Reasonable minds can differ on the relative merits of one hamburger stand or another. Some guys become surreally attached to their favorite sushi bar, but it is often possible to have a rational discussion with them on the succulence of Sasabune’s crab hand roll versus the austerity of the roll at Nozawa, or the artistry of the best chef at Shibucho as opposed to that of your guy at the Malibu Nobu. But ramen fanatics, like barbecue nuts, tend to be freakishly devoted to the restaurants of their dreams: to the late-night place in Tokyo, to the shop in a South Bay supermarket whose noodles are served at a temperature sufficient to char your lips into ash, to the counter, discovered once on a trip to Sapporo and never found again, that exists in the imagination like a hallucination built out of miso-scented steam.
Whenever I write about ramen in this column, I get sacks full of mail telling me that I’m plumping for the wrong place, that Daikokuya or Ramen-Ya or whatever are only threes or fours on the cosmic ramen scale of 10, that the place I favor is neither truly Nagasaki-style nor Kumamoto-style, worthy neither of cosmopolitan Tokyo nor of the rustic south. Whenever I make it to one of the recommended restaurants, only to encounter ramen barely superior to the instant kind that is familiar to everybody who’s ever lived in a dorm, I am assured that I have arrived either too late or too early in the afternoon, on the wrong day of the week, or a month after the departure of the good ramen guy, the one whose noodles are as elastic as the bungee cords of Olympus.
But the ramen parlor most of my correspondents seem to agree on is ShinSenGumi, a Gardena mini-mall dive, perpetually misted with the fragrant steam from an enormous cauldron of broth, which specializes in Hakata ramen. The customers are young, the staff younger, the soundtrack loud hip-hop and Japanese rock ’n’ roll. I stumbled into the place for the first time when I accidentally mistook its address for that of a yakitori den owned by the same company. My friend seemed to enjoy her lunch of grilled chicken skewers and fried cartilage that we ended up eating at the ShinSenGumi down the road, but she is still haunted by the buzz, the giant kettle of simmering broth and the promise of great noodles that she missed out on.
The ShinSenGumi empire of restaurants is fairly extensive, ranging from Fountain Valley all the way to Tokyo, and the Gardena area alone supports ShinSenGumis specializing in shabu-shabu, yakitori and a dish called chanko nabe, which is a kind of heavy, chicken-based stew favored by sumo wrestlers. To noodle freaks, of course, nothing but ShinSenGumi’s Hakata ramen even registers.
The Hakata style of tonkotsu ramen, born in the city of Fukuoka on western Kyushu, differs from the other schools of ramen restaurants in some fairly specific ways. The milky-beige broth, thick-bodied and relatively strong in aroma, is made from long-boiled pork bones, preferably the bones of Kurobuta pigs, and the garnishes — fatty pork, chopped scallions, pickled ginger — are more straightforward than the often-baroque compositions found in bowls of, say, Sapporo-style ramen. The noodles themselves are thin, straight and long, a little like Italian angel-hair pasta as opposed to the spaghettilike girth of most ramen noodles, and are typically served al dente. There is a tradition of extreme hospitality — it is apparently difficult to sit down at a Hakata ramen restaurant, and manifestly impossible to enter ShinSenGumi, without being greeted at Live-at-Budokan volume. The restaurants are also home to at least one other splendid tradition: kaedama, which is to say the ability to order a second slug of noodles when you have finished the first, at a very reasonable charge. You’ve heard of the iron rice bowl? This is the bottomless bowl of ramen, at least until the broth runs out.
When you are seated at the restaurant, after you are handed a glass of iced tea, you are given a little checklist to fill out, specifying whether you want your ramen to be hard or soft, oily or greaseless, and served in broth that is intensely porky or mild. For an extra buck or two, you can get your ramen with a raft of simmered vegetables, a handful of extra sliced pork, or a golf ball of spicy miso paste that tints everything a lurid pink when you stir it into the hot broth. Fukuoka is also known for its spicy cod roe, and a spoonful of that wondrous, gooey substance dissolves into the noodles with a rush of purest chile-fired umami. With your noodles, you can order tiny, oniony pan-fried gyoza dumplings; alarmingly home-style fried rice with egg; chicken-stuffed rice balls; or musubi, bricks of Spam-stuffed sushi rice that usually sell out within the first hour of service.
The noodles are really fine, vibrant and animate under your teeth. They are distinctly wheaty, amplifying and making vivid the strong, high flavor of the soup. The ball of ramen in the bowl is pretty large, at least the size of a grapefruit, but it vanishes in a flash. At ShinSenGumi, kaedama is more than a theoretical construct.?
ShinSenGumi Hakata Ramen Restaurant, 2051 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (310) 329-1335, shinsengumiusa.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer, wine and sake. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, $15-$25. Recommended dishes: gyoza, hakata ramen. Also at 8450 E. Valley Blvd. #103, Rosemead, (626) 572-8646.