Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Ramens

Adjacent to the 99 Cent Store at the bleak intersection of Western and 182nd St in the working class town of Gardena, California is quite possibly the best darn Japanese noodle soup this side of the Pacific. Don’t let the unoriginal name or overly simplistic menu scare you. One slurp of the broth and bite of chewy noodles and it is clear than Gardena Ramen is anything but ordinary.

Beneath the glare of fluorescent lighting, handwritten menus taped to the wall declare the two choices in Japanese and English- shoyu and miso. Stick with the shoyu. The broth is nuanced and complex without the showy additions of so many new guard ramen establishments. All the better that the toppings- thinly sliced pork, bamboo shoots, boiled sliced egg, green onions- are just enough to add color with a bit of texture and flavor, but not so much as to interfere with the real stars of the bowl: noodles and broth.

If you are lucky there might be three or four other diners spaced out widely between Formica tables, silently slurping at bowls, and that’s during the dinner rush. But the silence is no matter, the better to enjoy the purity of near perfection that Gardena Ramen turns out day after day. No glamour, just great ramen.

Across the country a new wave of ramen is popping up in New York City. Not breaking with tradition but perhaps testing the boundaries, Ippudo, just three blocks south of Union Square, is garnering attention from the press, and crowds, for innovating with the classic while remaining true to the vital components of noodles and broth.

Clearly something about this nouvelle ramen is appealing to the locals- lines snake out the door when most restaurants are running early bird specials- the young and hip eagerly wait to rub elbows at one of the four dozen or so seats that pack the small, sleekly decorated room. On a recent night, the name of my chosen ramen, “Akamaru Modern”, was a hint that this was no ordinary Japanese noodle soup. Ippudo does a twist on classic Tonkotsu noodle soup while adding to it a special house blend miso paste, pork, cabbage, scallions, kikurage (a Japanese mushroom), and garlic oil. I opted for the addition of a seasoned salt boiled egg and was not disappointed.

What Ippudo lacks in the sense of discovery I might get from stumbling upon a strip mall treasure in Southern Los Angeles, it makes up for in the bowl. Flavors are surprising and bolder than the classics I have been filling my belly with in California, but the essence it still the same: chewy noodles and rich, complex pork broth. If Gardena Ramen is making noodles and broth the way of the Japanese grandmother you wish you had, then Ippudo is the brazen child, learning from tradition but striking out on its own to forge new paths. There is a place for both styles of ramen, and just as I will gladly follow to the path of the new, there’s no place like home especially when that home is Gardena Ramen.

Gardena Ramen, 1840 West 182nd Street, Torrance, CA 90504-4402

Ippudo, 65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003

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