A new Westchester hideaway offers an authentic taste of Tokyo
By Richard Foss
Imagine for a moment that you have never had a hamburger from anywhere but McDonald’s. You’re used to a burger being this unvarying thing, a bland patty in a tasteless, spongy bun. Like it or hate it, that’s what it is.
And then you taste your first gourmet burger — or maybe one made at someone’s home, where the patty is fresh and grilled over open flame, the bun something with some crust and chewiness, and there’s some real aged cheddar instead of American cheese. Suddenly you discover that there can be textures and flavors you never dreamed of in what seemed a familiar item. Even if you go back to eating the junk food version, you at least know that finer things exist.
That exact situation exists with ramen, which most Americans first experience as a dehydrated noodle brick packaged with a packet of salty, chemical-laden seasoning. Drop it in boiling water, toss in some chopped vegetables, and you have the college student staple, an unhealthy but cheap and fast meal. It’s what almost everybody tries first, and like the McBurger it’s a travesty of the real thing.
If you want to try real Japanese ramen in the LAX area, there’s a new option that recreates the environment of the Tokyo hideaways where salarymen and shoppers stop for a fast meal. The Ramen Joint is tucked away on 87th Street just off La Tijera Boulevard, and despite the low foot traffic and minimal signage the restaurant already has some devoted fans. It’s not because of the décor — there is hardly anything on the simple white walls except the chalkboard menu and a few mostly empty knickknack shelves — but for the soups that come out of their small open kitchen.
The menu is short and to the point. You have come to a place called The Ramen Joint, so you are probably here for noodles in broth. Three kinds are offered, based on what kind of broth you like: tonkotsu, made from an intense pork stock; shoyu, based on soy sauce; and a vegetable miso. Fresh mushrooms and vegetables are standard, and you can add a variety of toppings for a small extra charge. There’s also a rice bowl on the menu in case someone comes into a place called The Ramen Joint and doesn’t like ramen, which I suppose could happen.
There are starters, too: the inevitable edamame and seaweed salad, plus fried items such as spring rolls, panko-fried oysters and the like. I ordered squid legs and was unimpressed, as they were a bit under-fried and arrived greasy. Luckily the star of any meal here, the ramen, more than made up for it.
I chose the tonkotsu broth made from boiled pork bones, and it was exactly as it is supposed to be: intensely meaty, thick, rich and slightly oily, with a little saltiness and a lot of umami. You couldn’t actually see many of the thin, freshly made noodles under the toppings of green onion, sliced pork, slivered wood ear mushroom, julienned bamboo shoot and spinach. (The latter is an extra $1.25, but worth it.)
The slices of pork in the soup are described as chashu, but this is a Japanese version of that Chinese roast meat that is miles different from the original. The Chinese version has that bright red coating made with soy sauce, honey, ketchup and (usually) red food coloring, and is roasted until it is dense and has a caramelized sugar coating. The Japanese version isn’t bright red and is more fatty and tender, and has a more natural flavor. It’s always tempting to eat the big chunks by themselves, but more satisfying to alternate with nibbles of the noodles and the broth with vegetables.
And about those noodles: they have the slight springiness that you get from fresh pasta rather than dried, and are both better and better for you than the dried stuff from packets. If you are enjoying them so much that you go through them all and have broth left over, you can get another serving of noodles in your broth for an extra $2. But you have to be a pretty heavy eater to do this, as I was quite agreeably full after one bowl.
The price for this delectable meal is a mere $10, and since The Ramen Joint doesn’t sell alcohol you won’t be tempted to run up the bill with sake. The restaurant does, however, offer house-made limeade, a variety of soft drinks and tea, so you do have some beverage options.
There are more than 20 regional styles of ramen in Japan, and as its popularity grows here we may expect to see more of them on local menus. No matter how many become available, there will always be a place for little gems like The Ramen Joint that do just a few but execute them very well.
The Ramen Joint 6220 W. 87th St., Westchester (424) 227-9328 theramenjoint.com