsession. The Dodgers are currently courting a starting pitcher who plays for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp: Kenta Maeda, a scrappy 27-year-old ace, who is expected to sign with a team in the coming weeks. Maeda has been one of Japan’s best pitchers over the past couple years, and while there’s no guarantee on how he’ll pitch in America, his nasty fall-off-the-table changeup has certain people salivating. All of which is to say, you might not have heard of either Maeda or Tatsunoya before, but trust us: They’re big in Japan and when they come to Los Angeles, you should be excited.
Ramen Tatsunoya, 16 N. Fair Oaks Ave, Pasadena; (626) 432-1768, tatsunoyausa.net