Yatai (屋台) – a small, mobile food stall in Japan typically serving ramen, oden or other hot street foods. The stall is usually open from the early evening until the early morning hours, and serves comfort food with beer, sake or shochu to students, office ladies, housewives and salarymen from all walks of life.
One of my fondest memories from my crazy teen years growing up in Tokyo is when my friends and I would wind down from a night out in Roppongi with a warm and comforting bowl of ramen at a street stall. No matter how late it was or how drunk we were, we always ended our night of partying with an obligatory stop at the Akasaka Ramen yatai for shio, shoyu or miso ramen as a nightcap. Back then, this favorite dive of ours was literally just a wooden mobile cart with a few stools on the sidewalk, and a brightly lit red paper lantern as its unmistakable sign. “You kids again? You shouldn’t be out this late you know,” the ramen master would grumble to us every weekend with a furrowed brow as we sat on the rickety stools, but being regulars, he knew exactly how each of us liked our ramen and ordering was never necessary in our established relationship of unspoken understanding. Some years later he abandoned his mobile yatai for a restaurant, and it was around the same time that we graduated from adolescence into adulthood.
For a 6 week limited engagement, the Breadbar on West 3rd street in Beverly Hills is putting up their bright red noren during the evenings to invite people into their lively ramen yatai. Like past LudoBites and monthly Hatchi dinner events, Chef Noriyuki Sugie of Ironnori Concepts has created another evening pop-up venture at this venue, this time in collaboration with Chef Kazuo Shimamura to introduce both traditional and unusual ramens to Angelenos. With a 6-pack of cold Asahi Super Dry in hand, I met up with a few ramen-loving friends on a warm summer evening for what I hoped would be a trip down memory lane. It’s hard to get really good quality ramen in Los Angeles, despite the large population of Japanese residents and a thriving Japanese restaurant community, and I was excited to see what this event would offer. With my cold sweaty glass of Asahi beer and chopsticks in hand, I was ready to slurp to the background music of Dreams Come True and other J-pop tunes.
The Ramen Twist menu at the Yatai event is fairly straightforward. Classic Ramen includes 4 choices of shio, shoyu, miso and spicy miso, all served with marinated poached egg ajitsuke tamago, kurobuta pork belly chashu, nori, menma bamboo shoot, kikurage black wood ear mushrooms, and Tokyo negi scallions. Twist Ramen choices, which are the nontraditional and revolutionary ramens, are tomato, Vietnamese pho style with raw beef tenderloin, ox tail and foie gras.
We started off with the 2 types of gyoza pot stickers that they offer, the pork feet and kale gyozas. The pork gyozas had generous chunks of fatty and collagenous pork trotters, and pan fried at the end with a bit of flour and water to create a hane or wing crusting effect.
The kale gyozas were fried in a similar hane-tsuki gyoza manner with a delicate thin brown crust around the bottom, but were otherwise surprisingly mushy and soggy with hardly any kale flavor.
The shio ramen for $10 was my favorite ramen of the evening with seasonings of Indonesian sea salt and corn butter. Although it was a little too salty, especially with all of the other salty condiments, I loved the simplicity of the flavoring in conjunction with the succulent and flavorful pork belly and perfectly cooked eggs.
Although tomato ramen is on this event’s Twist Ramen menu, tomato ramen is actually not a novelty in Japan. Many restaurants all over Japan have been serving tomato ramen in both cold, hot and dipping variations for many years, and even Nissin’s Cup Noodle, the most popular brand of instant ramen, had a Tomato flavor that has since been discontinued, and replaced with Chili Tomato. It’s the distinct sanmi, or acidity, of the tomato consommé in juxtaposition to the Asian egg noodles and vegetables that appeals to certain taste buds. The bowl here at the Yatai Breadbar event wasn’t the best tomato ramen that I’ve ever had by any standards, but it was an acceptable LA rendition full of fresh sautéed vegetables like moyashi bean sprouts, green beans, carrots, wood ear mushrooms, napa cabbage and crispy fried garlic, with a sprinkle of white sesame seeds.
The oxtail ramen was interesting. I loved the tender and juicy chunks of braised oxtail meat and collagen, but with the rich oxtail soup in addition to the hint of truffle oil that was such a far deviation from any type of ramen broth that exists, the only way that I could enjoy this was to treat it as an entirely different dish. My traditional Japanese heritage hesitated to accept this as true ramen, but my culinary curiosity didn’t mind it otherwise. Still, once the luscious oxtail meat was gone, the noodles and broth were disappointingly bland and didn’t motivate any of us to finish the bowl.
I was most interested and excited to try the foie gras ramen for its novelty and outrageous concept, even though it came with a hefty price tag of $18. How will it be prepared and what will it taste like? Will it be a life changing discovery of a new and wonderful flavor combination that will revolutionize the food culture? The ramen was served in a consommé soup stock with 2 wedges of seared foie gras, boiled egg, menma bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and chopped chives. All I can say after eating this bowl of ramen is that ramen and foie gras do not go together.
You know you’re in the presence of a great bowl of ramen when it moves you to lift the bowl with both hands up to your face to gulp it down to the very last drop of broth with a satisfying ‘Ah~’ and give a quiet nod of gratitude to the person who made it. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience this feeling at the Yatai event, nor was I able to relive my past memories of feeling comfort and peace from a warm bowl of ramen on the desolate sidewalks of late night Tokyo. Although I’ll stick to my usual LA ramen joints of Santouka and Shin-sen-gumi for now, I still applaud and greatly appreciate how Ironnori Concepts continues to introduce wonderful culinary concepts to the Los Angeles community through their interesting pop-up events that always push the envelope on traditional perceptions of food and keep us on our toes.
8718 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, 90048
Yatai Ramen Twist event runs every Monday to Saturday from 5pm-10pm until Saturday, July 24th
Random trivia: Did you know that the earliest evidence of noodles ever found was unearthed from an archaeological site in northwestern China, in a 4000 year old overturned bowl of left over noodles that was buried under 10 feet of sediment?