The most popular plaza in Chinatown these days is home to an unlikely cluster of formidable L.A. eateries: Roy Choi's Korean rice-bowl outpost, Andy Ricker's Thai street-noodle joint and — as of this coming Monday — a ramen-ya from Eggslut's Alvin Cailan.
Ramen Champ, a 22-seat spot from the guys behind the Grand Central Market mainstay, will officially open next week on the second floor of Chinatown's Far East Plaza on North Broadway. It will soft-open as soon as tonight, bringing even more attention to the bilevel mall that just a few weeks ago welcomed an 10-seat installment of Ricker's Pok Pok Phat Thai.
"It's crazy, right?" chef Cailan says of the multicultural food options growing at Far East. "But as a Filipino guy who grew up coming to church in Chinatown every Sunday, it makes sense to me. This place needs more diversity anyway. This used to be known as a destination for really great food. Lately, it's been a museum. Now, the food is coming back."
Thirty-five years after the plaza opened as an envisioned retail environment exclusively for food, Choi spurred a new generation of restaurants in 2013 when he opened the second incarnation of Chego on Far East Plaza's first floor. The week that opened, Cailan came by, the same day he signed a lease not a mile away for what would eventually become Eggslut at Grand Central Market.
"I hadn't come here in easily 20 years," Cailan said this week. "But Roy Choi can find places that no one would ever think of, man. And it was like, 'boom,' this place is great. And next thing you know, we're here."
Of course, there were delays along the way. Ramen Champ was originally supposed to take up an additional stall at Grand Central, with a different name and a different — much earlier — debut date.
But the eventual Chinatown incarnation finally began serving friends and family this week and Cailan couldn't be happier. Ramen art from prominent New York artist Mike Houston is splashed across the walls of the 750-square-foot space, and the menu is stylized to resemble a comic book. The menu features only nine dishes: three ramen bowls, three rice bowls and three sides.
The signature tonkotsu is unctuous in the best possible way, fatty but smooth, heavy but not too heavy. The chicken ramen features thinner, curly noodles, chicken belly and schmaltz, à la Ivan Ramen of Tokyo and New York City. There's also a vegetable consommé that can be made vegan, with eggless noodles and seasoned tofu.
The noodles are made exclusively for Ramen Champ by an unnamed local purveyor. The seasoned eggs in each bowl are remarkably gooey, exactly what you'd expect from the proprietors of Eggslut, the truck-turned–stall sensation. The chashu pork served in the tonkotsu is also served atop a simple rice bowl. Pan-seared Jidori chicken thighs and a vegetable curry roux — braised with carrots and fingerling potatoes — top the other rice bowl options.
Cailan and chefs Johnny Lee and Nathan Asamato, formerly of Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, dredge and fry the thighs and serve them with spicy mayo as chicken karaage.
The tako tots are the menu's least traditional dish. To the popular Japanese dish takoyaki, with chopped octopus, Ramen Champ adds salted cod and baked, mashed potatoes, similar to bolinhos de bacalhau of Portuguese cuisine. They're fried and topped with typical takoyaki fixins.
Ramen Champ will be open daily from 4 p.m. to midnight, with plans to eventually expand hours in either direction. Cailan expects "mayhem" Monday, but he's more prepared now than when Eggslut's brick-and-mortar began in November 2013. There, they famously ran through the entire weekend's worth of ingredients the Friday it opened to the public.
With an unusual outdoor ordering system and a defined, confining space, Ramen Champ will be forced to run at a slower pace.
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"That place is built to kill. It's built to do numbers," Cailan said of Eggslut. "Here, we're built to please."
Ramen Champ, 727 N. Broadway, Chinatown; ramenchamp.com