Tuesday 1/5/16 – Dinner
16 N Fair Oaks Ave. Pasadena, CA 91103
The first thing you notice about Ramen Tatsunoya is the line out the door on a Tuesday night. The place doesn’t take reservations and no, you can’t leave your name. To be fair, the place had only been open for two weeks, and there had been much hype about “authentic Japanese ramen” coming to Pasadena. The bottom of the front window was papered with well-wishes from the parent restaurant in Japan, mostly written in Japanese, with a misspelled “Pasadina” thrown in for good measure. Was it worth the wait? We cross-examined some diners as they left the restaurant. “Yep,” a man said. He seemed to be sincere. After half an hour, a waiter finally waved us inside and seated us at the counter.
A waitress came up to us. “Are you ready to order?” she asked. Of course we were. It had only taken us a few minutes in line to consult a menu from the stack outside the door. The menu is small. There are three base broths: Jun Tonkotsu (their most basic and traditional pork broth), Koku Tonkotsu (a spicy version with garlic oil), and Spicy Miso. You can choose to add chashu, egg, seaweed, and more green onion as extras. There were a few appetisers: a chashu bowl, edamame, gyoza, and one dessert: a coconut flan with matcha sauce.
As ramen is generally rich and filling (and we weren’t in the mood to splurge), we ordered waters and a bowl of ramen each. Our waitress brought us our waters and left us there to bask in the warmth and look around.
Most ramen places have a very no-frills attitude towards decor. Ramen Tatsunoya put in a little more effort than most places on this front. The usual booths and counter seats are edged in bamboo, and with the wooden crossbars on the ceiling and the orchids on the bar, the room seems cozy and friendly. A raised basket standing between our seats for our belongings made it seem even more welcoming. In the middle of the restaurant, there is a separate island that accommodates more communal seating. A tree trunk emerges from the center island and grows toward the ceiling. The vibe is simultaneously ski lodge and tropical island resort, and is more reminiscent of a shabu shabu bar than a ramen joint. The room is bathed in warm light reflecting off the bamboo and wooden surfaces, and the casual chatter around us made it clear that people were enjoying themselves.
Mengsha: The first thing I noticed when they brought the food out was a strong aroma of mushrooms. Was it the woodear mushrooms in my bowl? Were there shiitake mushrooms contributing to the broth? The answers are probably yes and yes, but I don’t think that was all. Neither of those would have reminded me so strongly of porcinis and forest as the smell of this broth did. Tasting it, the broth was very rich, not too salty (yay!), and the spice provided a kick that cut through the pork fat very nicely. The noodles were dense rather than elastic, as freshly cut noodles are wont to be, and contrasted very well with crisp bean sprouts, viscous egg yolk, and tender chashu. The chashu had a great texture and fell apart in the mouth. My only beef with it (yes, I know it’s pork) was that the flavor was so strong. I hoped that the broth would make it milder, but as the broth was perfectly seasoned, it didn’t. I wished there had been another mild element to the dish, maybe corn would have done the job, that would have balanced it even more. However, I finished the broth – a first for me when it comes to ramen, which tends to be too heavy or too salty for me. Just that in itself is an accomplishment – my compliments to the chef!
Sean: Tatsunoya’s original recipe, this was a pretty classic helping of miso ramen. It too included woodear mushrooms, green onion, and the aforementioned extra helpings of chashu and an egg. For whatever reason, my serving of ramen was smaller than Mengsha’s Koku; I’m not sure why they would have different dishes in different serving sizes, it really didn’t make sense to me. The biggest feature that stood out to me was how balanced the entire dish was. I’ve had some really salty ramen before. Heck, sometimes I even enjoy them.
This bowl struck me with its relatively subdued umami notes. The noodles were pretty chewy and slick with ramen broth as I slurped them into my mouth. The chashu slices were oh-so-tender and flavorful, definitely some of the best I’ve had. The egg was good too, but not worth the extra $1.50. I’m used to ramen joints including the egg at no extra charge, so perhaps I’m a bit spoiled on that end. But at the same time, I can’t realistically order a bowl of ramen without an egg.
Mengsha’s Koku had a more complex broth than my Jun, which was rather one-dimensional in terms of its flavor; its umami tasted like it was derived mostly from the miso, with hints of pork. The Koku, on the other hand, had a much more varied flavor profile, with layers of spiciness, miso, and pork back fat all contributing equally. Next time, I’m ordering the Koku for myself. Humph!
Overall, Ramen Tatsunoya earns a spot in my top tier of ramen joints, alongside Ippudo in New York, and Santouka in LA. The commonality that each of these joints share between their bowls of ramen is how distinctively balanced they each are.
The food, service, and atmosphere of Ramen Tastunoya were all excellent. The main downside is the price, which came out to $34 after tax (and before tip) for the both of us. Their basic bowl of ramen is around 10 dollars. Adding chashu to your bowl (a must) adds $3.10, and the egg cost another $1.50. Shockingly, they charge the same $1.50 extra for more green onion, or for dried seaweed, which we did not get. After tip, we had paid $40 for two bowls of ramen. While it’s true that the food was very well prepared and that the rent is steep in downtown Pasadena, we wish that it had cost about 5 dollars less between the two of us.
4 out of 5 stars