By Chris O’Neal
Kao Ramen by Mama
573 E. Main St.
It is no secret that I have a love affair with all things Japanese. I’ve strolled through temples in Kyoto, shopped for anime merchandise until I was left broke and ashamed in Osaka and slurped my way through the ramen shops of Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
My first bowl of ramen in Japan cannot be topped. For half an hour, I stood in the longest line I could find in a food court on the top floor of the Kyoto train station. Finally, order placed — tonkotsu ramen — I waited, giddy as a schoolgirl.
It was the best bowl of ramen I had ever had. The broth, rich and velvety, deep in the coveted fattiness only achieved by simmering pork bones for hours on end; the noodles, soft yet somewhat al dente, soaking up the soup with green onions and sesame floating about, topped with a load of slow-roasted pork belly known as chashu.
Kao Ramen by Mama exists in the spot formerly occupied by Fuji Sushi where, as a 17-year-old Japanese culture-obsessed teen from Texas, I had my first sushi roll. The interior has been transformed, more inviting than before, with a communal table in the center.
The “Mama” in the name is the same Mama of Rice by Mama, the most popular Thai spot on Main Street. Knowing this, and knowing that ramen is, well, Japanese, I tempered my expectations for traditional.
The menu is a mix of Japanese classics with a twist of Thai. Classic Japanese bar food staples like agedashi tofu ($6.50), fried tofu in a broth made of dried bonito flakes (dashi), ginger and soy; and gyoza ($8.00), fried dumplings, are offered as appetizers alongside others like the Thai spicy salmon sashimi dubbed “Mama Style.”
Ramen offerings come in several varieties, from traditional to flamboyant. The Kao No.1 Ramen ($10.95) is the most traditional: a tonkotsu broth, chashu pork, green onion, “season” egg and various toppings, including bok choy and corn.
I ordered this, the gyoza and karaage ($8), fried chicken with a sweet and sour sauce. The chicken itself was cooked to crispy perfection. The gyoza, however, couldn’t decide if it wanted to be steamed or fried and were rather bland.
As for the ramen, the broth had good flavor: rich and savory, but also bright with distinctive notes of ginger and seaweed, a touch of Mama’s Thai roots in every spoonful. The noodles were fine, though chewy, a little more time in the pot required. Where the bowl stood out was in the chashu pork, which packed a whole lot of flavor into several generous, thin slices.
The egg, a staple of ramen bowls everywhere, needs work, as does the unagi bowl ($11.95). Typically, the egg is cooked to feature a gelatinous yolk, soft-boiled. At Kao, the egg was super hard-boiled like an Easter egg. The unagi bowl, a teriyaki-glazed grilled filet of eel over rice, was nothing to write home about, and the mushy broccoli and carrots served alongside it were not doing the dish any favors.
It was on the second visit that I discovered Mama’s style.
I decided to trust “Mama” and go full Thai by ordering the Mama-style ramen ($10.95), an amalgamation of tom kha coconut broth, a protein (I went with tofu), shiitake mushrooms and several toppings, including garlic chips, lime and chili.
Toss out any prior experience with ramen when ordering Mama’s style. The lemongrass-scented tom kha broth melds with the garlic and noodles in such a way that I would dare say makes Kao Ramen a unique shop the world over. This was the standout: I came looking for tradition and found instead a new experience, and a new favorite, altogether.
Kao also offers a vegan-friendly version featuring organic noodles made of kale (an extra $2) and a vegetable broth, perfect for those who are so often left out in Japanese restaurants.
Kao Ramen by Mama isn’t going to replace my memories of Japan, but it doesn’t have to. Mama makes connections between Japanese tradition and the Thai dishes of which she is an expert. Leave your preconceived notions at the door and go for Mama’s style. You won’t be disappointed.