In search of the 100 percent perfect bowl of ramen
Gotetsu, Toki Restaurant and Tokiwa
By Chris O'Neal 08/14/2014
2098 E. Main St. Ventura
2850 Johnson Drive, #E, Ventura
476 W. Los Angeles Blvd., Suite B10, Moorpark
My first food stop in Kyoto, Japan, was in the train station. I stood in the longest line I could find and waited 20 minutes to be greeted by a person who pointed to different buttons on a box that resembled a vending machine. Not knowing what to order, she punched the buttons for me: a bowl of soup – tonkotsu ramen – and a small Sapporo beer.
As I took my seat, a man reached through an open window and placed a bowl of noodle soup in front of me as if to say, “Here you go, feeding time.” The moment the noodles hit my lips and the rich, fatty pork broth soaked my tongue, I became the happiest tourist in the zoo.
This, for better or worse, has been the standard by which all other ramen experiences I have had have been compared and, until recently, it was difficult to even attempt in Ventura County.
Ramen is often associated in the States with the 10-for-a-dollar packages that college students call dinner, but in Japan it’s just as serious as Vietnamese pho or Korean tang. There are a few variations of ramen that you’ll find in any Japanese ramen shop — tonkotsu, shoyu and miso being kings at institutions like Daikokuya and Men Oh in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. We’ll get to these styles in a moment.
Over the years, a few Japanese restaurants have popped up offering the famous bowl of noodles in Ventura County.
Just across from Ventura High School is Gotetsu, a primarily Japanese-style skewers joint — or kushiyaki. A promising sign on the front door reads “NO SUSHI.”
On the lunch and dinner menu, owner Yukari Watanabe offers miso and shoyu ramen. Miso is a fermented soy bean paste that has a pronounced, unique flavor. Watanabe uses it to construct the broth for her ramen in decorated, seemingly antique pots and pans that look as though they would be more comfortable in your grandmother’s kitchen.
Watanabe adds ginger, garlic and vegetable broth to the miso and then adds the traditional noodles. (Ramen simply translates into noodles, after all.) She tops it with chashu (braised) pork, green onions and half of a soft-boiled egg.
If the noodles in Kyoto were a profound statement, the miso ramen at Gotetsu was as well. It was unsophisticated — no frills, no bells and whistles, but it didn’t matter because the parts were in harmony, like a clock that ticks away reliably without calling attention to itself.
Watanabe grew up in the northern part of Tokyo, where shoyu ramen is popular — noodles with a soup made with plenty of soy sauce — and she says her shoyu ramen is the better of the two. Unlike traditional ramen shops, Watanabe uses only vegetarian broth, making it friendly for those with such a preference.
Gotetsu is like sitting at a friend’s table and being served a bowl of ramen, a warm welcome home.
Japan has as many different kinds of ramen as there are barbecue in the south. On a particularly warm day in Kyoto, I stumbled into a ramen shop specializing in 15 different styles. I had the same reaction upon walking into Toki Restaurant, where over a dozen bowls of ramen are featured: a sense of overwhelmed enthusiasm. I went for the “Volcano Ramen” ($9.50), the No. 1 choice on the menu.
This soup uses a tonkotsu broth made by boiling pork bones for an extended period of time at high heat. How long? The broth at Toki had been boiled for 6 -7 hours to release the bold flavors of the bones, turning the soup into a rich, creamy white broth reminiscent of savory milk. Add to that, spicy ground pork, bean sprouts, cabbage, green onions and a drizzle of rayu, a chili-infused sesame oil, and the volcano begins to rumble.
Tonkotsu-style ramen is the variation I had in Kyoto, and Toki reminded me of such. Bold and savory and full of that Japanese sixth flavor, umami.
Toki Restaurant is the shop a college student would pop into for a quick bowl alongside tourists looking for gourmet at a bargain.
In Moorpark, there is a man working to perfect his ramen recipe, and his story is one of obsession. Tokiwa Pollakriss Samuerphak makes a tonkotsu broth over a 16-hour period, a slave to the stove.
Samuerphak, who prefers to go by Git, caught the ramen bug from a Japanese friend. His journey to ramen perfection has found him tweaking ingredients here, adding them there and sometimes going off script to put a spin on the recipe that he is constantly perfecting.
Despite some inconsistency with the noodles (on my first visit, the noodles were starchy and too chewy, but on the second they were sublime), Git’s broth is undeniably delicious, and that is 90 percent of a good bowl of ramen.
Tokiwa ramen is a study in the art of the broth, a labor of love, akin to what one might be served while finding oneself in the hills surrounding Kyoto by a master-in-training.
I left Kyoto wondering when I’d return. Aside from being a gorgeous city rich in historical significance and culture, it had also become an unexpected culinary awakening, an experience I’ve longed to replicate ever since. The ramen in Ventura County has a certain charm to it that will have to do until the next plane ticket is purchased.