A Ramen Crawl Through LA With Sun Noodle

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Soul Ramen and Naked Ramen at Tatsu [Photographs: Luke Davin]

Ramen Week 2013

Editor's Note: After his tour of Sun Noodle's Los Angeles Factory, our trusty Food Lab intern Luke Davin went out in the field to taste the noodles in action.

As part of my tour of the Los Angeles factory, Sun Noodle took me out to some of the different ramen shops in LA that use their noodles. As impressive as it is to see two completely different styles of noodle being made at the same time, nothing builds understanding like first-hand experience. I wanted to taste lots of different styles of noodles, and if I could, do some side-by-side comparisons.

Our first stop was Ikemen, named for the Japanese phrase for a handsome, well-dressed gentleman, but also a pun on "men," which means "noodle" in Japanese (ramen, tsukemen, etc...see the pattern there?) Their menu is full of more puns ("Spider Men," "Johnny Dip,") fitting for a location less than two blocks from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but the strangest title on the menu by far is "Ghostbusters Ikemen" ($12). When I asked about it, they explained that it's a mushroom cream broth tsukemen. The name comes from the tableside presentation in which a waiter torches a small marshmallow with a butane torch, and then swirls the marshmallow into the broth until it dissolves.

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Ghostbuster Ikemen at Ikemen

It's the sort of dish that many diners might skip just from the sounds of it (mushroom and marshmallow?!), but I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty this bowl was. Tsukemen broth is often slightly sweet, because the sugar helps the soup cling to the noodles as you dip them. Instead of being cloying, the marshmallow added a smokiness and creaminess to the broth, which was studded with several plump mushrooms.

Next we hit two spots in Los Angeles' "Little Osaka." This neighborhood has been developing quickly, garnering attention as a great neighborhood for lunch, and particularly Asian soul food. The tiny strip (just two blocks!) of Sawatelle Boulevard is packed with "umami-mongers." Tsujita and Tsujita Annex serve noodles at the north end of the neighborhood, while Tatsu is situated in the heart of the strip.

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Close-up of Soul Ramen at Tatsu

When you first enter Tatsu, you order via iPads near the front door as a large TV plays video of Tokyo at night. It's a polished, modernized version of Japan's ubiquitous ticket restaurants that works very well. If there's any limitation, it's the slow seat turnover, based on the fact that American ramen customers tend to linger much longer than their Japanese counterparts. Tatsu's ramen isn't quite as playful as Ikemen's, but it's not entirely traditional either. We had two bowls there in very different styles.

The first was a tonkotsu (pork broth) style they call Soul Ramen ($12), with roast pork, ground beef in a sweet sauce, and black garlic oil in addition to nori, scallions, and wood ear mushrooms. The tonkotsu broth was lighter than most and didn't weigh down the bowl. Tatsu gets two different noodles from Sun: the first, the noodles used in soups like this, has extra egg white in the recipe. The protein helps the noodles hold their shape and texture while submerged in the hot broth, and the straightness plays into their clean, modern aesthetic.

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Close-up of Naked Ramen at Tatsu

Next we had their Naked Ramen ($9), noodles with a sweet sesame sauce, tofu, nori, scallions, and an ajitsuke tamago, an egg with a hard white and soft yolk that they take out of the shell and marinate in sweetened soy. There is no broth at all, so it's not a tsukemen, or dipping noodle, like the Ghosbuster. This is in the style of aburasoba or mazemen, noodles prepared with a sauce and toppings more like Italian pasta dishes. With a squeeze of lime, this is definitely not a traditional Japanese recipe.

They chose a very different noodle for this dish. Despite the bright yellow color, this noodle doesn't have any egg product in the recipe—the bright yellow comes from vitamin B2. With less protein, the surface of the noodle has more grip, which is heightened by their wavy shape. This way, even when stirred in the sesame oil dressing, the noodles help lift the sauce, nori, and scallions into your mouth as you slurp.

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Tonkotsu Ramen at Tsujita Annex

For a more traditional ramen fix we went to Tsujita Annex, the second location of Japanese restaurant Tsujita. Annex opened just across Sawatelle from the original Tsujita with the intent of expanding Tsujita's ramen service, which only runs during lunch. In a bold move, Annex features a completely different style of ramen from the Tsujita lunch service. Annex is modeled after a very hearty style of ramen from Tokyo called Jiro, known for its rich broth and huge heaps of toppings. This is a bowl of unrelenting umami.

Instead of slices, the chashu in the restaurant's Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.95) is cut into wedges, but they're each as soft as very ripe peaches. The middle of the bowl is dominated by pea sprouts and raw shredded cabbage, but there's plenty of tonkotsu broth to balance them out. The broth itself isn't just rich, but also has a very pronounced pork flavor. Even the noodles aren't your standard slender ramen squiggles—Annex uses thick, chewy noodles that stand up to the broth by virtue of their girth. Their goal is not so much overkill as intensity with balance.

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Tsukemen at Tsujita Annex

We also had their Tsukemen ($9.95), which uses the same broth with a different noodle better suited to dipping. Instead of worrying about keeping their shape in hot broth, tsukemen noodles should draw in the broth quickly and help carry the broth into the mouth as you slurp.

These noodles are much more delicate than their tonkotsu counterpart, with more crinkle and less body. Just like the Ghostbusters Ikemen, this dipping tonkotsu has been sweetened, but Tsujita Annex also balances the sweet with a little acidity in the broth, which makes it possibly even more addictive than their tonkotsu ramen.

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Tsujita Annex's tsukemen (left) and tonkotsu (right) noodles next to each other in the same bowl

I snuck a tsukemen noodle into my ramen bowl just to look at them next to each other. Eating them weeks apart it might be hard to pinpoint the differences in these two noodles, but side-by-side, the choices of the chef are very apparent. Attention to even the tiniest of details like these is how LA's best ramen shops stand out from the rest.