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San Francisco Bay Area RAMEN SHOWDOWN!

As a new resident of the SF Bay Area, one of my first culinary goals was to try out the “best” ramen in the region.  Since sampling some of the best ramen in Japan, and my hometown NY, I thought I would see how the ramen here stacks up.  SF historically has always had a sizeable Japanese population, and still maintains a fairly authentic Japantown.  I had heard that the bay area was going through a ramen renaissance, and that it was getting competitive.  Based on the internet and word of mouth, I narrowed it down to Tanpopo Ramen in Japantown, and Santa Ramen in San Mateo.  And being the ramen fanatic that I am I had them on consecutive days as to make sure I could compare them closely.

Tanpopo Ramen : San Francisco, CA USA

Tanpopo is clearly named after the Juzo Itami hit movie of 1985 that introduced Japanese ramen to me and the rest of the world.  The two Japanese lady proprietors even reminded me of the main character from the movie.  The restaurant is located in the main pedestrian arcade of Japantown in the city, on Buchanan St. between Post and Sutter.  The restaurant itself is large for a ramen restaurant, seating approximately 40 at tables and 10 at the bar.  It is modern in its décor and feels like a large private karaoke room.  I arrived early, but there was a long line as I left during prime dinner hours, and I’m told this is normal.

I ordered a chashu shoyu ramen (soy sauce broth with extra pork), and an order of gyoza.  And for happy hour between 5:30 and 7, $3 Kirin or Sapporo drughts in frozen mugs.  The draught Japanese beer is something I realized I had missed since my last visit to Tokyo.

Noodles: The ramen noodles were average, but cooked to the proper firmness. Slightly thinner than average and slightly “squiggly”, which reminded me of Takayama style ramen, but not as thin.

Soup:  The soup was pretty standard shoyu, and was quite underwhelming.  I think the soup could have had more complexity, something that is quite difficult for shoyu broth, but amazing if executed well.

Toppings: The toppings were probably the biggest letdown.  The chashu (roast pork), while supposed to be more lean in Tokyo style shoyu ramen, as opposed to the ultra fatty pork that is popular in tonkotsu ramen, was very bland, lean, and dry.  I’ve had authentic Tokyo shoyu ramen in Ogikubo Tokyo with the same style of lean pork, and was much better.  The egg was a simple hardboiled egg, not soft boiled or hanjuku (soy sauce marinated, runny yolk).  The menma (bamboo shoots), naruto (fishcake) and nori (seaweed) tasted straight from a supermarket package.  Many top ramen places pride themselves on making their own toppings.

The gyoza was decent.  Nice and tender, with a good crunch of shallots and chives.  And the draft Kirin in a frozen glass was just plain refreshing.

Overall the experience was nice.  It was in Japantown conveniently located near the Japanese grocery shopping and goods you might be there for.  I give Tanpopo Ramen a 6 out of 10.  For location, large interior, decent service, and cold Japanese draught beer.  And the ramen was ok, but not spectacular.  It would probably not stand out if located in Tokyo.

Santa Ramen : San Mateo, CA USA

I happened to be in San Mateo and met with an old friend for ramen lunch.  The real ramen wars are supposedly in San Mateo, which is about 30-40 minutes south of San Francisco.  There are 5 or 6 ramen shops that all compete for the top spot.  I decided on Santa Ramen, supposedly the original in the area and still one of the best.  I couldn’t tell you what Santa means in Japanese since they use English, not Japanese characters, and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with Christmas.  It is located in a small strip mall on El Camino Real, with a Nijiya Market.  I assume this makes this an official Japanese strip mall.  The first thing that hits you is the line.  I believe I waited about 20-25 minutes.  Which I suppose is ok at one of the top places in Tokyo, but I have a problem with prolonged waits for ramen in the US.  The ramen isn’t good enough to deserve it, in my opinion.  The interior is large with tables enough for 60 and a bar that seats about 8.  The interior was rather plain.

So after waiting on line for 20-25 minutes, with a lot of Chinese people, and zero Japanese people, the young half-Japanese hostess takes our order, and I decided to get the tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen topped with yuzu rind.  I’m glad I went with the yuzu and I’ll explain later in the toppings section.

Noodles: Noodles are very average.  Not great, not bad, but just middle of the road and pretty uninspiring.  They were cooked well for firmness, but had almost nothing special going for it.  They were typical medium thickness, medium length ramen.

Soup:  Tonkotsu soup is a trend in the last decade in Japan, where the soup is extremely rich and fatty, and that’s why I like it.  This tonkotsu soup was very simple.  It was lacking in fat, and flavor.  It was a little too one dimensional for me.

Toppings:  There was sliced kikurage (mountain mushroom), menma (bamboo shoots) and chashu.  First off the chashu was disappointing.  Tonkotsu ramen places show off their extremely soft, velvet, creamy fat pork.  This chashu was just regular, which was surprising because Santa offers kurobuta as a side dish.  They were out of kurobuta and supposedly always run out. The kikurage was surprising too since its usually found in Hakata ramen, but the noodles, soup and other toppings weren’t typical of Hakata ramen.   I had the yuzu rind on top, which may not have been fresh chopped, but it was a nice complement to a rather simple tonkotsu soup.  I think if I didn’t get the fragrant and sweet yuzu rind garnish, I would probably rate Santa lower.

No draught beer and no gyoza on the menu was odd to me.

So Santa Ramen wasn’t a disappointment, but nowhere near one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve had.  I give Santa Ramen a 7 out of 10, for decent quality, uniqueness of yuzu garnish, and specializing in tonkotsu, something not very common for US ramen.  I however don’t think it warrants the long wait on line.

Conclusion:

So who wins best ramen?  Unfortunately there isn’t a clear winner.  And it’s sad to say that neither restaurant would be a contender in Japan.  I would say Santa Ramen has the edge, partly because I like tonkotsu soup, and it’s executed a little better.  But the long lines and drive to San Mateo wouldn’t make me crave a visit here.  Tanpopo probably does better with authenticity and menu offerings.  Oh, and draught beer.

If you disagree with my assessments and have other ramen places in the Bay Area you think are better please leave a comment.

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