All the students around us -- skinny young men in oversize polo shirts and jean jackets with messy, orange-streaked glam haircuts -- are reading graphic novels as they slurp their noodles. There's a tall shelf filled with manga right next to the entrance, ripe for the plucking. That is, if you read Japanese.
"Ramen House Ryowa is the perfect uncompromising ramen shop," reader Alan Tobey wrote. He called the University Avenue shop "absolutely Tokyo-authentic. You should review them before they start to move toward Cal-Tokyo compromises." I obeyed.
Everyone in Ryowa tonight is Japanese, but the owners have kindly prepared cheat sheets for their non-Japanese customers. Homemade labels on the forest of condiments at each table instruct the English speaker how to use them. Chile oil and Japanese chile powder require no explanation. "Pepper for ramen," reads a shaker of black pepper. A small plastic tub of chopped scallions coated in a zingy red chile paste is "spicy for soup."
The chile paste tastes Korean, not Japanese. So does the kimchi next to it; we open up the lidded glass jar, releasing one of the most love-it-or-hate-it odors in the world. Since we're in the former category, we snag small pieces of the crimson cabbage with metal tongs. There's nothing like that combination of fermented vegetables, garlic, and searingly hot peppers to clear out the sinuses and spark up the saliva glands.
The ramen shop in Japan is as widespread and important a cultural phenomenon as the drive-thru window is here. True to form, Ryowa's stylish but bare-bones decor is designed for the in-and-out diner, with poured concrete walls, spare red lights, and a deceptively frail paper screen separating the dining area from the cauldrons of water and stock. Solo diners can sit on stools at the high counter, and larger parties can grab a metal table.
There are eight distinct regional styles of ramen in Japan, and Ramen House Ryowa specializes in Kobe style, where American-born owner Tomo Nishimura's family originally hails from. True to form, Ryowa's menu is delightfully brief. No tempura, no sushi platter, no 55 mix-and-match ingredients. There are five or six kinds of ramen -- one of them vegetarian -- with a few sides, cold noodles, and two rice plates. Extra noodles cost $1. So does an addition of "healthy egg."
The Ryowa original ramen already comes with half of a hard-boiled egg floating on top of a massive stoneware bowl. A square of pressed seaweed, three thinly sliced pieces of roasted pork, mung bean sprouts, and a handful of chopped scallions cover its surface. The pork broth is meaty and cloudy, unlike the thin soy-tinted dashi soups served by many Japanese restaurants here. I sip it up from a large wooden spoon that resembles a shallow ladle, and use my chopsticks to untangle the chewy, crinkly wheat noodles and bring them to my mouth. Eating Asian noodle soups has such a primal appeal. No fussing with winding pasta around forks, or working out the most geometrically sound way to cut it up. You're supposed to do what comes naturally -- suck and slurp and smack, albeit with a modicum of daintiness.
The roasted pork pulls apart easily with chopsticks, but its flavor is concentrated. Enough chiles have been added to the broth to leave a slow, glowing heat. Chiles are omitted from the butter corn ramen, which also substitutes a cup of fresh corn kernels for some of the pork and finishes off the soup with two pats of butter. As the butter melts, it merges with the creamy sweetness of the corn.
Much of the fat from the long-stewed pork belly in the "side pork noodles" has melted away, leaving its flavor behind in the tender chunks of meat. The clear broth, twice as meaty and rich as the other soups, has enough salt to brine a small tub of pickles, though, so we sip glass after glass of the iced roasted-barley tea to rehydrate.
The only dud is a plate of pork gyoza, their thin skins blackened and smoky on the bottom. Our attempts to explain that we wanted it as an appetizer never made it past the language barrier, so it arrives fifteen minutes after the noodles. We sprinkle the dumplings with a dark ginger-soy-rice vinegar sauce from the dispenser marked "sauce for gyoza."
The gyoza are redeemed on my second visit. A crisp gold-brown skin covers the bottoms of the three that come with my lunch combo platter. Also in the combo is a tiny bowl of fried rice. On my first visit, all the tables around me ordered one or two domes of the egg-, pea-, and barbecued pork-studded rice, and I now see why -- it's assertively flavored with pork and a bit of sesame oil, not just soy sauce. A bit of wok char heightens its meatiness.
I ordered soy bean ramen, but the waiter delivers soy sauce ramen instead -- a smaller portion than the dinner size, thankfully. The corn, pork, and bean sprouts on top of the noodles are as excellent as in the other two versions I tried, but the addition of soy sauce to the soup ruins it. The soy sauce covers up the rich pork flavor with salt and a fermented sweetness.
One roommate orders the "hand-chilled noodles," which are only available in the summer. It's hard to see the chilled ramen underneath the patchwork of colors and textures spread on top -- poached chicken, diced roast pork, egg, seaweed, Japanese mountain vegetable, plump reconstituted shiitake mushrooms, and shreds of pickled ginger. My roommate pours a small bowl of thin soy-ginger dressing overtop and begins to mix. The small sample plate he prepares for me has a lively mix of textures amid the chewy noodles, but the presence of the dressing is too faint to bind their flavors together. But as the meal goes on, my roommate keeps filing tasting bulletins -- first he announces, "Oh, the flavor's getting much stronger now that it's had time to marinate," then "Wow, now it's really flavorful."
Another roommate orders cha-shu don, a large, shallow earthenware bowl filled with white rice, sprinkled with threads of dried seaweed, and drizzled with a light, sweet sauce. On top lie several slabs of roast pork, thicker slices of the same meat that garnishes the ramen, except now it's been heated under the broiler.
My informant is terrified that with time Ramen House Ryowa will Americanize, losing its charm along with its distinct character. I don't think he has to worry -- Nishimura opened the first Ramen House Ryowa in Mountain View five years ago, and he's replicated a successful formula here. But just in case, when you dine at Ryowa, have a little respect for tradition. Don't press the owner for extra vegetables or insist on substitutions. Grab a graphic novel from the shelf before you sit down, pick the dish that comes closest to what you want, and slurp your noodles as politely as you can.
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