Alhambra native Rickmond Wong considers himself a ramen shaman. According to Jonathan Gold, when Wong was in high school he was already emailing our food critic to brag about his superiority in the field of the often understated noodle. Wong's food blog, Rameniac, pays homage to the history and tradition of the noodles, serving as a dictionary of ramen forms and styles (he defines 22 different styles) and charting the diasporas of a food easily typecast as an instant noodle in a Styrofoam cup.
While Wong is undoubtedly a ramen snob, reviewing ramen joints in Canada, Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., he does not discount the instant. An entire section of his blog titled "Boiling" is dedicated to reviews of instant noodles. Through Wong's blog, we travel to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum in Tokyo, to ramen restaurants at home and abroad, to the yatai (food stalls) of Fukouka. His highly detailed posts (he has self-diagnosed OCD) include beautiful photos of bowls brimming with noodles and street scenes from his travels. Wong's reviews are accompanied by a grading system of "soup, noodles, toppings, sides, ambience and intangibles." His blog is a strong argument for a ramen as a subject of higher education. He's already earned a P.H.D. Squid Ink asked him his experience as a food blogger in Los Angeles, and the evolution of his noodle fetish.
SI: How long have you been blogging about food?
RW: I used to blog about food every now and then on my Xanga, which I started around 2004. My college buddy/programmer friend Victor helped me build rameniac.com
SI: What's your real job?
RW: I build websites for a Hollywood studio and own of a clothing boutique/ gallery/event space in West Los Angeles (Shameless pimpage: It's called "Qio," it's located at W. 11614 W. Pico Blvd. across from Record Surplus, and we sell fashionable things from Tokyo.)
I fancy myself a musician and score music for my friends' film projects every now and then, but I rarely get paid for doing so. I'm just a dude with a bunch of gear who spends way too much time at Guitar Center. One of these days I'll record an album of shoegazer/indie/noise/post-rock and my life will finally be complete.
SI: What's unique about food blogging in Los Angeles?
RW: Los Angeles has a huge number of food blogs, and the diversity to match. I think it has to do with the demographics of Southern California, our neighborhoods, and the pockets of hidden goodness that compel people to photograph and write about their meals.
SI: What's your favorite food truck, if you have one?
RW: Kogi lives up to its hype. Tacos Arizas and El Paisano, both in Echo Park, are my usual taco spots. The taco table at Fletcher & Larga in Highland Park has damn good al pastor. But if I have to pick one, my favorite stand by far is Ricky's Fish Tacos in Silverlake. Ricky is this awesome and highly personable guy from Ensenada; he truly makes the best fish tacos in town. He's only out on weekends though, and you can follow him on his twitter (http://twitter.com/RickysFishTacos) to see if he'll be open.
SI: How did your fascination with ramen begin?
RW: Like many Americans, I grew up eating Cup Noodle and instant ramen. Eventually, I found myself in Japan, teaching English at a junior high school in the Japanese countryside. I was living in a small town on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, where tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen comes from, and eating ramen constantly. I have this thing for soup. If there's no soup, a meal kind of feels incomplete.
Anyway, the ramen in Kyushu, in Fukuoka specifically, is amazing, and there's really nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. Even the vibe is astounding. There's this stretch of ramen carts along the Nakasu river in Hakata. Imagine if all your favorite taco trucks set up shop along a gorgeous riverbank in the heart of the city, where buskers played jazz and alcohol flowed freely. Now imagine if this happened nightly, 365 days a year, but instead of tacos they were serving noodles.
I was an ethnomusicology major in college and I have this obsessive need to categorize and study things on a cultural anthropological level. It wasn't long before I came to realize that ramen is much, much more than six-for-a-dollar broke-ass starving student food, and that its reputation was in need of a makeover in the Western World.
SI: Are you from LA?
RW: I'm L.A. born and raised. Well more specifically, Alhambra. I grew up in the shadow of Phil Spector's "castle" and used to try to sneak into the place as a kid. My parents are from Hong Kong, so there was always a lot of Chinese food in the household. I actually hated Chinese food when I was young, simply because we ate too much of it. My parents were pretty strict about junk food and fast food, so I was the kid who always wanted to go to McDonald's and Wienerschnitzel.
SI: What role does the food blogger play in a city like LA, with such a vibrant culinary scene?
RW: I'm of the mind that food blogging, when done right, can hip people to restaurants or cultures they may otherwise never know about - little hole-in-the-wall or ethnic places hidden amidst the sprawl of L.A. Unfortunately, I think that far too many food blogs exist nowadays primarily to feed peoples' egos. Just because someone has a digital camera and can afford to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant doesn't mean their opinion is worth more than that of the average Jane or Joe sitting at the next table. Far too many bloggers want to be that cool kid, to be the "first to review" a new joint, and in that sense, it's all rather high school. I'm guilty of it as well, at least when it comes to ramen. But one thing I've learned to stop doing is to post overtly negative reviews, especially of a new place. There's really no point in telling everyone how much a meal sucked. A mediocre restaurant will sink or swim on its own merits, and I wouldn't feel very good about being someone who hastens a restaurant's failure. After all, there are real human beings behind the menus, people with investments and livelihoods at stake.
Yet I wonder if Gourmet magazine's closing, for example, occured at least in part because of the growing popularity of food blogs. What scares me is when the public starts to accept content (food-related or otherwise) on the internet as authoritative journalism without questioning the source. Sure the playing field has been leveled. That's great in so many ways, but I do fear that the overall discourse has gotten frankly, dumber.
SI: What else do you enjoy eating, when you aren't eating ramen?
RW: I'm a huge fan of Northern Chinese hot pot, a la Mon Land and Little Fat Sheep in San Gabriel. Vietnamese pho is awesome, and I probably eat more of that than I do ramen these days, unless I'm in Japan. It's generally lighter and healthier. I crave yakitori on a regular basis. If I weren't writing about ramen, I'd probably run a yakitori website. As for um, "American" fare, I love seafood - raw bars, lobster rolls, crab, things like that. I live at the Hungry Cat whenever I want something non-Asian. Hamburgers and pizza are exotic, rare treats when I feel I've earned the cholesterol.
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SHOW ME HOW
SI: Do you think Los Angeles is a good venue for your blog?
RW: It is and it isn't. I didn't initially conceive of rameniac as a food blog. When I was conceptualizing the site, I had no idea what a food blog was. I wanted to build a worldwide English-language ramen archive, something of a repository that people could reference if they in the mood for a good bowl of noodles or simply information on the dish. I can't even take credit for the idea. There was a Japanese guy named Bon who had a site going up until about 2003. It's still online at http://www.worldramen.net, but I don't think he's updated his content in the last six years or so. And admittedly, his English is a bit choppy.
There are probably around 80 to 100 ramen shops in Southern California currently. I'll get to them all eventually, but I'm in no rush. Most people already know by now which ones stand out, so I've been checking out shops in other parts of the world as of late. I have reviews from Europe to post next. But I'll keep on doing L.A. reviews here and there. As there are several new ramen shops opening in L.A. in the near future, we appear to be in the midst of a ramen boom. I'd like to think that my efforts have contributed in some part to that, to the education, the ramenizing, of the English-speaking world.