Sunday, April 4, 2010

So Close, Yet So Far - Asa Ramen

While Southern California's Ramen scene still has a ways to go to catch up to a standard bowl of Ramen in Japan (let alone the offerings from master Ramen shops like Kurume Taiho that are so wondrous they can cause Rameniac to go on a pilgrimage just to slurp a bowl of their noodles :), I continually hold out hope that one day we'll have outstanding Ramen to call our own. One local Ramen shop that's continually bewitched and befuddled me since it's debut 2+ years ago is Asa Ramen.

I first learned about the very underground Asa Ramen (it opened with no signage, and little fanfare) thanks to Rameniac's great review. Opened and helmed by Chef Kubo Muneyoshi, a native of Kyoto, Japan, Asa Ramen has the foundation to create a truly excellent Ramen shop; something that could be straight outta' Japan, transported to a quiet corner along Western Boulevard. From the simple, humble sign - "Asa" (in Japanese) - to the well-worn, beautifully rustic wooden counter and overhangs, you really get a feeling that you could be eating in a neighborhood Ramen-ya, somewhere in Tokyo.

The excellent foundation begins with Asa's Ramen Menu: They only serve 2 types of Ramen Noodle Soups - a Kotteri and Assari option - which is very promising in this day-and-age of places debuting offering too many varieties from the get-go, which dilutes the potential of the Ramen chef to properly focus on delivering perfection in a bowl.

Their first Ramen dish (and most popular) is their Kotteri Shoyu Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Rich Flavored Soy Sauce and Pork Soup).

This basic version comes with Negi (Green Onion), Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) and Menma (Bamboo Shoots). Egg lovers should add their Marinated Soy Egg as an extra topping. You can also add Mentaiko (Spicy Cod Roe), Kimchi, Butter or extra Chashu to customize your Ramen experience.

Over the years, their Kotteri Shoyu Broth has fluctuated quite a bit at times. Sometimes the Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) flavor shines through with a good funkiness, mellowed by the Soy Sauce. Other times (like our most recent visit), it's been flat, really salty (more than usual) and only slightly creamy.

Their Marinated Egg is a decent offering, mostly hard-boiled, even though our waitress assures us (on multiple visits) that it's "Hanjyuku" (Flash-Boiled). It's not completely dense and hard-boiled like the early days, but it's not close to the oozing, gooey perfection of a great Hanjyuku Tamago like at Menya Kissou or Rokurinsha.

The Ramen Noodles are a thin, straight variety, pairing nicely with the Shoyu Tonkotsu Broth. The only thing that first time visitors should be aware of is that, perhaps due to customers' demands(?), Mune-san has been serving his Noodles on the soft side the past few months. They're slightly too soft and overcooked for my tastes, but just ask them for "Katame" (Hard / Firm Noodles) and they'll oblige, providing a glimpse of their excellent previous default offering.

But that's just their plain Kotteri Shoyu. With one simple addition, you can transform the sometimes good, sometimes flat Broth into something far greater, with their Kotteri Shoyu Ramen with Seabura (Ramen Noodles in a Rich Flavored Soy Sauce and Pork Broth with Pork Back Fat). :)

Just the simple addition of Pork Back Fat really adds an absurd velvety, deeply savory layer that coats your mouth as you slurp the hot bowl of Ramen. :) It's also so rich at times, that each of my guests that I've brought here have commented that while they enjoy it, they probably couldn't have another bowl for a month or two. :)

The Chashu (Roast Pork Slices) have definitely gone downhill the past 2 years I've visited. When they first debuted it was a meaty, fatty slice of Pork goodness, usually very fresh and delicious. But the last 3 visits to Asa (within the past year) have resulted in an old-tasting Chashu that has the funk of being ~2 days old or so. It's understandable that to save costs, they make Chashu in large batches, and refrigerate and slice off pieces to order over the course of a few days (until it runs out), but it's shortcuts like this that undermine the potential for Asa to be great and standout from the local Ramen crowd.

One last thing to note about Asa Ramen's Kotteri Shoyu offering: For those allergic to MSG, this is one broth that's generous in its MSG usage. I'm pretty sensitive to MSG so it really ruins me every time I try their Kotteri Shoyu, and even for 2 of my Ramen Hounds (who *love* MSG :), they've noted that it's excessive here (although nowhere near as bad as Daikokuya Little Tokyo). But I've taken guests here that have no allergies to MSG and they down the whole bowl of soup with no problems and can't get enough.

The only other offering at Asa Ramen is perfect for those looking for a lighter, cleaner Broth: Assari Shoyu Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Light Flavored Soy Sauce Soup).

Unlike their Kotteri, Asa Ramen has managed to create a consistently light Broth, made of a lighter Shoyu (Soy Sauce) with just a hint of Niboshi (Baby Sardines). It's served with Chashu (which sadly tastes as old as in the Kotteri), Negi (Green Onions), Menma (Bamboo Shoots) and Nori (Seaweed).

Besides the Broth, the other nice touch is that Mune-san pairs it with a heavily curled, thicker, yellow Noodle, instead of just serving 1 Noodle to fit every type of Broth offered (as seen in many local places). But sadly, like with the Kotteri, the past year has seen Mune-san overcooking the Noodles to a really soft level of doneness. Be sure to ask them for "Katame" (Firm Noodles) if you prefer a bit more chew and firmness for your Noodles.

Since the first time I visited years ago, Asa Ramen has curiously featured a Takoyaki sub-menu (a rare sight at local Ramen shops), with multiple flavors of Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls). I usually tend to order their Original or Negi (Green Onion) Takoyaki.

Their Takoyaki seem to have gotten worse over the past 2 years. During the first couple of visits, they were consistently crispy, but still had a good softness in the center. But recently, their Takoyaki have had some pieces completely deflated, partially soggy, and/or over cooked. It's a decent version of this classic street food, but nothing amazing.

Their Chahan (Fried Rice with Chopped Pork, Egg and Green Onion) is also passable.

It's a bit too moist, with puffy, damp Rice, but it tastes fresh, with a nice balance of Green Onions and Rice (but not very much Chashu or Egg).

Their Tori no Karaage (Chicken Karaage (Marinated in Special Sauce and Deep Fried)) is a decent version to pair with their Beer offerings.

The Chicken arrives very crispy and juicy, but it's always been too salty. It's not a world beater like Izakaya Bincho or Torihei's version, but if you're in the mood for some Japanese-style Fried Chicken, this will work in a pinch.

Service has been consistently prompt with the slew of waitresses that are constantly moving around the dining room area. Just wave and ask for whatever you need. Prices range from $2.50 - $7.50 for their Small Plates; and $6.50 - $6.95 for their Ramen. Toppings are fairly priced from $0.50 - $1.00, with Kaedama (Extra Noodles) being only $1 extra. We usually average about ~$15 per person (including tax and tip).

Asa Ramen debuted with strong potential 2 years ago, and they've still stuck with their 2 focused offerings of either a Kotteri Shoyu Ramen or Assari Shoyu Ramen. But since their grand opening, Asa Ramen has also added a slew of small dishes to the menu, with items like Buta Kimchi (Pork and Kimchi Stir Fry), Takowasa (Raw Octopus with Wasabi Paste), to three different Salads and Natto Rice. With their Kotteri Shoyu Broth being inconsistent recently, one has to wonder if Mune-san and his assistant are getting too distracted with expanding their menu to accommodate for the Small Plates, or if it's something else. For me, Asa's heavy usage of MSG, the degradation of their Chashu and overcooking of their Noodles has me hoping that their kitchen turn things around soon, before things get too out of hand.

Rating: 6.1 (out of 10.0)

Asa Ramen
18202 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA 90248
Tel: (310) 769-1010

* Credit Card Minimum Charge: $20 *

Hours: Mon - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. (nice! :)
Closed Sundays.


Pigmon said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment about the over-saltiness of Asa's Kotteri Shoyu Broth as well as the serious decline in their chashu quality. From my last visit a year ago to my most recent stop last week, the overall drop in quality was pretty startling.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pigmon,

Sorry to hear you had the same experience I did. I'm pretty bummed that Asa seems to be going downhill; I can only hope they turn it around soon.

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Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

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