Monday, October 18, 2010

Ajisen Ramen at Westfield San Francisco Centre

Getting Bowls of Noodles at the Food Court
865 Market St. (at Fifth), San Francisco
SOMA/Powell Street area
PH: 415.357.0288
Open daily 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (closes at 7 p.m. on Sundays)
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

I often travel far and wide for a good bowl of ramen. So imagine my pleasure when I saw a “coming soon” sign for Ajisen Ramen at the food court of the San Francisco Westfield Centre. I pass through this downtown mall often as my hub coming into the city from the East Bay, so dropping in for a bowl of noodles would be super convenient.

Ajisen, a fast-food restaurant chain from Kumamoto, Japan, has opened several outlets in Southern California. They opened a Fremont location a few years back (not so convenient for me) and the San Francisco outlet is supposedly run by a franchisee.

Despite being in a food court (on the Nordstrom side next to Panda Express), the location near the BART and MUNI Powell Station makes me think of what ramen stands must be like in Japan — often near or in train stations. A quick satisfying bowl of noodles is a great way to fill up and continue on your journey.

Since Ajisen opened at the San Francisco mall in August, I’ve visited a few times trying the various soup bases for its ramen. The d├ęcor has a clean and playful feel, with what I assume is the Ajisen mascot being the Hello Kitty-wannabe plastered on the wall and sometimes on the side of the bowls.

Even though it looks like any other food court restaurant, it works a bit differently. You have to be seated like at a sit-down restaurant and then order off the menu with a waiter. The counter, which looks so much like where you would order, is strictly for people wanting their noodles to go.

There are maybe 10 or more varieties of ramen on the menu, and a few selections of rice plates and sushi. I focused only on the ramen, and here are the ones I tried:

Shoyu Ramen ($8.95), comes with three slices of cha shu (the tender pork), half a hard-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, fish cake and a piece of nori on the side of the bowl. Since this was my first ramen bowl at Ajisen, let’s talk about the noodles. They were straight and not really crinkly, but had a nice texture and give. It wasn’t amazing or distinctive, but was cooked well. The shoyu broth tasted weak with very little body or complexity. With the ramen, it was OK, but without the ramen the soup alone was slightly salty. The cha shu was tender but didn’t have much flavor.

Ajisen Ramen ($7.50), comes with three slices of cha shu, shredded cabbage, egg and konbu. I figured this might be the special ramen, but the price would make you think otherwise. What’s distinctive about the Ajisen ramen is the broth, which had a milky look that reminded me of the special pork broth (tonkotsu) at some ramen places. There were amber specs that may be sesame seeds. I actually enjoyed the full body of this broth.

During one visit, I did order a plate of gyoza ($2.95) to see what they were like. The gyoza were tightly wrapped using a thin wrapper but I felt the bottom edge weren’t as crispy as they could have been. The filling was nothing to marvel over.

I returned another time with my friend Ken and ordered the Beef Curry Ramen ($9.75), just to try something different. (Other unusual ramen specials include a pork ribs ramen.) The beef curry ramen was topped with thinly sliced beef with a very subtle curry-flavored broth. The curry didn’t seem very spicy and was pretty tame, although I did enjoy the thinly sliced beef.

Ken ordered the Vegetable Ramen, which actually came topped with a variety of vegetables. Ken said the broth seemed a bit light for him, so he wasn’t very impressed. To me, it looked like the kind of vegetable dish a hotel would make at a banquet to please the non-meat-eating guests. There seemed to be little thought into making this bowl more special.

Miso Ramen ($8.50), comes with the cha shu slices, egg, shredded cabbage and seaweed. This was the latest bowl of ramen I tried at Ajisen. I’m a big fan of miso ramen, just because I love miso soup and I feel the soy paste gives the broth more body. Ajisen’s version was good, but again the broth was on the subtle side with just a mild miso flavor, like they used white miso with very little punch.

Side note: All the ramen comes with a ladle for a spoon, which looks interesting but I found a bit difficult to eat with. IMHO I felt it was too big an instrument to be bringing up to your mouth and would have just preferred a large spoon.

Ajisen definitely has a large variety of ramen to try, and they have quick and simple service. But the ramen is nothing spectacular and the broth can sometimes be light and mild. The quality of the ramen is probably on par with some of the ramen spots in Japantown, making Ajisen more a convenient and central spot to satisfy your hunger for ramen rather than to be transported to ramen nirvana.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Location Location Location)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Ajisen Ramen on Urbanspoon

More ramen love:
Santouka Ramen in San Jose
Tanpopo in San Francisco
Ken Ken Ramen Pop Up


The Librarian said...

Thanks for this review. I haven't tried ramen partly because the choices of broth, toppings, and noodles are overwhelming. But your review is helpful in terms of the various broths. What are your favorite noodle styles and toppings? thanks for helping a ramen amateur!

foodhoe said...

hmmm, I live smack in the middle of fremont and the city, but I'd much rather go to the Westfield Centre! It's really too bad that SF doesn't attract the really good stuff... but for the convenient location, this looks all right.

Kim said...

In Korea, an excellent bowl of ramen was about $3.

Single Guy Ben said...

Hi Librarian, ramen noodles are the same at one establishment, so it's not like you choose different types of ramen at one place. You just choose the broth. My favorite is tonkotsu, the pork broth, or miso, or sometimes spicy ramen.

In terms of what kind of ramen noodles I like, I kind of like the restaurants that make theirs a bit crinkly. It just makes it more fun to eat rather than the super straight or thin ones. I feel the straight ones just reminds me of soba or Chinese noodles. And I like it with some give, so not super cooked.

Foodhoe, you should try the Fremont Ajisen and then the SF and see if it's much different.

Kim, that sounds super cheap. Of course you have to pay $700 for the airfare to Korea! :P

Hungry Dog said...

Hm, sounds like they could use some improvement, but still, this is a welcome addition to westfield. Love me some ramen...

Pretty is a Dark Pleasure Author Lori Meckley said...

Your photo of the Beef Curry Ramen caught my eye. I'm amazed at the impact Ramen dishes since I stumbled on your blog...keep it coming

greg urbano said...

great posting, have you ever seen the movie ramen girl, it is a quirky independent

Carolyn Jung said...

Try the pork rib one next time. My husband had that at the Fremont one and it was fabulous. The meat was soooo tender. Do they have the great tofu dishes there, too, that they have at the Fremont one?

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, I was tempted by the pork rib ramen, but that sounded like sooo much meat. I only saw agedashi tofu on the menu but not much else.