One Street, Two Ramen Houses
It's entirely too hot here to even think about eating ramen. Excessive heat advisories are in effect; the sun is shining; it's finally summer. And ramen. Well ramen isn't a summery dish just by the virtue of its design. But that's what happens when the weather catches up with a food blog backlog.
Not too many weeks ago, it was cool enough to enjoy a hot, steaming bowl of the good stuff; the Japanese antidote to the June gloom. And during two particularly chilly, cloud-covered days, I decided to explore Baker street in Costa Mesa, where there exists not one, but two ramen joints, separated from each other by mere blocks and competing for the same noodle dollar with heavyweight Santoka and Oki Doki (which are also in the neighborhood).
The first of which was a joint called Kohryu. Found on the corner of Baker and Bear, it occupies a seemingly cramped corner of a quiet strip mall. But once I stepped inside, I was surprised to see that the space opened up to a wider footprint, with more seats than the unassumingly tiny entrance led me to believe was possible.
I saddled up to the bar and ordered a Koi Ramen, which turned out to be just what I needed. The soup was murky white, like diluted milk, and harbored a savory pork flavor similar to the Hakata style of broth (where pork bones are vigorously boiled to give up their essence). But it was unlike it in two ways. First, it wasn't as sweet, exhibiting a slight bitterness which I found pleasant. Second, it was lighter on the tongue and not as fatty-rich, almost to the point of being watered down.
The noodles were also different. And on this end, I wasn't overly impressed. What was used were egg noodles; bright canary yellow ones, which were thick like linguini. And paradoxically, the strands got harder the longer it stayed in the soup.
The toppings were from the list of usual suspects. There was a pleasantly unctuous, fatty piece of pork; a half of a boiled egg, with a yolk that was just shy of set; and some crunchy strips of bamboo shoots.
What wasn't expected was the two variations of green onion. Some were freshly cut and others were purposely burnt black to embers. I liked the contrast, but figured out that it was probably these charred bits which contributed to the slight bitterness of the broth.
Down the street, hidden behind the Wahoo's on Baker and Bristol, is Mentatsu. This location has been home to many a ramen house. But its current incarnation is by far the cleanest and most hospitable of the lot. In other words, Mentatsu is spotless and bright, where before, under another name I can't remember, it was grimy and dark.
What I decided to try was the plain ol' Shio Ramen; a standby when you can't think of anything else to order. And the broth was clear, with a dark brown tint and a soy-sauce tang. Bubbles of sweet pork fat skittered across the top -- an indication that this elixir was full of flavor.
The noodle was nicely chewy, becoming more supple as I continued slurping, but the pork was lean; too lean. But bamboo shoots, green onion, the hard boiled egg were all present an accounted for, along with some of those pink-rimmed fish cakes. These exist merely for color, but one can't complain about its resilient texture, which playfully bounced between my teeth.
Both ramen houses have their unique qualities, but I will wait until the mercury drops before I revisit either one. But who's to say I can't have it, say, for a late summer supper when the sun has gone down.
891 Baker St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
688 Baker St # 7
Costa Mesa, CA 92626