"In the same way an omelet is considered the Western chef’s yardstick, I believe shio ramen is the true measure of a ramen chef’s skills."
One’s love for ramen is a highly subjective affair. So I feel it necessary for me to explain why I would go against popular opinion and rank Kahoo Ramen in San Jose, California, above what many would consider its “betters”: Ippudo in New York City, Asa in Los Angeles, and the likes of Ramen Halu in the Bay Area. The truth is, I love ramen. Love it. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion, and it wasn’t until I moved too far away (18 hours by plane) from my family’s favorite ramen shop that I was forced to hunt down a new ramenya.
My search was long, arduous, and disillusioning. Some ramenya serve up a broth that reeks of animal stink (I would say who but don't want to name names). Other ramenya dish out overcooked noodles (Ippudo, I’m looking at you. You really broke my heart—especially since you get your broth so, so right). Almost all ramenya mess up the hanjuku tamago, which as a kid, I used to call the “magic egg.” Why magic? Because done right, the hanjuku tamajo is an egg whose white has been hard-boiled and steeped for a very long time in a soy sauce marinade (so that it's richly saturated with flavor) yet the yolk remains a molten gold. Every other egg—hardboiled to within an inch of its life, too short a soak in marinade, or worse, no marinade at all—is wrong.
When it comes to ramen, I harbor the worst of personalities: unforgiving and judgmental. So I feel very blessed when I find a ramenya that is willing to accommodate, nay, pander to my obsession for perfection.
Situated in a tiny corner of a Japanese-centric plaza in San Jose (neighbors Mitsuwa Marketplace and Kinokuniya Book Store are within beckoning distance), Kahoo Ramen is one of those not-so-hidden gems that boast a perpetual line out the door.
Kahoo’s menu is short and sweet, barely one and a half pages long, including drinks and side dishes. There are four broths on offer: shoyu, shio, miso, and spicy sesame. Different noodles (ranging from thin, yellow egg noodles to the thicker, off-white la mein variety) are served up with the broths, and the friendly, scarily efficient Japanese server will check when you place your order if a certain noodle type is OK with you.
In the same way an omelet is considered the Western chef’s yardstick, I believe shio ramen (salt-broth ramen) is the true measure of a ramen chef’s skills. It’s an intimidating yet ridiculously basic challenge: Does he or does he not understand broth?
At Kahoo, the surprisingly youthful chef’s understanding is voluminous. I was served perfectly cooked ramen swimming in a broth that was light yet full of body, nuanced, and deeply satisfying. Kahoo's shoyu ramen (soy sauce-broth ramen) was equally bracing, made from chicken feet, pork, lard, and shavings of katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna).
Kahoo’s kotteri miso ramen (kotteri means “thick”) is almost too rich—a concentrated version of their regular miso ramen with lashings of oil atop. Their spicy sesame ramen is even richer, with freshly ground sesame paste and minced pork providing body and ballast. My friends are very fond of these two versions and I will readily admit that they’re good—just too heavy for me (then again, I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like pasta alla carbonara).
The first time I visit a ramenya, I’m careful to order my noodles “katame” (al dente). I like my noodles with plenty of bite and despise soggy noodles (in fact, I like them most when they are close to the texture of rubber bands). I’m slowly realizing that there are people (perhaps the majority) who like their noodles less than katame, and that ramenya in the U.S. tend to cater to them. If you’re picky like me, remember to specify how firm you like your noodles—regular noodles are "futsu," and soft noodles are "yawarakame."
Kahoo’s egg is a true hanjuku tamago, with its firm white and molten yolk. It’s not as saturated in soy sauce goodness as I’d like, but I’m willing to cut them some slack, considering no other ramenya in the States has served me a halfway decent one. Other toppings include generous, flavorful cuts of fatty pork belly that are falling-apart tender, menma (braised bamboo shoots), seaweed, lots of negi (green onions), spinach, and sprouts.
Among Kahoo’s side dishes, special mention goes to the spicy chicken karaage: moist on the inside, crisp on the outside, and tantalizing with its marinade of ginger, soy sauce, and sake. The six-piece portion is served with a lemon wedge and dollops of Japanese mayo and Sriracha hot sauce. The gyoza are also delicious, with a gorgeously crisp crust on the bottom.
People complain about Kahoo’s service being “too efficient”—the servers ask you if you’re ready to order the moment you’re seated, and your bill arrives almost immediately after your food (which comes out fast). In Kahoo’s defense, the shop is the size of a postage stamp and busy, busy, busy. There is a bar counter and five tables. With all the running around (I’ve never seen a waitress walk) and the people in line trying to squeeze into the shop’s warmth and out of the cold, it’s a miracle I’ve not witnessed a collision. Having said that, our servers have always been friendly and smiling—their actions are expedient, never brusque.
Kahoo does not take reservations and I’ve never been lucky enough to be seated immediately. It does, however, pay to eat alone—solo diners are often given a seat at the counter long before bigger parties. Kahoo does not do takeout orders—they have a sign that explains they wish for all customers to enjoy the best-tasting ramen in-store. And I respect them all the more for that. In my (unforgiving, judgmental) world, ramen not consumed immediately turns into inedible mush.
The damage: ramen, $7.95 to $9.50; chicken karaage, $5; Sapporo beer on tap, $4.
4330 Moorpark Avenue, San Jose CA 95129
Hours: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.