Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Ramen - Kohryu

In a tiny, non-descript corner of a strip mall along Baker Street, lies one of the most infuriatingly inconsistent Ramen restaurants in Southern California, known as Kohryu. This Japanese Ramen-ya has gone through at least 3 ownership changes that I've heard about, and the Ramen has suffered for it. They've gone from good to great to mediocre and back again, and reports from my 'dachi Keizo and Edjusted have reflected just how capricious the Ramen offerings seem to be at times.

The first time I went to Kohryu was probably 3 years ago or so, and I've gone back a few times over the years since then, and literally each time I've gone back, the Ramen has been different in one way or another, from a new menu, to a different tasting soup base, to different types of noodles and more. In the 3 most recent visits, I went back to see how the current incarnation of Kohryu would fare, in the hopes that it's stabilized and finally become a consistent destination for good Ramen noodles.

The current Kohryu is being helmed by Chef Satoru Tanaka, who learned his Ramen-making craft from Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan for years before coming over. On the first of my most recent visits, the restaurant was packed (always a good sign) and I was lucky enough to grab the last open table. :)

I started with their curiously named Koi Ramen (Love Ramen), which has a choice of Kotteri Shoyu ("Richer/Thicker" Soy Sauce) or Kotteri Kara Miso ("Richer/Thicker" Spicy Miso) Soup base, with Wok-fried Green Onions, regular Green Onions, a slice of Chashu (BBQ Pork) and a Hanjuku (Flash-boiled Egg).

Taking a sip of their most popular broth (according to the waitress), the Kotteri Shoyu Soup was extremely rich and embodied the essence of the word "savory." There were deep undertones of Tonkotsu (Pork Bone Broth) and Sakana (Fish) essence, which is the base upon which Tanaka-san constructs the rest of the tantalizing offering. The bits of Wok-fried Green Onions are potent and definitely give the Koi Ramen a unique characteristic, standing out from the more common Ramen offerings. While delicious at first, after slurping more of the Ramen and Kotteri Shoyu Broth, you realize just how oily and heavy it really is; definitely something to be careful of. (^_~)

The Ramen Noodle itself is currently a thick, very yellow, slightly-curled Noodle, different from the more ubiquitous yellow, curly Noodle. It had a good chew, but it was a bit too thick for my tastes, getting a little starchy at times.

Their slice of Chashu (BBQ Pork), however, reflected the other side to Kohryu: It tasted 1 - 2 days old, chunky and unappetizing. It's a far cry from Foo Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights)'s great Pork Belly Chashu and the great Pork Belly slice in Shin Mama's Tokyo Shinasoba offering.

Finally, their Hanjuku Egg (Flash-boiled) was a nice rebound, with a soft, gooey egg yolk, while still maintaining the firmness of the egg white portion. It needs to have a bit more of a flavor infusion, but otherwise it's great.

Trying a classic side dish, their Tori no Kara Age (Fried Chicken) was unfortunately just... bad. Extremely salty, chunky, rubbery and dry, it also tasted really old (about 2-3 day old chicken) with an unappetizing aroma.

On another visit, I went back to the basics and ordered their Shio Ramen (Salt-base Ramen Noodle Soup). A pure Shio Ramen is generally lighter than other styles, and this was true of Kohryu's Shio Ramen: An Assari (Light) style broth, it was supposedly a blend of Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) and Shio, but it literally tasted like Hot Salt Water. Nothing more. :(

I generally prefer foods that are lighter and less salty, but this was bordering on ridiculous: There was no hint of Tonkotsu, and I felt like I was drinking Hot Salt Water. This also highlighted just how refined and outstanding Murakami-san's version of Shio Ramen is at Foo Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights), where he uses a special imported Salt that makes all the difference.

The only worthwhile part of this bowl of Ramen were the different noodles that they used compared to the Koi Ramen (as Keizo mentions, this is always a nice thing :). The Shio Ramen used a white, straighter Noodle, and it matched the Hot Salt Water as nicely as it could in that pairing. The Wok-fried Negi (Green Onions) were a welcome flavor infusion in this disappointing bowl.

On my final visit to Kohryu, we were seated quickly, with about half the restaurant full. We decided to start with their other interestingly-named offering: Shacho Ramen (Company President Ramen(!)), which is offered with a Kotteri Miso ("Richer / Thicker" Miso) or Kotteri Shio ("Richer / Thicker" Salt) Soup base. It's then served with Ground Pork, Bean Sprouts, Onions, Wok-fried Green Onions, and raw Green Onions.

I decided to try their Kotteri Shio Broth, which thankfully turned out to be much better than their regular Shio (Salt) Broth I had on the previous visit. There was a good porkiness in this version, and an almost Wok-fried taste with each sip. Like the Koi Ramen, there was a good layer of oil to add to the richness of it all.

Unlike the Koi Ramen, however, the Shacho Ramen was served with their thinner, straighter, white Noodle. I think I enjoyed the thinner Noodle better. The Moyashi (Bean Sprouts) and Tama-Negi (Onions) were an OK accompaniment, adding a nice layer to the Ramen. In a Ramen this rich, the Wok-fried Green Onions were a nice potent layer that helped to bring another characteristic to this bowl as well.

Unfortunately, their Chashu (BBQ Pork) slice didn't improve with the last 2 visits: It got worse. This visit's Chashu tasted about 2-3 days old, even drier, chunkier and more unappetizing. :(

We lucked out, as on this day, they were offering their Daily Special Ramen (only on Wednesdays), Hakase Ramen (Ph.D. / Doctorate Ramen Noodle Soup), continuing their humorous and fun naming conventions. :) This was essentially a Kara Miso (Spicy Miso) Soup base, with Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Negi (Green Onions), Wok-fried Ground Pork and Chashu (BBQ Pork) sprinkled with Goma (Sesame Seeds).

The Hakase Kara Miso Broth had a light, spicy burn, with a very good Fish base underneath the Spicy Miso. This was probably the most enticing and complex of the Ramen offerings at Kohryu. The Hakusai (Napa Cabbage) matched this Ramen offering nicely, and the Ground Pork was excellent, imparting the Pork Fat goodness into the Spicy Miso base that was otherwise devoid of any Pork characteristic.

They serve the Hakase Ramen with the same thicker, yellow, slightly curly Noodle that's in the Koi Ramen. This time, the Noodle turned out to be a bit overcooked, a bit too soft. And as before, the Chashu was just terrible.

The final Ramen we tried that night was another classic, basic offering that we were hoping would standout somehow: Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce-base Ramen Noodle Soup). Like the Shio Ramen, this Shoyu (Soy Sauce) base was supposed to be infused with Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) broth, but it was practically non-existent. It tasted mainly of Soy Sauce and Hot Water, but luckily you could also taste a bit more Wok-fried oil in this version. It was pretty straightforward, and not something I'd order again here.

Service is what can be expected at a small mom & pop-style Ramen restaurant: There was one waitress whenever we went, and we just flagged her down if we needed anything; standard, with no issues. Prices range from $6.75 - $8.75 for the different Ramen offerings. We averaged about ~$10 per person (including tax and tip).

In its latest incarnation, Kohryu serves up a frustrating mix of Ramen offerings: From their terrible Shio Ramen (with almost no flavor except Salt Water), to their tantalizing Wednesday-only Special Hakase Ramen (Ph.D. Ramen), Chef Tanaka needs to have a greater focus and clean up the disparity. Even their toppings are bipolar, with a very good Hanjuku Tamago (Flash-boiled Egg), and some of the worst Chashu (BBQ Pork) I've had in the last few years. I've never been to a Ramen-ya this split before.

Rating: 6.0 (out of 10.0)

891 Baker Street, Suite B-21
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: (714) 556-9212

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Wed, Fri - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Sun - Wed, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.
Closed Thursdays.


ila said...

bipolar, hahaha! so true. i learned the hard way too, and never eat ramen here.
their kata-yakisoba is very good though! that and the gyoza.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Yah, it's unfortunate just how inconsistent / bad their Ramen can be at times. :( Thanks for the tip on the kata-yakisoba. If I find myself at Kohryu again, I'll be sure to try that. :)

edjusted said...

Haha. I like the Jekyll & Hyde comparison. Even though shoyu ramen is still my overall favorite, I haven't had the shoyu at Kohryu in ages. It sounds like I'm not missing out on much. :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Hehehe :). Sadly, though, I wish Kohryu wasn't like that. And you're definitely not missing out on much w/ their Shoyu Ramen.

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