April 24, 2013

The Ramen Shaman: Mr. Ramen (LA)

by Will VanderWyden

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a man embarked on a quest was to eat at every ramen shop in Los Angeles. Mr. Ramen was on the list from Day One, but the man never visited.

You see, Mr. Ramen has a certain reputation. To put it bluntly, the man has never seen a good review from a reputable source. Go down to 1st Street in Little Tokyo sometime and see for yourself — Mr. Ramen is in a pitiable location just a few dozen feet away from Daikokuya. While scores of people wait their turn under the yellow awning at all hours of the day, the sidewalks in front of Mr. Ramen have always been conspicuously bare. It’s a little sad.

Of course it’s obvious who that man was: John Cocktostan, my college roommate (that makes two late 70′s movie references so far).

Anyhow. So I’ve held out for two years. I always sort of thought I’d finally go to Mr. Ramen when I didn’t have anywhere new to try. Kind of like a ramen victory cigar, or like Darko Milicic circa 2005 (obscure basketball reference). I mean come on, it’s called Mr. Ramen! How can it afford to suck?

image
Photo brazenly stolen from Urbanspoon

Well, last week it all went down spontaneously. I was downtown, I was cold, I was starting to feel ill (I was running on fumes), and it all clicked into place — today must be the day.

It was an inauspicious start. Mr. Ramen is cash-only, so I ran across the street to an ATM and when I had to choose my withdrawal amount my knuckle accidentally hit the screen before my finger. I suddenly had $200 in my wallet. The lesson, as always: I am a moron.

The interior is a simple, long, deep rectangular box shape with seating along each side and the kitchen is in the back. There were about nine people inside (while about 15 people were waiting for a table outside Daikokuya).

Virtually every wall was festooned with napkin drawings from customers, mostly manga-themed and proclaiming love to Mr. Ramen. It was pretty cool actually, a nice touch, and with a table with volumes of manga for customers to read sitting along one wall I was beginning to see how Mr. Ramen could survive after all these years.

Mr. Ramen is courting a niche audience. I should also mention that one of the servers was incongruously attractive… if anyone has ever successfully hit on a waitress at a ramen shop, please get in touch.

I was also surprised by the selection; the menu boasts over a dozen different options, from simple shoyu to fried chicken, mapo, curry and beef ramen! It’s all over the place, and beautiful big pictures of most bowls were posted above the drawings.

Being cold (it was a strangely chilly day in LA) and feeling ragged I went with the tanmen. I assumed it was similar to tantanmen, like the sesame seed paste-based bowl from the (sadly) recently departed Chin-Ma-Ya, aka the perfect medicinal bowl. But the photo looked nothing like tantanmen and turns out it is nothing like tantanmen.

It’s actually more like Nagasaki chanpon (minus the seafood), and it is enormous. Along with Orochon this is the biggest bowl in LA, and mine came topped with a mini Mt. Fuji of vegetables.

That’s my extra dollop of garlic on top.

So… how was it? Pretty good! I don’t know if this was a shio broth but salt was the primary flavor — again, much like chanpon — but it was balanced and supported the veggies just right. Not terrible at all. The toppings (the heart of this bowl) were crisp and fresh, although the thin slices of pork were a little skimpy.

The noodles were middle of the road, but that’s ok. Not overdone but not al dente (aka katamen) either. It was a perfectly satisfying bowl and lifted my spirits. Isn’t that all ramen is supposed to do?

And if you think this is a case of a shop simply surpassing horrendously low expectations… well, trust me, it’s not. Mr. Ramen might not be winning any flavor awards anytime soon, but this was not a bad bowl by any definition (and those do exist).

With such an extensive menu it’s hard to judge a shop based on a single ramen style, but Mr. Ramen has found a place in my heart. And not just because of that waitress. I’d try another bowl there for sure, and it’s especially nice to have a wealth of non-tonkotsu options in Little Tokyo. Although let’s be honest, it’ll be a rare day that I’m not down for some tonkotsu (in fact I just took a friend to Men Oh today).

Oh, and I realize Caddyshack was released in 1980, not the late 70s. But it sounded better that way.

MR. RAMEN
341 1/2 E. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
T: 213.626.4252

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