Have you been keeping count of the new ramen places springing up around town? Because, honestly, we lost track a while ago — first were the places doing the ultra-specialized Hakata-style tonkotsu, whose preparation is more rigidly structured than most medical practices; then those doing a looser, Tokyo-style fusion, blending broths with things like shaved tomato or grated Parmesan; and then those fashioning their soups in the style of less common regions like Sapporo, Hokkaido or Yokohama.
As they say in advertising, you always have to have a hook — an instant feature that will make you stand out — especially at a time when Sawtelle noodle shops have longer lines than ice cream parlors in the midday heat.
For the newly opened Tatsu, it comes in the form of a little black touchscreen near the restaurant's front door. You feel a bit silly at first, waiting in line watching customers in front of you slowly tap-tap out their order while watching the waiters loiter near the kitchen. But suddenly it's your turn, and the thrill of constructing a bowl of ramen becomes as compelling as a game of Angry Birds.
An animated ordering process lets you choose from two items: a standard tonkotsu ramen, or “naked ramen”; and a chilled soupless creation lashed with a sweet and spicy sesame oil known as Hiyashi chuka. You customize it by flicking little options for your desired protein (pork, tofu or chicken); the level of garlic and spiciness; and whether you want green onions, a soft-boiled egg, kernels of corn, dried seaweed or bits of fresh garlic (all are free, by the way). You swipe a credit card or insert cash and the machine spits out a receipt like an arcade prize ticket. Dehumanizing the restaurant process never felt so fun.
The tonkotsu broth isn't as porky as Jinya's or Tsujita's, but it's dark, murky and intense, with a certain marine funk. The slices of chashu pork are the size of small frisbees: lean but still tender, and the noodles are thin, razor-straight things that are as chewy as properly al dente pasta. How the rest of your bowl tastes is pretty much up to you, which is kind of the point. We've probably gone past the point where debating the best ramen means much of anything anymore, and are content with access to a bowl that's as quick, customized, and comfortable as a bespoke suit, but for a far cheaper price (also most tailors aren't open until 3 a.m. on weekends).
Tatsu Ramen: 2123 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 684-2889.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @searchanddevour.