by Christian Shepherd
photography by Ashley Villavicencio
As they stray away from chain restaurants that were once the favorite of their parents and grandparents, younger generations are turning to shops like Menkoi Ya Ramen, an unassuming eatery in downtown Claremont that is redefining what comes to mind when someone says the word “ramen.” It takes a 5,414 mile trip across the Pacific Ocean, 14 hours of accumulated preparation time, more than 15 unique ingredients and 10 years of focused experience from a dedicated chef to serve up a single bowl at this restaurant. This is not college student dorm food that you boil up after a few minutes in the microwave.
More than ever, this is the type of dining that customers are seeking: a culinary adventure. Adventures from places like Menkoi Ya Ramen that, within the contents of a single bowl, can transport you all the way to Kitakata in Japan, the birthplace of Kitakata style ramen.
These noodles are in an entirely different category than the bought-in-bulk dehydrated version served alongside packets of powdered flavoring and parcels of dried vegetables. This shop is part of that small revolution, caused by a desire to find a more robust, authentic culinary experience. And the movement is spreading faster than fresh noodles dropped in boiling water. With a gastronomic history that is as rich as its tonkotsu broth, Menkoi Ya Ramen is ready to take the front lines against chain-eateries like Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory and BJ’s that have been on the decline for years.
As these restaurants have floundered, they have sought new ways to bring customers back into their doors. They have slashed and added menu items and have done their best to make home deliveries as accessible as possible to some degree of success, but they are still a long way from having the same attendance they had even 10 years ago. Booths and free table bread have been phased out for small, niche eateries, and after dining at shops like Menkoi Ya Ramen, it is easy to understand why.
First-time patrons marvel at paintings resembling Japanese artwork from the Edo period that fill the largest wall in the restaurant and jar guests in the most positive possible way — this is the first of many sensory experiences guests experience while they dine at Menkoi. Behind the tinks in the dining area, the clangs from the kitchen, and the dings from a bell that sounds off every finished ramen bowl, there is always an enthusiastic level of chatter that, if you listen close enough, will reveal a range of conversations, from veterans teaching newcomers about the different styles to choose from, to excited groups of first-timers deciding on their first bowl of authentic ramen. Many have come from three or four cities away on a recommendation.
The constant barrage of visitors is a consequence of this singular goal that Menkoi Ya Ramen is focused on: providing the customer with an experience, not just a bowl of noodles. On any given business night — which is every day except for Sunday — the restaurant, open for two years, operates the same as a well-rehearsed orchestra: servers recite the culinary process behind the ramen to provide a steady, chefs crescendo in the kitchen as the orders begin to pile, and guests provide a beat as they clamor in their bowls in search for every last noodle until they eventually hit the bottom. Each member plays a vital role in the composition.
Mart Tang, manager of Menkoi Ya Ramen, has been asked to explain the menu at the restaurant to noodle newcomers enough times to drive the best of us insane. Yet, even as the shop serves up hundreds of bowls of ramen per service, Mart is perpetually enthusiastic about his craft and the history of the Kitakata noodles that they serve in the shop.
As shop manager, Mart makes sure to quietly pace around the shop, speaking with guests after they take their first bite and answering questions about the different broth flavors. Once in a while, he will find time to style his hair into hard, black spikes, but usually it can be found flat, unmanaged, a consequence of his dedication to the shop and his research on ramen, which includes visiting other locations to scope out the competition. Years ago, before becoming enamored with this traditional Japanese dish, Mart never would have expected himself to care so deeply about noodles. “I do like ramen — I love ramen — but I did come here initially just looking for a job,” Mart admits. But before long, the appeal and history of the Kitakata-style ramen piqued Mart’s interest, as it does with many of the customers. “I got the job as a server, but over a month, and several months after that, I was promoted to shift lead and then eventually to manager. I think the driving force behind that was that I enjoyed what I was doing — not only serving good and delicious ramen, but also interacting with the customers and trying to understand what they are looking for.”
Mart’s focus on the customer is part of the experience that comes with dining at a restaurant that is focused on transporting their guests to a dish that, even a decade ago, would have required them to travel across continents to enjoy. “It’s one of those foods that kind of brings people together. It’s family food, I would say, here, at this setting, I see a lot of families come by. It’s kind of nice when a regular comes here, and then maybe the next day after that they bring their entire family. I get to talk with them, I get to meet with them. That experience is very nice,” Mart explains through a smile. And as younger generations are beginning to stray away from chain restaurants — the favorite of their parents and grandparents — to instead find a more robust culinary experience. The success of small shops like Menkoi Ya Ramen are examples of that desire for authenticity.
But authenticity is likely not the start of your typical ramen-goer’s experience. Modern palates have long been tempered to the idea of eating the chewy noodles and drinking the rich broth by parents who turned to the dehydrated variety for a cheap and easy alternative to cooking a full meal. While packaged instant ramen has a rightfully earned its reputation for being unhealthy — a byproduct of the starches and sodium levels — with some loose change and a couple cups of water, parents could give their kids a meal packed with flavor and calories. The instant ramen that most of us are familiar with was first developed by Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin, one of the most popular brands of instant ramen worldwide. When he first developed instant ramen, his method included deep-frying the noodles in order to achieve dehydration. This method, which at the time was not yet commonplace in the industry, allowed people all over the world to use boiling water to rehydrate a food that could remain preserved for long periods of time. But while the instant ramen the uninitiated are accustomed to are found for multiple packages per dollar, the novelty of this new method resulted in his noodles becoming a luxury product, rather than the economic option that they are now considered.
Menkoi’s noodles, however, are not being expedited in a package or delivered en masse in a shipping container; these noodles are being made fresh each day from scratch; the broth is being simmered with fresh ingredients during a 14-hour process, not dehydrated and wrapped in plastic. This kitchen has been extensively trained to imitate the ramen style of Kitakata, and they take charge of preserving that style very seriously. “We eat our mistakes here,” says Sina Jenani, who has been a Menkoi Ya Ramen chef for more than a year, as he effortlessly lays down slices of braised chashu into a bowl of steaming broth and noodles. The way Sina prepares Menkoi’s cuisine has been carried down from the first bowl served across the Pacific, but while ramen is widely considered a Japanese specialty, the birth of Kitakata ramen can actually be traced back to a 19-year-old Chinese immigrant named Bankinsei, who made his way to Japan in 1925 in search of his grandfather. The story goes that the grandfather worked in a coal mine near Kitakata, but when Bankinsei arrived, his grandfather was gone. Rather than heading back to China, Bankinsei decided to stay in Japan and opened a noodle stand in 1926, using the techniques that China had accustomed him to. And so was born Genrai-ken, the first ramen shop in Kitakata.
Genrai-ken — and all other subsequent ramen shops that follow the Kitakata style — have three major components that make their ramen unique. The first, and as Mart believes, the most important, is the broth. Menkoi Ya Ramen closely follows the tradition of Kitakata broth. Pounds of pork bones are boiled over a 14-hour period to achieve a white, milky appearance. Boiling the pork for this amount of time breaks down the ingredients enough to let them become part of the broth. Since pork is a naturally fatty meat, there is a hefty amount of fat that renders out into the broth. But unlike most other ramen styles, which keep the fat in the broth as additional flavor, Kitakata ramen makers remove the excess fat. As a result, Kitakata ramen has become known as the “clean” ramen. This has become a competitive endeavor among Kitakata ramen vendors: restaurants boast of how “clean” their ramen is. But the lack of fat is not a lack of flavor; it still has plenty of rich pork infused. Traditional Kitakata ramen uses a shoyu (soy sauce) base since this ingredient was easily accessible around the city when Bankinsei decided to open his shop. Menkoi Ya Ramen serves the traditional style, but it does diverge from Kitakata tradition by serving two other base options: shio (salt) and miso.
Noodles are equally diverse in styles and executions. Menkoi focuses on takasuimen style noodles, which are more wavy and chewier than a standard ramen noodle and is achieved by adding in a higher percentage of water into the dough. The end result is a noodle so soft that, even when you are biting off more than you can usually chew, the noodles break down in the mouth with minimal effort.
Through his optimism, Mart is still careful about what specific details he reveals; after all, in order to open the Claremont restaurant, a chef was sent to Japan to study the ways of Kitakata ramen to bring back that knowledge.
More than 90 years later, Genrai-ken is still going strong, and Kitakata now has more than 100 ramen shops that focus on this unique style. But these noodles have not stopped in Kitakata; their signature wavy noodles and clean broth have become one of the most popular and widely spread ramen styles in the world.
And while the instant, dried variety of ramen still has a place in many a pantry across the country, and while some customers may still occasionally stray into a local TGI Friday, shops like Menkoi Ya Ramen are restoring the allure of a niche, craft restaurant. ■