If you were one of the thousands of ramen-lovers who filled Santa Anita Park over this past weekend, on March 29-30, for the 2014 Ramen Yokocho fest, congratulations are in order. Organizers predicted 30,000 people at the Arcadia racetrack on Saturday and Sunday for the second such festival, which brought fourteen ramen shops from Japan, Las Vegas, San Diego and here in L.A. to the masses of noodle-obsessed fans.
Holding a ramen festival at a horseracing track was an interesting juxtaposition, as we all filed first past circling horses amid groomed gardens, then inside past people scribbling mysteriously on betting cards under rows of televisions, then down through the old racetrack's infield tunnel and out under blazing skies, where bubbling vats of tonkotsu broth and boiling water for noodles and grills for ramen burgers (yes, ramen burgers) were set up under tents. At one point, we found ourselves following a solitary woman in a kimono as she threaded between old men watching the race, like something out of a Haruki Murakami novel.
Perpendicular to the row of booths, people waited in lines for over an hour for individual bowls of ramen, as if a country fair had suddenly been relocated into one of the crowded alleys of ramen shops in Japan from which the festival takes its name.
“Eat it very hot.”
The lines were longest at the booth for Tsujita, the Tokyo ramen shop that has an outpost on Sawtelle Boulevard, maybe because we're all happily conditioned from standing so long waiting to get into lunch here in L.A. The Tsujita ramen chefs manning the booths were originally from Tokyo but are now working at the shop here, slicing the pork belly, wheeling in plastic food storage containers of perfectly cooked eggs, overseeing the vats of tonkotsu broth that had boiled for five hours before the festival even opened, assembling the bowls of Hakata-style ramen for the seemingly endless lines.
At Tatsunoya, a chef paused in his work to describe the Kurume-style ramen from the Japanese shop, the broth built only from the head bones of pigs and water; the very thin al dente noodles; the tare (or separate condensed broth added to the bowl) made from garlic, soy, ginger and “lots of secret ingredients.” The Tatsunoya crew came in for ten days, most of which had been spent preparing the broth and other components. Any time for a brief vacation before heading back to Japan? No, said the chef, who then conceded that they'd have time for beer.
Instead of steaming cauldrons, the hectic space behind Fujin Ramen was filled with grills upon which rows of burger patties and buns made from ramen noodles sizzled in the variable heat. Fujin, a ramen shop in Covina, doesn't normally serve ramen burgers (beef burger, tomato, lettuce, “special sauce” with mayo and spicy miso ramen) but had rolled them out for the event.
At the Mattou Seimen booth, bowls of black mapo ramen emerged from the organized chaos, a variant of the Sichuan-style ramen that has been winning Tokyo Ramen Show titles for years, and which will be familiar to Angelenos who spend a lot of time at the tiny Ramen Iroha shop inside the Marukai market in Gardena. Mattou Seimen, which is currently scouting New York City for a shop for the spring, is part of the same company as Iroha – thus the happy similarities of style.
“The hardest part is the water.”
Mattou brought their ingredients with them from Japan, excepting the bones for the broth, which couldn't be imported. When asked what the hardest part of the whole process was, one of Mattou's ramen chefs said it wasn't the importing or the sourcing of ingredients, but adjusting to the water. (As anyone who lives in the San Gabriel Valley knows, this part of town has very hard water, which can effect many cooking procedures, particularly pasta-making and baking.)
“Keep trying ramen and you'll find the style you like.”
Mattou's ramen chef (nicknamed Ching, no kidding, because of the style of ramen he makes) said he grew up eating instant ramen in Japan. Then, as he told our festival translator, he moved to Tokyo, discovered the real thing and was “blown away” by how good it was and how many different kinds there were. Not unlike dating, he agreed, the trick is to just keep trying and you'll eventually find the right one for you.
Monta, a 2-year-old ramen shop from Las Vegas, was serving bowls made with their tonkotsu-shoyu broth, Kurume-style (from Kyushu in the south of Japan). Ramen is currently having a renaissance in Las Vegas as well as Los Angeles, said one of the Monta ramen chefs as he shook two strainers filled with noodles together after pulling the from a steaming vat.
“I picked my favorites.”
As an announcer called the races over a loudspeaker, phrases surfaced through the general noise of the crowd as if the announcements (early favorites! winners and runners-up!) reflected the lines of ramen-lovers themselves, tickets clutched in their hands along with triumphant bowls of soup.
Near the ticket booths, staffed by volunteers (“you get to travel to Japan in a bowl!”) in bright yellow T-shirts, Tatsuo Mori a lithe man dressed more for a bicycle race than a massive food festival, kept checking his phone. Mori, who is from Tokyo, is the Ramen Yokocho festival organizer. He'd noticed how crazy popular ramen had become, and also noticed that there weren't any big festivals that mirrored that huge popularity – thus, a festival was born. As for how he picked which ramen shops to invite, well, he said, he just picked his favorites. Not a bad gig for a man who says his mother made him his first bowl of ramen when he was a kid. Would that we were all so lucky.
The next Ramen Yokocho festival will be held December in San Francisco. And yes, it will most certainly be returning to L.A. next year. In the meantime, go get in line at your own favorite ramen shop.
See also: 10 Best Ramen Shops in Los Angeles