Tell Me a Story 7: Ramen Yokocho Festival
The new generation of food fans are arguably the most patient and persevering than any other. They perhaps rival the starving post World War II Japanese, the hungry North Koreans and the Mao-era Chinese. The food mavens of today will be able to brag that they waited in multiple hour long lines to pay top dollar for small portions of fad food. They kill their dish in minutes while standing and eating out of styrofoam. The truth is they could say that the food was actually mediocre. They are that rich.
I say “they” with a hint of disdain. My parents who suffered from “Third World Problems” would disown me if they heard these words: I am part of “they”. But fuck it, it’s my day off. On saturday, I along with thousands of others, waited for hours to eat a bowl of ramen. The Ramen Yokocho, a festival of America’s favorite soup and noodle dish took place in Torrance and featured 12 ramen shops from the Pacific Rim including Japan, Hawaii, San Jose, Vegas and LA.
The entrance was worse than any Disneyland ride. The procession stretched around the Torrance Community Center and seemed to move at a decent pace, but half way to the distance to the entrance, the line began to crawl. It took two hours to get in. Some said their wait was four. Yet once you’re in, it’s another line to buy tickets. After you buy your tickets, it’s one more line to get your ramen. If you want more than one ramen from a different vendor, then it’s one more line. The Japanese shop, Kitakata was said to have a three hour wait. I wasn’t exaggerating about the patience and perseverance. The quick math? That’s 7 hours.
The ramen is smaller portioned and $8 each. Two orders will complete your visit. Three? If you’re hungry. I tried Tsujita’s entry. They had no line and were serving a cold ramen. Sachiko, the manager gave me a sad face citing people are wanting to a eat pork based hot ramen. Their delicate soup was made from fish and with the lime slices, was actually something akin to a hiyashi somen with different noodles. It was nice on a hot day, but perhaps the least popular. I settled for a San Jose (Mountain View) shop called Shalala who created a thick, yet unsalty miso ramen. The chili on the side did it’s job, but it was simple and decent.
At this event, we’re eating a minuscule cross section of Japan’s national dish. Only a few years ago, American ramen was a laughing stock. I’d always hear the word, “mazui” meaning “bland” from Japanese folks who would try the best that was offered. It was Taco Bell to food in Mexico. We now have ramen shops from Japan who make something comparable, and they’re selling the dream.
Ramen Yokocho is perfect for the uninitiated. The long lines make each ramen more special than it really is. It gets tastier after each minute of waiting. The talk and tweets build the rich depth of the soup and Yelp reviews are being born each minute. Any shop that braves the event will come out looking like a champ. The accumulation of the 12 ramen stalls is making this the center of the noodle universe for a minute. It’s the Comic-Con of ramen or until there’s a longer line. When that happens, “they” will be there.
This is the punch line: The photos below are from that ramen shop in Jyugaoka. It kills everything I’ve tried in America including everything at Ramen Yokocho. It’s all about scale.