Monday, May 10, 2010

Hapa Ramen Pop Up at Coffee Bar

In a city that already falls head over heels for any temporary, “pop up” restaurant, you can imagine what a Saturday night would be like when word gets out that Richie Nakano is testing a ramen venture.

Nakano, if you don’t know, is a sous chef at the popular Nopa restaurant and pens a behind-the-scenes blog about working the line. Along with Nopa bartender Kitty Gallisa, Nakano is planning to launch a food stand called Hapa Ramen at the Ferry Plaza Thursday Farmers Market this summer.

He’s been testing his ramen in recent weeks and hosting preview dinners, and on Saturday he cooked up a few hundred bowls at Coffee Bar in Potrero Hill. Judging from the crowds that showed up, a lot of people wanted to be among the first to taste his ramen.

Coffee Bar is a stylish two-level café in the neighborhood, but I hardly got a chance to experience it since it was packed with people who got there from a tweet, Facebook fan page notice, or text from a friend “in the know.” In today’s electronic age, word of mouth basically translates to a mad house.

I should have known better, but I thought to myself, “hey, this is a bowl of noodles.” So I arrived about 10 minutes before the scheduled 6 p.m. start time, and that’s when I saw the crowds and the line forming from Coffee Bar’s entrance. The line wasn’t to get in; it was to put your name on the list to get in.

When I finally reached the poor girl who had the task of dealing with the massive crowds wondering when they’d get in, I was told that I would probably get a seat at 8 p.m. On most Saturday nights, when I’m told the wait would be two hours, I would basically say thanks, but no thanks. And then find somewhere else to feed my hunger.

So what made me decide to tough it out? Hard to say. Part of it was because I knew I was planning to blog about it, and part of me told myself that I’m no quitter. With the DJ pumping music throughout the bar and the iconic noodle film “Tampopo” playing on the wall, I joined others waiting desperately for their names to be called so they could try a $13 bowl of ramen.

To kill time, I walked over to Nihon Whisky Lounge for some drinks and bites. (BTW, had an amazing tako poke salad and steamed mussels that provided me much nourishment for my impending wait.) I returned to Coffee Bar before 8 p.m. to make sure I didn’t miss my spot. No problem, they were still on page two of the list and my name was on page four.

As the crowds enjoyed wine and beer at the bar while others cheered like they won the lotto when their names were called, I snuck over to the tiny kitchen to get some shots of Nakano and his friends who were busy prepping the ramen.

Nakano, with his signature tattoos on one arm, looked pretty calm given the frantic demands out front. It looked like everything was organized, from the braised pork to the boiling house-made noodles.

Back outside, I continued to wait and it was way past 8 p.m. and approaching 9 p.m. I walked by this glass coffee table where two bowls of ramen looked unattended and I was so tempted to just sit down and help myself. But I have integrity, dang it.

As names were called on the list and several people didn’t respond because they gave up, I thought there might be hope that I could get seated before morning. I finally got seated at 9:30 p.m. next to another solo diner who had waited just as long as I did. Her name is Colleen, and we shared our tips on good food spots and wondered how crazy our friends would think of us for waiting so long for a bowl of ramen.

It probably wasn’t a good sign that a lot of other people around us just sat around. Very few people seemed to be eating. And even after we ordered (Nakano was ambitious to actually offer a small menu that included a few appetizers along with the ramen and a vegetarian ramen) we waited and waited, hoping that each passing bowl would land in front of us.

By now (past 10 p.m., an hour beyond the announced 9 p.m. end time), the crowd that waited seem to disperse and tables were left empty as diners left. The beer we ordered never arrived, and I started to question this futile wait for ramen until two bowls arrived (at about 10:30 p.m., about 4.5 hours after I first stepped into Coffee Bar).

The “everything ramen” included greens (I think they were swiss chard), fresh peas, a soft-boiled egg (following the trend of many restaurants doing the 62 degree egg), a few pieces of crispy fried chicken and a piece of nori (seaweed). Sadly, it looked like they were out of the braised pork because our bowls were porkless.

Colleen and I jumped into our bowls, quietly slurping and eating. We threw out a few quick reviews here and there, mostly short thoughts like “noodles are soft” or “egg is good.” In the end, we had at least arrived at the finished line.

The ramen noodles, to me, tasted empty. The texture reminded me of Cup O’Noodles instead of the thicker, full-body noodles I’ve had at ramen shops around town. The broth was bland, but Colleen noted that maybe with the pork it wouldn’t be so tasteless. She did like the chard served with the ramen, and I decided the soft-boiled egg was perfectly cooked and didn't mind the little chicken nuggets even though they’re deep fried.

I don’t know Nakano and from what I can tell he seems like a really good guy, so I do hope he’s successful with Hapa Ramen. But I hope he learns a lot from this evening. It wasn’t just a test-run on the ramen but also on dealing with large crowds and putting out noodles at a quick pace to feed them all.

For me, I’ve also learned an important lesson. And yes, this will probably be the last time I wait 4.5 hours for food.

What else I did for ramen:
Racking Up the Miles for Ramen
What I Do for a Good Bowl of Ramen

13 comments:

agent713 said...

The only time I've ever waited that long was to get into Serendipity 3 in New York City. We were prepared and went and put our name on the list and came back four hours later but it was still a very long wait. Of course there you're waiting for ambience as much as food.

Kim said...

I usually don't like long posts, but this one was hysterical. Way to go, non-quitter!

cheeseplatesf said...

I'm hoping that the bowls were actually larger than they seemed in the pictures... $13 really? You are a trooper to wait so long!

Anonymous said...

I was there... luckily only waited 1.5 hrs. Would have never bothered if my friends weren't so insistent. Many issues that night:

1. Noodles were not cooked enough (unlike yours, which were too soft - interesting)

2. Serving size was 1/3 the size of a real bowl of Ramen in Japan

3. We waited 1 hr after being seated to get served. Ridiculous when you think that dishing out Ramen is a simple as can be.

Overall, it was really not worth it.

Anonymous said...

If you want a much better experience at Coffee Bar, come to this: http://coffeebar.typepad.com/events/2010/05/the-best-3-course-meal-for-35-with-chef-laurine-wickett.html

You will leave happy and nourished

Single Guy Ben said...

agent713, why is Serendipity so popular? Isn't it just ice cream?

Kim, if I have to wait 4.5 hours, you can read my long post! :P

Cheeseplate, I know, the bowl doesn't look like $13. I think $10 would have been a more fair price.

Anonymous1, you must have got there around 5 p.m. I agree, it was odd to wait almost an hour after being seated. Like I said, I hope Nakano learns more about pacing. Maybe he was too ambitious in creating the everything ramen to include the fried chicken and braised pork.

Anonymous2, oh, stop tempting me!

agent713 said...

No Serendipity is a full restaurant. They're famous for their frozen hot chocolate but they offer sandwhiches and full meals (I had a sandwhich, I can't remember what the other meals were)

I thought the long post really helped convey the experience. I was getting hungry by the end!

foodhoe said...

wow, that is true commitment to the post single guy! I am a follower of the linecook podcast and thought about checking this out, but I think reading about your experience is good enough for this event!

Anonymous said...

Hapa Ramen posted on their Twitter site an address to email if you had any grievances (kitty@haparamensf.com), so I emailed and complained that my food was under cooked and instead of giving me a refund, Kitty emailed back and admitted that they knowingly served and charged for subpar food instead of closing the kitchen: "...the electric burners we had could barely boil water due to electrical issues. So, we could barely get our noodles to cook properly and the broth could only get so hot. This explains the doughy noodles and the lukewarm broth." When I told her that it was unethical to charge and serve people, Richie Nakano (sous chef; richie@haparamensf.com) wrote me back "Fuck off, you sad, miserable person." Wow. That's some bad business.

Colleen said...

Ben, it's Colleen! :) A friend linked me to your post and now I'll be following your blog. It was great to dine with you and if you're ever looking for another dining companion, let me know - I'd love to join!

It was... alright, though the last time I'll be waiting 4.5 hours for food as well. What an experience, and SO GLAD to have met you!

abstractpoet said...

Note that Anonymous3 has been spamming every single site to grind this axe. See the comment thread at SFoodie to see the chef's take on the email exchange (which doesn't cast this commenter in a particularly good light).

Single Guy Ben said...

Colleen, I'm glad you found my blog! It was nice meeting you too! We should definitely go food hunting, maybe pizza!

jhon jaha said...

Great blog. its a need of today's generation, but i think it need more information about this topic,
really not a bad but i wish it looks more complete..
Bundle of Thanks...