Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tokyo Ramen comes to L.A.?! Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo

While L.A. / O.C. are blessed with many great restaurants serving an extensive range of ethnically diverse cuisines, one area that's fallen short is the area of Japanese Ramen. So when my 'dachi Keizo of Go Ramen! mentioned the opening of Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo here in L.A., I arrived at the Little Tokyo branch filled with hope that we'd finally gotten Ramen Noodle greatness in So Cal.

Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo originated in the Gotanda neighborhood of Tokyo, Japan. It became popular enough that they now have about 130 stores across Japan. The Little Tokyo branch marks the first U.S. foray for this Japanese Ramen chain. And to mark the occasion (and to ensure quality) they had the U.S. kitchen staff train with Chef Okada from their honten (main branch).

The Little Tokyo branch of Chin-Ma-Ya occupies a simple, comfortable space, one floor below the infamous Orochon Ramen shop (with its spicy Ramen challenge). On our first visit, it's pretty clear what to order (their menu prominently features the 2 main dishes they have, with a small list of appetizers and combinations of the 2 main menu items below it), so I begin with their:

Tan-Tan-Men (Ramen Noodles in a Spicy Broth, topped with Ground Beef and Pork, and Spinach), Medium Spicy (you can order it Mild, Medium or Original Spicy).

As I found out during my 31-bowl Ramen Journey at Foo Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights), Tan-Tan-Men was made famous by Chin Ken Min (father of Iron Chef Chen Kenichi!) in Japan; essentially his interpretation of the Chinese Dan Dan Mian dish.

Unlike Chef Murakami's version at Foo Foo Tei, Chin-Ma-Ya's Tan-Tan-Men looked very different: Thicker and more brightly orange. Taking a sip, the Tan-Tan-Men broth came across as lightly spicy, sweet and nutty. The Raayu (Chili Oil) and custom-blended Sesame Paste (made exclusively for Chin-Ma-Ya in Japan) came to the forefront.

The Ramen Noodles were a manufactured, slightly straighter, but still curly, yellow Noodle, served Katamen (firm). It was a decent match for the soup. Mixing in the Ground Beef and Ground Pork mixture added a nice, fatty edge, but after about half the bowl, the sweetness and sesame flavors started to break down: We both got slightly tired of it (it's a very distinctive flavor profile). Still, it serves as a decent break from the typical Ramen flavors.

Continuing on, their other claim to fame is their Chin-Ma Han (Tofu, Ground Pork and Beef simmered with a Secret Sauce Mixture, over Steamed Rice).

This is Chin-Ma-Ya's version of Mabo Tofu over Rice, using the tantilizing Sansho Pepper (which imparts a numbing, slow burn sensation, as opposed to the searing, burning hot of other peppers). While eating the Chin-Ma Han, I could only smile as I was reading their posters on the wall proclaiming the health benefits of Capsaicin. The burn from this spicy mixture was intriguing but never overpowering. Unfortunately, what did this dish in finally was the amount of sugar: It was just too sweet for my tastes, despite the spiciness.

Their Shio Ramen (Salt-flavored Noodle Soup topped with Chashu Roast Pork) was something I had to try once at least, to see how it compared to my favorites. :)

The Ramen Broth is supposedly from a base of Torigara (Chicken Bones), Tonkotsu (Pork Bones) and Shio (Salt), but taking a sip, the predominant flavor is Hot Salt Water with a touch of Chicken Stock. :( The Ramen Noodles are the same as the ones used for all their Ramen dishes, and is a decent match with the Broth. The Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) are undercooked, still too chunky and tough.

We also try their Karaage (Original Marinated Fried Chicken), served with a Chili-Mayo Sauce (that turns out to be Sriracha + store-bought Mayo).

The Karaage has a nice crispiness being really tender and moist surprisingly. However, on the third visit, the Karaage turned out to be overcooked and stringy (but still had a good crispy exterior).

On another visit, I try their Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce flavored Noodle Soup, topped with Chashu Roast Pork).

Surprisingly, the Shoyu Ramen turns out to be much milder than the Shio Ramen. There's not enough Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) flavor, but it's a bit smoother and easier to sip than the Salt-base Broth from my first visit. The Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) tasted pretty old on this visit (about 1-2 days old). Unfortunately, they also add MSG to both the Shio and Shoyu Ramen Broth (and it still doesn't taste very good), so people who care, take note.

Finally, their Niku Soboro Gohan (Mini Rice Bowl topped with their Original Marinated Ground Beef and Pork) arrives.

Expecting a nice meaty, savory dish, it turns out to be extremely sweet with way too much sugar. :( I could only eat about 20% of this mini-bowl before it became completely cloying.

Service at Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo was just fine for all 3 of my visits. Like any standard Ramen shop, you flag down a server if you need refills on drinks or anything else. Prices range from $2.50 - $3.90 for appetizers, and $5.90 - $9.50 for their Ramen Noodle and Rice combinations.

Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo (Little Tokyo branch) provides a decent flavor profile with its signature Tan-Tan-Men (Soup Noodles in a Sesame Broth) and Chin-Ma Han (Tofu, Ground Pork and Beef, Special Chili Sauce over Rice). Its their take on Shisen-style Ramen and other dishes, but falls a bit short in the execution. Perhaps its the lack of a real head chef at this restaurant (they have multiple short-order cooks that all learned the recipe / process from the Tokyo branch), or just the original chain's recipe that's to blame, but with flavors that are too heavy-handed at times and too sweet as well, Chin-Ma-Ya needs more polish and refinement before it can be considered a destination. Still, if you're tired of the same ol' Shio (Salt), Shoyu (Soy Sauce) or Miso Ramen Noodles, and you happen to be in the area, Chin-Ma-Ya is a decent break until we get a truly great Ramen shop in L.A. (hopefully soon! :).

Rating: 6.0 (out of 10.0)

Chin-Ma-Ya of Tokyo (Little Tokyo branch)
123 Astronaut Ellison S Onizuka Street, #202
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 625-3400

Hours: Mon - Fri, [Lunch] 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., [Dinner] 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.

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