a tale of two ramen shops

For most of my life, I thought that ramen only came in blocks of dehydrated, shelf-stable noodles — not that there was anything wrong with that. Instant noodles were playground crack when I was growing up. I remember trying to use my homemade snacks as currency, desperate to get my MSG high. Whenever I got a packet of Maruchan to myself, I’d bash it on a table, open the package and empty the seasonings into it, shake it up, eat the raw noodles, and then lick the leftover powder off the wrapper… a true junk food junkie.

My life took a turn for the better when I had my first real bowl of ramen. It was a beaut: spicy pork broth, tender hunks of beef, a heaping mound of springy noodles, a smattering of corn and little else. I’ve since upgraded from Ajisen, the chain restaurant that provided me that gateway bowl, but I’m forever thankful to it for helping me clean up my Japanese noodle game.

I’ve been hearing rave reviews about the bowls offered at Santouka, an unassuming chain located within Mitsuwa Japanese grocery stores, and Ramen Dojo, a much-hyped joint in San Mateo. I had the good fortune of finally trying out both of these places within the month.

My sister and I casually decided to stop by the Santouka in Costa Mesa while I was visiting, totally unprepared for the scene at Mitsuwa. I forgot how chaotic Sunday shopping can be —  it was utter chaos in the food court! While the queue outside Santouka looked reasonably long, the wait after ordering was absolutely excruciating; it was a good hour between paying and eating. I will say, however, that my bad mood completely dissipated once I dove head-first into my bowl of spicy miso ramen. Every component was spot-on, save for the cheap plastic spoon they expect you to use. I would’ve preferred a ladle to pour that delicious broth down the hatch.

I also expected a long wait at Ramen Dojo, having heard so much about it, but was pleasantly surprised to be seated pretty soon after arriving on a Friday night. We started with a grilled mackerel yakitori skewer, sprinkled with bonito and ponzu — an excellent amuse-bouche. Our noodles came out soon afterward: the house special tan-tan-men pork ramen with red chili oil for him; the spicy garlic lobster pork ramen with corn and bamboo shoots for me (lead photo). Both bowls were total flavor bombs, rich and hearty without being too heavy. A friend recommended Ramen Dojo to us, and we would, in turn, recommend it to anyone looking to satisfy a craving for noodles.

All of these bowls were excellent, and I’d happily return to either restaurant — but my quest for noodle nirvana continues on. To be fair, there is no such thing, particularly since there are dozens of different, uniquely delicious variations of ramen. However, if my drive for an illusory perfect bowl allows me to sample as much ramen as possible… well, can you blame a girl for trying?

Santouka
665 Paularino Ave
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Ramen Dojo
805 S B St
San Mateo, CA 94401

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