Sunday, August 02, 2009

What I Do For a Good Bowl of Ramen

Soup noodles are like magic in a bowl. They satisfy and replenish you while giving you a facial with each steaming slurp.

It’s no wonder movies have been made and several blogs have been started solely to discuss the soup noodles. For me, I love them all—won ton noodles, Vietnamese pho, udon or ramen.

So it’s probably no surprise that when my friend David was out of town and left me his car to use, I didn’t drive up to wine country or down the coast. I decided to go find the best bowl of ramen in the Bay Area.

When people talk about ramen in the Bay Area, everyone seems to always mention Santa Ramen in San Mateo.

This place has been open for years and have quite the cult following. A couple of years ago it opened in a new, more modern location in a tiny strip mall that’s conveniently located right off the El Camino exit on the west end of the San Mateo Bridge.

I arrived at 11:16 a.m. on a Saturday morning and sure enough there were already people waiting for the doors to open at 11:30 a.m. Sixteen people were ahead of me and as I waited in the harsh summer sun (BTW, this is where you find summer in the Bay Area if you like the heat) more queued up behind me.

Two minutes before the doors opened, a young woman with a notepad came out to get everyone’s party size. When the doors finally opened, we filed in in an orderly fashion as we were directed to our seats.

The new Santa Ramen is supposedly larger than the original spot, but it quickly filled up and after all was said and done, there were still people left waiting at the entrance. I scored a seat at the counter since I was eating alone.

You would think a restaurant packed with hungry diners all ordering at the same time would be scary, but the two servers who worked the room seemed calm and collected. They slowly made their way through the crowd, taking orders. I guess it helps that the menu is simple—ramen, ramen and more ramen.

The ramen is served in three basic soup bases: soy, pork flavor and miso. Your bowl comes with regular toppings like kikurage mushrooms and pork slices, but you can create your own by adding toppings such as boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, corn, kim chee, bean sprouts, fried garlic and the mystifying stewed kurobuta pork.

I ordered the pork flavor soup ($7.95), also known as “tonkotsu,” because it’s not offered very often at other ramen places I’ve visited. Made of pork bone, the tonkotsu broth looks more opaque and creamy than miso. I didn’t want to add too many other toppings, so I only asked for extra roasted seaweed ($1.25 for five pieces) because I love the slight saltiness of seaweed.

There didn’t seem to be any rationale on how the bowls of ramen came out, but most people didn’t seem to mind waiting. It took close to half an hour before my bowl of ramen arrived.

I instantly noticed the creamy pork soup base thankfully had little indications of fat (i.e. no glistening oil bubbles). My bowl was topped with the slices of pork that were tender yet meaty, thinly sliced kikurage mushrooms that were crunchy, and green onions. On the side of the bowl was a wall of the five slices of extra roasted seaweed that I asked for.

The noodles were surprisingly straight in looks. I expected them to be crinkly or with a little more shape like I’ve come to expect from ramen. Still, they were tasty and had a nice give to it. Combined with the soup, it was satisfying. The soup actually wasn’t as salty as I thought it might be. In fact, I added some sprinkles of chili flakes to spice it up, and that really made the bowl more complex.

Sixteen minutes later I was done and ready to leave, walking past the tables of empty bowls and making my way through the wall of diners waiting for the second seating.

I wondered how a bowl of ramen could have such rock star status? But then I reflected on the body in the soup and the tenderness of the pork combined with the plentiful noodles and decided that, yes, I’d probably be willing to wait for a bowl.

Is it the best bowl of ramen in the Bay Area? I can’t say for sure since the buzz is that Ramen Halu in San Jose is pretty good as well. But I can say that Santa Ramen was worth the drive.

Santa Ramen, 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo. PH: 650.344.5918. Open daily except Tuesday. Visa, MasterCard accepted. No reservations.

More ramen posts:
"The Ramen King and I" Book
Katana-ya: "When It Rains, Find Shelter in Ramen"
Genki Ramen: "Tokyo Pop Ramen in the Richmond"


foodhoe said...

That sounds delicious, especially this morning since it's overcast and chilly! I love Santa Ramen! I love Halu Ramen too, they are quite different. I especially like the presentation at Halu, because you add toppings and ingredients as you eat your way through the bowl of noodles. Chubbypanda also recommends Himawari, which I haven't been to. Maybe we should do a road trip to compare those in the Fall!

Hungry Dog said...

I haven't been there...I need to check it out. I love Tampopo in japantown--they do great ramen too.

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