Oh — you're reading a restaurant review, too. What restaurant are you reading about? You know, people do all kinds of things when they read. Eat, scratch themselves, fiddle with the keyboard mouse; I can't stand it. I don't like interruptions. They say when a restaurant reviewer dies, the last thing he or she sees is like one last review: A barrage of thousands of dishes in just a few seconds. OK — the review is starting now.
Like the short stretch of Elysian Park Drive near Dodger Stadium that's named Vin Scully Avenue, the 2000 block of Sawtelle Boulevard really should be called Takehiro Tsujita Way. When Tsujita L.A. opened on the corner of Sawtelle and Mississippi Avenue in 2011, it ushered in a new era of noodle excellence in Los Angeles. Prior to its opening, your most viable options were either Daikokuya downtown (long lines and respectable tonkotsu broth) or Santouka in the Mitsuwa Marketplace (no lines and good shio broth).
Tsujita changed that. The Japanese chef, who once sat in a giant stockpot in order to try to feel what it was like to be soup, brought his umami, creamy tonkotsu gyokai broth (a mix of pork and seafood) stateside. Long nights spent sleeping on a piece of cardboard next to the stockpot paid off: The broth, which became the base of Tsujita's tsukemen, or dipping noodles, was phenomenal — a wonderful mix of sweet, fatty pork with a briny fish funkiness. While Tsujita's ramen also was good, Los Angeles had seen decent bowls of ramen in the past. The tsukemen was what sneakily, permanently elevated the bar for Japanese noodle joints in the city. Hourlong lines quickly formed, and they never went away.
There are now four Tsujita restaurants within 1,000 feet of one another — the original Tsujita, Tsujita Annex (a back fat–heavy homage to Tokyo's Ramen Jiro), Sushi Tsujita (no noodles, sorry) and now Killer Noodle, a red-and-black lacquered temple to spiciness that opened last month to the same long lines that greeted the original Tsujita.
There are a few points of focus in the new restaurant: One is an enormous red chandelier in the middle of the 70-seat dining room. Another is a wall of jars filled with peppers, cinnamon sticks and various spices that are lit ominously from beneath, like a mad scientist's lab. Lastly, and most noticeably, are the portraits. Eight or so slightly bemused, larger-than-life faces blown up in black-and-white, watching over the diners. “I think those are all managers. I'm not sure,” my server said.
Heat is the overriding theme at Killer Noodle, and initially it comes dangerously close to feeling like a gimmick, capitalizing on the popularity of the spice fanatics you'll find at Howlin' Ray's or the celeb-driven YouTube show Hot Ones. Like deadly sins, seven Killer Noodle rules, or fundamentals, are trotted out before each diner on the menu. No returns or refunds for customers who can't handle their spice is one axiom. The last is the slightly more scatalogical advice to “take care of your bottoms” after you head home. It's sort of funny.
It's also mostly for show. Japanese cuisine isn't known for spiciness the way, say, Hunanese or Sichuanese is (and Thai food is a different ballgame). The 0-to-6 heat rating scale tops out at a respectable sweat, but it's well below any of the fierier offerings you might consume at Jitlada. A grinder full of Szechuan peppercorns is available for diners that want to crank up the ma, or numbing sensation.
This is how it works: Pick your noodle (Tokyo, Downtown or Original style), whether you want it dry or in a bowl of soup, and your spice level (3 is the default), then customize it with any other toppings you'd like (sliced char siu pork, cilantro, a sous-vide egg).
Tokyo style is Tsujita's take on tantanmen, the Japanese version of dan dan noodles. Dan dan mian, the Sichuan street peddler specialty, are known for their fiery pop of chili oil, fruity numbness of Sichuan peppercorns and smattering of fried soybeans or crushed peanuts. The primary flavor of Tsujita's Tokyo style is sesame, which (at level 3, with soup) gives the broth a velvety smooth, almost tahina-like quality that mixes seamlessly with the pork flavor. Chopped, untoasted cashews and crispy fried ground pork round out the dish, which has a mild cayenne kick.
But did I want to slurp down the soup, savoring every drop, as in Tampopo (one of the greatest food movies ever made)? Not entirely. I found it slightly too sesame-heavy to want to keep drinking. The soup in the Original style comes closer to the target: a lighter, pared-down version (I suspect the soups of all three types share a common base) that's highlighted with black pepper and a tangy squeeze of the lemon that comes on the side. Punctuated with smooth tofu chunks, it's highly slurpable. The Original style, in contrast to the others, appeared to use fresh chili to add heat — something resembling a fermented bird's-eye chili, like you might find in Thai or Vietnamese cooking. It gave a more immediate, front-of-palate burn, as opposed to the smoldering cayenne heat of the other styles.
I tried one dish at a 6 spice level — the Downtown style. While I broke a sweat, it's eminently manageable for those who can handle their heat. Downtown style most closely resembles the original Chinese dan dan noodle that inspired it. With a generous helping of ground Sichuan peppercorn, or prickly ash, as it's described on the menu, this version pleasingly alters the palate to leave a slight fruitiness on the tongue between bites of noodle and the occasional salty bead of perspiration that breaks across your lips.
While I broke a sweat
And what about the noodles? The soups come with a thinner, looser noodle that I thought lacked the customary Tsujita bite; while the earthiness of the wheat and alkali undertone of the kansui was there, perhaps they spent a minute too long in the cooker. They had, to quote Ken Watanabe in Tampopo, “sincerity but they lack guts.” Much better were the soup-less noodles, a girthier, tsukemen style with fine flavor and an impeccable katame (al dente, more or less) snap. Were I forced to choose, I'd say soup-less is the way to go.
Service, unfortunately, was bumpy — sufficient to warrant a post-meal comment or two among my dining companions. One time I visited, I was accused of underpaying my bill (I paid the correct amount). An uncomfortable situation was resolved with my attempting to hand over additional cash (it's a cash-only establishment) to one of the floor managers, who refused and ultimately said the misunderstanding was their fault.
On a different visit, I got the bill before I'd received everything I ordered. I explained the situation to no fewer than three different servers before the mishap was finally resolved. There seemed to be a slight sense of confusion and lack of communication on the floor in general — servers will attend any table, regardless of whether it's theirs, but it's hard to tell where the buck stops if there's a problem. (The sloppiness doesn't seem to just be limited to the service: The restaurant was abruptly shuttered in the middle of lunch service one day for not having a proper health permit. It reopened soon thereafter.)
But any hiccups weren't enough to distract from the food — which, while not quite “killer,” would certainly earn the designation “maim,” or perhaps even “serious injury.” That's good for me, ultimately. Because if I'm alive — unlike Tampopo's ill-fated white-suited gangster — it means I get to keep going back.
KILLER NOODLE | Two stars | 2030 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle | (424) 293-0474 | killernoodle.com | Thu.-Tue., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m. | $11-$17 | Cash only | Valet and street parking
Following the departure of restaurant critic Besha Rodell, L.A. Weekly is publishing reviews from a number of voices. Lucas Peterson is the Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times and the host of Eater's Dining on a Dime.