Your Guide to Tsukemen in Los Angeles
Do you think Los Angeles’ ramen obsession caused an explosion of new noodle shops all over the city. Or did the noodle shop explosion cause us to become ramen obsessed? The old chicken or the egg adage. (I kind of wish I was writing about oyakodon right now!) I’m not sure I know the answer, but if you eat with the rhythm of the city chances are you’ve been slurping up a ton more ramen these days. I know I have. I also blew through the first issue of Lucky Peach, watched seminal Japanese ramen movie Tampopo for the first time, and ate my first bowl of tsukemen. What’s the Japanese term for perfect storm?
Watching the long-out-of-print-and-not-available-on-Netflix Tampopo was long overdue. And Lucky Peach, a joint venture between McSweeney’s & Momofuku, will restore your faith in the awesomeness of print. If you haven’t picked up the first issue (which was dedicated entirely to ramen), you really should. But the final piece of my ramen hurricane might be the one that has the longest lasting impression. On the surface, tsukemen seems fairly simple. It’s ramen where the noodles are served separate from the broth, which is turned into a dipping sauce of sorts. But once you dive in you realize that it is far more complex.
In good versions the broth is boiled down to its rich and fatty essence, allowing for the thicker tsukemen noodles to latch on to its gleaming goodness before they get shoveled into your mouth. The original, which was invented in 1950s Tokyo by a former soba chef (naturally) named Kazuo Yamagishi, was a shoyu based broth with a strong fishy flavor. Over the past 7 years tsukemen has seen a big resurgence in Tokyo, where Yamagishi is now worshiped as a ramen god and the original storefront (Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishoken) has spawned many imitators. And even though we are light years behind Japan in ramen terms, you can find tsukemen more and more these days popping up on menus right here in Los Angeles.
Here are 5 places worth checking out (and one bonus place to look forward to.)
Shin Sen Gumi, which just opened a new location in Little Tokyo, doesn’t offer tsukemen. So if you’re downtown and looking to dip your noodles, Daikokuya is the place. The noodles, broth and toppings are exactly the same as if you ordered their bowl of Daikokuya Ramen, making this more like deconstructed ramen than tsukemen. And just like the ramen, you can request your dipping broth kotteri (w/ extra back fat). More recently they started serving a second version of tsukemen that adds a spicy and sour kick to their standard broth, which sounds like it might closer to the real thing.
Daikokuya, 327 E 1st Street, Little Tokyo.
The Little Tokyo branch of Daikokuya is the only one that does tsukemen, so if you find yourself in the San Gabriel Valley hit up Ton Chan. Their ramen broth already has a mildly fishy flavor, giving the concentrated broth that fishy taste that fans of original tsukemen will really like. The noodles are the same thin squiggly noodles you get in the ramen, but they come with a nicely boiled egg, scallions, sesame seeds, and a sheet of nori. And that little bowl of broth is concealing the biggest pile of tender, melt in your mouth pork I’ve ever seen served with a standard bowl of ramen (there were at least 6 slices in there). So if pork is your favorite part of ramen, this bowl of tsukemen is for you.
Ton Chan, 821 West Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel. 626-282-3478
I’m sure there are more traditional versions of tsukemen hidden in the South Bay, but if you’re looking for something a bit more modern and unique, hit up Mottanai. At dinner time they actually serve 3 or 4 different styles of tsukemen (possibly with different size noodles?) But at lunch the only one they offer is cold noodles, served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce that was also completely cold and not broth-like at all. It’s a fun and tasty noodle dish for a hot summer day, but tsukemen fans will probably not be satisfied.
Mottainai, 1630 W Redondo Beach Blvd, Gardena. 310-538-3233
I’ve never had the “traditional” version of tsukemen in Japan, but everything I’ve ever read about it describes the version you get at Yamadaya- where they are very proud of their version. Not only are the noodles thicker and chewier than the noodles they serve in their ramen, but the small bowl of concentrated tonkotsu broth is gussied up with bonito, giving it an intensely fishy flavor. Don’t mistaken that small bowl for soup, you’re better off just using it for dipping and then asking them to add water to the leftovers when you’re done.
Ramen Yamadaya, Multiple Locations
- 3118 W.182nd St. Torrance. 310-380-5555
- 11172 Washington Blvd. Culver City. 310-815-8776
- Coming Soon to Costa Mesa & Westwood
If tsukemen ever takes off in L.A. people will likely point to the opening of Ikemen as ground zero for the trend. Opened a few months ago in Hollywood, Ikemen (which is a Japanese word for “stylish” or “cool” men) is the only place in Los Angeles dedicated almost entirely to what they call “dip noodles”. There is standard ramen on the menu, but their tsukemen- which you can order with four different broths- is what dominates. Their standard Ikemen Dip comes with a tonkotsu dipping broth that’s been spiked with “artisan bonito” (their words, not mine), but there is also a chicken broth, a garlic laced “zebra broth”, and an Italian influenced “Johnny broth” with tomatoes and basil. All of the broths were concentrated, but not to the level that made them undrinkable. And they were all sweeter than most of the versions above. Plus you can get any dish topped with chicken or pork (which is more like ham than the melt in your mouth pork that’s found at many ramen shops.) It’d be easy to scoff at the L.A.’ness of it all, but the tsukemen itself was pretty delicious. And I’m pretty sure this incredibly hip place would be right at home and super popular with its namesake in Tokyo right now (tomato basil broth and all.)
Ikemen, 1655 N La Brea Ave. 323-800-7669
Tsujita’s Tsukemen? Photo Courtesy of Tatiana Arbogast/Grub Street
As great as some of these versions of tsukemen are, the die hard fans are anxiously awaiting Tsujita L.A. to begin serving their version. The restaurant, which has multiple locations in Japan, has been open on Sawtelle for months but they’ve been holding back their ramen program until the owner is satisfied that his staff has mastered the craft. He told Squid Ink that they’re most proud of their Tsukemen which “is made to first be eaten plain, then eaten with the addition of a Japanese citrus fruit called sudachi and then eaten with a spice blend he’s created. Because sudachi is unavailable in the US, he’s experimenting with lemons and limes.” Thankfully it looks like our long wait might finally be over. Just today Grub Street reported that the staff has been training inside an open stall at the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Mar Vista, and that next Thursday could be the day!
I think it’s safe to say, I’m ready.