Spanning the length of the Peninsula from San Mateo south to San Jose, this part of the Bay Area is often known as Silicon Valley for obvious tech reasons. It also happens to be the ramen belt of the Bay Area. Discussing the region's premier bowl of ramen will cause the same type of contentious debate that the best pastrami in New York or deep dish in Chicago ignites. For Ramen Week, we've taken matters into our own hands to examine the signature ramens of five of the Peninsula and South Bay's favorite slurping shops.
Maru Ichi, Mountain ViewIt looks like squid ink, but no, that's intensely browned garlic oil which serves as the thin cover for this Mountain View ramen house's specialty Kuro (black) Ramen ($7.98). Beneath the oil slick resides a somewhat light tonkotsu broth with heavy cinnamon notes. It's less creamy than its peers, more like chicken noodle soup. The magic happens when the garlic oil starts mixing with the tonkotsu broth. The combination evokes hearty autumn flavors of pumpkin and clove, almost like a Thanksgiving gravy. This is not the salty tonkotsu found at other ramen shops nearby. Let me put it this way: I've never drunk less water while eating ramen.
The highest highs and principal critiques come from the details outside the broth. This is the only stop on the tour that makes its own noodles. The Hakata-style thin noodles are just tense enough to hold their own with the clinging garlic oil. Housemade kimchi is a wonderful spice accompaniment and I thoroughly enjoyed the giant stack of bean sprouts on top of the ramen for additional crunch. Since the garlic oil only adds a slight nutty flavor, be sure to use the dried garlic chips on the side if you seek a mroe distinct aftertaste that necessitates the use of breath mints. Unfortunately, the dry chashu pork was devoid of any life and the promised seaweed never emerged as a garnish, while the egg's dried yolk was an afterthought. The noodles and broth, fortunately, make up it.
Ramen Dojo, San Mateo
Kazunori Kobayashi has a small ramen empire in San Mateo, where he owns three very popular shops with three different signature broths. Dojo specializes in a Spicy Garlic Ramen ($8.95) that truthfully doesn't have a strong garlic flavor. The spice is certainly noticeable, though, especially if you decide to go above "mild," the second-least spicy choice on the zero to three alarm spice scale. As creamy as the tonkotsu broth was, its pork flavor notes were a bit too restrained.
Each ramen here is uniquely garnished with shredded red pepper for additional spice and an umami-heavy scoop of "chicken gravy" that combines cooked ground chicken, chopped shiitake mushroom, and chopped ginger into something like chicken butter. I definitely noticed the garlic in the roasted garlic cloves that come as another garnish, which certainly don't hold back the garlic punch. Other very artfully presented garnishes include stringy kikurage mushrooms, fresh green chives, two pieces of tender roasted pork, and a tiny quail egg. Many diners like to add corn atop the ramen, though I found it dominated almost every bite.
After slurping my way through this quintet of ramens, I was very happy to enjoy the flourish of greenery in Dojo's ramen, even if it is just a thin piece of lettuce.
Orenchi Ramen, Santa Clara
Of all the ramens tasted on the Peninsula, Yoshiyuki Maruyama's signature tonkotsu Orenchi Ramen ($9) is the one you're most likely to slurp to the finish. I'm not saying that just because I'm always starving while I wait outside in the inevitable, Cronut-level line. I'm saying it because the smartly balanced broth is both deeply flavorful and not too heavy. Maruyama simmers the broth for 18 hours until it reaches the proper intensity. They serve 500 bowls of ramen are a day, and they always run out of soup, so try to come right at opening time.
The Orenchi Ramen achieves a profound depth of pork, not unlike a juicy-sweet pork chop in liquid form. That might be because Maruyama uses Kurobuta pork in the broth, often chefs' choice cut for pork chops. Yet the tonkotsu broth is lighter and less salty, from the addition of chicken broth. There is more intrigue, too, in the broth, as I seemed to detect faint ginger and curry notes. Toppings include a beautiful soft-boiled, liquid yolk egg (the only liquid yolk of the five ramens), thinly sliced chashu pork with little fat, sesame, nori, and sliced green onions. Orenchi has a heavy hand with garnishes of enoki mushrooms and maybe a too-generous amount of bamboo shoots. But the wheat noodles are boiled to perfection, with just that right amount of spring and a faint chewy backbone. As enjoyable as the whole bowl is, the story here is a broth that I had no problem waiting two hours for.
Santouka Ramen, San Jose
Santouka is a highly regarded Hokkaido-based ramen chain with a lone Bay Area shop inside of Mitsuwa Marketplace's miniature food court. Shio Ramen ($8.99) (a 20-hour stewed tonkotsu broth with additional salt added) is what has launched the brand to global fame. You'll certainly notice the salt elements of the broth, but it's balanced with enough strong pork flavor to avoid being overwhelming. There's no doubt Santouka knows what they're doing with this broth.
The bowl has a distinct milky color and tastes richer than the other broths I sampled, meaning it's more filling as a result. Santouka's medium-wide, springy noodles are cooked very al dente. A sour pickled plum crowns the ramen with some bamboo shoots, a colorful fish cake, wood ear mushrooms, and scallions. A halved soy marinated egg comes in an adjacent cup, but what really made me throw my chopsticks up in joy were the pork jowl chashu slices atop the soup. This was the only chashu of the five ramens that clearly had tremendous care put into them. The soy-marinated pork was tender and sweet, as opposed to dry and fatty. I wish I could have a full-sized entrée of this chashu—regular pork belly has nothing on this chashu.
Ramen Halu, San Jose
There are many aspects of the Ramen Halu experience that caught me by surprise. First of all, the marine-inspired ambiance (strange for a pork broth themed restaurant) seemed very bizarre. Then I sampled the signature HALU Ramen ($7.90). This is the only one of the five that left me wondering what the heck happened to the ramen? The broth is the real guilty party. It's actually made of two broths: one from stewed pork, seaweed, and vegetables; and another lighter, clear broth based on shoyu and dashi. They must cancel each other out, since I didn't taste either's promising ingredients. The murky brown color immediately called to mind the broth for French onion soup, but it unfortunately tasted more like a weak boeuf bourguignon, with a few weird passing notes of beef and cracked black pepper.
The noodles are thicker than most and were a little too soft. The broth-to-noodle ratio leaned far too heavily towards the broth, and it was nearly impossible to mix all the ingredients and have every element compliment each other. Don't even get me started on the the oversized wide bowl, which I couldn't stop dropping my spoon into by accident. I did appreciate the unique addition of spinach as a garnish, but the chewy chashu pork was characterless. The soft boiled egg had a crumbly, dry yolk. In short, I'm still scratching my head from Halu's signature ramen. As highly praised as it is, there is no way this ramen is in the same league as the others.
About the author: Trevor Felch is a Bay Area based food & drink writer for the SF Weekly. Charm him with Oregon Pinot Noir and nutella crêpes. Follow him @TrevorFelch and visit his blog Trev's Bistro.