In 1899, a Chinese immigrant to Nagasaki, Japan, set up a noodle shop called Shikairo along the city’s harbor to feed his fellow expatriates. Heijun Chin, a native of China’s Fujian province, had created a variant of ramen in which ingredients are stir-fried in a wok, a chicken-pork broth is added, and finally noodles are cooked, all together in the wok. Its name, champon, is derived from the Hokkien phrase “to eat” or chiah png.
Ramen is champion in L.A., but the champon version has almost no name recognition. Many ramen lovers don’t know about it, because not many ramen shops offer it. Up north in San Jose, there’s a Japanese chain called Ringer Hut that focuses on the Nagasaki noodle soup, but it’s the only restaurant of its kind in California.
It appears L.A.’s sole source for champon (on the everyday menu) is Hana Ichimonme, located on the third floor of the rollicking Little Tokyo Galleria. Here you’ll discover a ramen remarkably close to the one at Shikairo in Japan. The home of champon still serves a bowl teeming with sliced pork, bay scallops and shrimp, fish cake, squid, cabbage, carrot, bean sprouts, green peas, green and white onions and thin ramen noodles swimming in chicken and pork broth.
At Hana Ichimonme, you’ll find fewer veggies, but all the other stir-fried items are the same. Also, the broth at the Little Tokyo restaurant is purely tonkotsu (pork), with no chicken.
What is immediately noticeable when you taste champon is the wok hay, or “breath of the wok.” The term refers to the flavor that results from all the ingredients being cooked together rather than individually added to a bowl, as is the case with traditional ramen. The richness of the pork intermingles nicely with the brininess of the seafood. The noodles are appropriately elastic and stand up to the hefty bounty of ingredients.
In addition to standard champon, Hana Ichimonme boils up a spicy style as well as a coconut champon flavored by a good dose of coconut milk; other than that the ingredients are the same in each variation.
Champon is the underappreciated stepchild of ramen in L.A., but there is another variety, with a different name, found in Koreatown. All around the Kimchi Corridor, there are restaurants famous for a distinctly Korean interpretation of the Chinese-Japanese riff on ramen, and it’s called jjampong (sound familiar?).
In K-Town, you can slurp up jjampong at fusiony Chinese-Korean restaurants including Zzamong, Lee’s Noodles, Kyo Dong or Western Doma Noodles. This is a fiery form of champon, spiked with all kinds of peppery heat. You’ll also come across more seafood, such as mussels, clams and large prawns with head and shell intact. The noodles most likely won’t be a ramen but rather udon or soba. The soup will be a chicken- or seafood-based broth. Jjampong is a great soup, but seek out Hana Ichimonme's older champon, too, for a full noodle soup education.
333 Alameda St., Ste. 303, Little Tokyo; (213) 626-3514, facebook.com/Hana-Ichimonme.