Going to a food festival (especially one being held for the first time) is always a risky thing. As these things always seem to be held during the summer, there will be heat. There will be crowds. And, above all, there will be lines. Which brings us to this past weekend's first annual Ramen Yokocho Fest at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, billed as the “largest ramen festival” in the United States.
Organized by Japanese magazine Weekly LALALA as part of its 10th anniversary celebration, the two-day festival brought together a dozen vendors, with almost all offering ramen or ramen burgers. As we are all apparently rameniacs, more than 4,000 folks showed up on Saturday, and the festival quickly hit its capacity limit. By the late afternoon, organizers were forced to stop selling tickets.
The first sign that everybody loves ramen at least as much as you do was clear from the parking lot: The line just to get into the festival was wrapped around the building, and then some. At this point, you had to decide whether you are the type of person who likes food festivals and/or wars of attrition, or whether you are the type of person who dislikes food festivals and/or long, long lines.
In the case of the former, you probably stuck it out in line and more than likely Instagrammed photos of the line; in the case of the latter, you probably got back in your car, went to another ramen joint in Torrance and Instagrammed a photo of that bowl of ramen. Because when in Rome.
Assuming you did wait over an hour in line to buy tickets for the food inside (each $8 ticket bought you one bowl of ramen), you then entered the courtyard where the vendors were set up. In this outdoor area, there were a lot of people, a lot of hot ramen and a lot of people admirably navigating the crowds while holding hot bowls of ramen.
See also: The Yokocho Ramen Fest slideshow.
The best bowl we had was from the booth with the longest wait: Kitakata Ramen Bannai from the Fukushima prefecture of Japan served a terrific bowl with “hand crumpled curly noodles,” fantastic, thick slices of chashu and a broth made from long-simmering pork bones.
Additional highlights: While it was best in small doses, Tsujita's cold ramen made with dried sardines and spiked with a few slices of limes was terrific, as was Menya Iroha's Toyama Black Mapo Ramen.
Then there were the burgers from Jidaiya and Ikemen. Between the two shops, Ikemen's was perhaps more successful: The burger we tried was made with a 100% ground beef patty and topped with caramelized sweet onions; it was surprisingly very good, though we'd still prefer a bowl of ramen over a ramen burger on most any day. That said, if you're still hankering to try a ramen burger, keep an eye on Ikemen: According to the festival's information pamphlet, it apparently will be serving these burgers at a “ramen burger specialty shop” soon.
Overall, the festival, like the first L.A. Street Food Fest and the first 626 Night Market, suffered from underestimating our appetites; essentially, then, it was too successful. We're crossing our fingers that there will be a 2.0 version next year, with most of the bugs worked out: A bigger venue, say, and maybe a way to buy tickets in advance. Because if there is, we'll be there. In a heartbeat.
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