Friday, May 21, 2010

Economic Equilibrium - Delivering What the Locals Want - Ramen Yukino Ya

When opening a new restaurant, perhaps the biggest defining factor of what that eatery is going to be lies in the initial goals of the chef / owner. Are they trying to be a destination restaurant? Aiming for Michelin 3 Star rating? Catering to enthusiasts of a certain dish? Trying to be the best specialist in the area? Or just trying to make some money and get by? While the "best" choice may seem like striving to be a "Michelin 3 Star / destination restaurant," that may not always work well with the type of food you're going for. Ramen Noodles are one such area. Witness the tragedy that is the big, bombastic Mizuki and you begin to appreciate the sublime, little mom & pop Ramen specialists like Menya Kissou even more. For the newish Ramen Yukino Ya (taking over the space where Wonton Forest used to be), they seem to focus on trying to craft quality bowls of Ramen Noodles, and also appease the local clientele.

Sadly, Yukino Ya is the *2nd* business attempting to survive after Wonton Forest closed. There was another Ramen shop that opened and lasted all of ~3 months before shutting down with Yukino Ya opening immediately afterward. Walking into Yukino Ya, they've kept most of the sparse decor from Wonton Forest, except now they have some large color signs of their various specialty Ramen offerings.

Looking over their limited menu, the first thing that strikes me is their two tier approach: They offer "Regular Ramen" and for ~$1.25 - $1.75 more (depending on the flavor), you get their "Yukino Ya Ramen" which is upgraded with fancier ingredients. It kinda worries me that a Ramen chef would compromise their product, but perhaps both versions can shine?

For the first visit, I try their signature Yukino Ya Tonkotsu Ramen (Ramen Noodles with Pork Bone Soup).

The Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Soup looks sufficiently milky and creamy and taking a sip, there's a smooth, rich, porcine funk that pervades the mouth. Those adverse to MSG should note that Chef Nakamoto uses MSG in every flavor of Ramen he serves. :( It's nowhere near as extreme as Daikokuya (Little Tokyo), but it should be noted.

But then I dig under the surface and am disappointed to see the ubiquitous thick, yellow, mass-produced, curly Noodle found in too many Ramen shops locally. This normally isn't the ideal Noodle for creamy, porky Tonkotsu Soup, but perhaps Nakamoto-san is pioneering a new style? I take a bite with the Soup, and... nope. They clash as expected. When I ask our server, he mentions that they originally had the proper straight, thin Hakata-style Noodles, but they switched to the current yellow, curly Noodle because "all the local Chinese customers don't like Hakata noodles." (>_>) Sigh. Somehow I don't see Mori-san switching out his amazing, crisp Nori (Dried Seaweed) from Saga, Japan, for some other type because the locals near Mori Sushi don't like that style of Nori. But ultimately, the customer is always right, and if that's what they want, then that's what Nakamoto-san is making.

This premium Yukino Ya Ramen comes with Kurobuta Chashu (Berkshire Pork Slices) which turn out to be surprisingly fresh on this first visit, it's firm, but has enough fat to make it enjoyable, and is one of the better Chashu sides with Ramen in So Cal. But on subsequent visits, it tastes disappointingly old (~1 - 3 days old), making this visit seem like a fluke. :(

It's also served with an Organic Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash Boiled Egg). It's a touch overcooked, but still retains quite a bit of the slightly sweet, succulent marinade and soft, creamy center that's desirable with a great Hanjyuku Tamago.

One notable aspect at Yukino Ya is their offering of complementary, marinated, raw Garlic and a Garlic Press at every table. The freshly grated Garlic definitely adds an enjoyable, spicy edge to the Ramen that's worth trying if you're a Garlic fan. :)

Those looking for something lighter should try their Yukino Ya Shoyu Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Soy Sauce-based Soup).

Nakamoto-san crafts his version from Torigara (Chicken Bones), Tonkotsu (Pork Bones), a variety of Seafood and Vegetables and Shoyu (Soy Sauce) cooked for over 10 hours. With a focus like this, one wonders why he has to rely on the MSG crutch, but the end result is a light, fragrant Soup that only hints at the Shoyu layer underneath. One of my Ramen Hounds notes that it reminds them of Chinese flavorings, which makes sense since Nakamoto-san has worked at an undisclosed Chinese restaurant on the Westside for over 10 years according to the chef.

The yellow, curly Noodles work better here with the Shoyu Soup, but the problem is in the mass-produced Noodles themselves. It's doughy, slightly chalky and just not an enjoyable base.

Next, we try their Po-ku Raisu (Slow Cooked Shredded Pork Over White Rice).

The Shredded Pork has a very sweet taste (almost bordering on cloying) with notes of Mirin, Sugar and Shoyu. The Benishoga (Red Pickled Ginger) and shredded Nori (Dried Seaweed) help to try and balance out the flavors, but in the end it's a touch too sweet for my tastes, and the Pork could use a little more time roasting to make it tender.

While it may not seem like much on the menu, having a Ramen-ya try and deliver 4 major styles of Ramen is a huge task (many specialists are known for 1 or 2 styles at the most). The Yukino Ya Shio Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Salt-Based Soup) is proof that even 4 styles might be too much for this small eatery.

Their Shio Ramen Broth turns out to taste like Hot Salt Water with a slight dash of Chicken Broth. It's flat, dull and while not as bad as Kohryu's version, it's still probably one of the most disappointing Shio Ramen I've ever experienced. :(

To make matters worse, the Kurobuta Chashu Pork Slices taste old and slightly chilled still from being taken out of the refrigerator.

During my 3rd visit, I bring along the most discerning Ramen Hound I know, wanting to see what they think of Yukino Ya. We begin with their Gyoza (Potstickers, listed on their menu simply as "Dumplings").

There's a decent seared crust on the bottom of each Gyoza, but the filling reminds me more of Chinese Dumplings than the usual Ramen house offerings, based on the Chinese Chives, Egg, Ground Pork and seasonings used.

We start with their "Regular Ramen" (Non-Premium) version of Shio Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Salt-Based Soup).

First, a sip of their Shio Broth: Sadly, it's just as one-note, flat and boring as their Premium version. :( The key differences between their Regular Ramen and "Premium" Yukino Ya versions is in their use of a regular, Non-Organic, Hard-Boiled Egg, and Regular Pork (instead of Berkshire Pork) for their Chashu. And the Hard-Boiled Egg turns out as expected: Chalky, simple, non-seasoned and adequate for a bowl of standard So Cal Ramen.

Their Non-Kurobuta Pork Chashu turns out to be far worse than imagined: Tasting old (~2 - 3 days old), dense, and chunky.

A note for those who might be confused by the English menu description of their 2 Egg choices: "Egg" turns out to be their Non-Organic, Hard-Boiled, Non-Seasoned Egg, while "Egg (Organic)" refers to their Hanjyuku Tamago, a Flash-Boiled, Organic, Seasoned Egg (the much better choice). :)

We also try the last of their 4 major styles of Ramen: Yukino Ya Miso Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Miso-Base Soup).

After the mixed results so far, I wasn't sure what to expect, but their Premium Miso Ramen turns out to be the second most enjoyable of the bunch, with a fragrant, balanced Miso Broth. Although sadly, it lacks the punch of even the *Pre-Packaged* Nama Ramen version of Sapporo's legendary Miso specialist Sumire, which packs such a heady brew of Pork, Fish, Chicken, and Miso in its Broth that I can still taste it to this day.

We finish with their Mixed Rice Bowl (Rice Mixed with Takana (Mustard Greens) and Chashu), which is salty, smoky and has potential, but it's a bit one note with the Shredded Chashu Pork flavor (more Soy Sauce than anything).

Service is just fine for this small, hole-in-the-wall Ramen shop, with 1 server taking care of the whole restaurant and Nakamoto-san in the kitchen. Prices range from $7 - $8.75 for their Ramen Noodles, with Toppings ranging from $0.50 - $2.50. Note that they charge $1 for Hot Tea (and they don't mention the charge until you see the bill).

For newcomer Ramen Yukino Ya, they seem to be have multiple good intentions, from advertising that they slowly cook their Tonkotsu Broth for over 10 hours, to using Kurobuta (Berkshire) Pork for their Chashu, to using Organic Eggs for their Ramen, all while trying to cater to local customers and their wishes. But they're trying to do too much: Serving up 4 types of the most popular Ramen styles, instead of focusing on 1 or 2; offering a substandard "Regular Ramen" menu, stripped of all the things they're trying to make standout (no Berkshire Pork, no Flash-Boiled Egg, etc.), and even compromising the ideal style of Noodle because some of the locals prefer the standard yellow, curly Noodle.

In the end, if you happen to be in the area, and enjoy MSG, Yukino Ya's Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Ramen (Premium version) is worth a try, as its probably the best Tonkotsu Ramen in the immediate area. Their Miso is decent as well, but avoid their Shio Ramen (Salt-Based Ramen), especially since you can get a pure, focused, wonderful version just down the street at Foo Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights), with melt-in-your-mouth Pork Belly Chashu that's always fresh. :) Chef Nakamoto needs to ask himself what's most important: Does he want to make Yukino Ya into a great specialist that's unyielding in its focus and recipe? Or do they want to make whatever the local customers desire at a certain price point? (Their "Regular Ramen" (cheaper, stripped-down, Non-Premium) seem to be more popular than their Premium offerings.) Yukino Ya's goals seem to be conflicting with each other, but ultimately their desire to cater to the local clientele and what they're willing to pay is what ends up defining and limiting them.

Rating: 5.0 (out of 10.0)

Ramen Yukino Ya
18230 E. Gale Ave.
City of Industry, CA 91748
Tel: (626) 581-8420

* Cash Only *

Hours: Tues - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. / 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


PIGMON said...

Exile -
If only Chicago (where I live)had just one ramen place (sans Santouka)that was even remotely close to what this place probably looks to be producing!

I guess it's a relative thing; Ramen-philes in LA always lamenting about their ramen shops not being able to hold a candle to Japan's ridiculously great noodlers there, and me forever ranting about Chicago's lame-ass efforts here. Hence, my numerous trips to your fair city to get a sampling of respectable bowls within the US borders.

Thanks, as always, for your stellar posts.

Exile Kiss said...


Thanks. :) It's definitely in relative terms as you say. If I was stuck in a city with, say, No Ramen (or just 1 or 2 bad places), I'd be happy to have Yukino Ya as a stand-in until I went back to Japan. :) But, even in L.A., we have better Ramen-Ya than this new place easily.

Anna A. said...

I'll honest, this makes me NOT want to eat ramen!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

I sympathize with you. :) Have you ever had Ramen in LA? If not, you might want to consider Foo Foo Tei and start with their basic Shio Ramen Noodles. That's a very solid starting point locally. Let me know if you go. :)

burumun said...

Well, I definitely won't be driving all the way there for this ramen. I suppose if I don't want to drive far I'd settle for Naga Naga in Pasadena, too. It's probably about the same caliber? I'm impressed you kept coming here so much and trying everything tho!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

It's definitely not worth a drive all the way out there for you. :( For me, I wanted to give it a fair shot before I wrote about it, so that's why I went 3 times.

Anna A. said...

I haven't had ramen in LA yet - only at Shin sen gumi in the OC. I will have to give Foo Foo Tai a whirl sometime :) Thanks

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

Definitely give FFT a try (Shio Ramen) and let me know what you think. :) Enjoy~

Tenjo Bara said...

Hi ExileKiss,

Just want you to know that Mitsuwa's gourmet fair has started and both Torrance and Costa Mesa store will have ramen (but different kinds). I tried the Hakata Ippudo's Shiromaru Motoaji Ramen today at Costa Mesa and have to say that it was a bit letdown.

The bowl is supersmall, smaller than Santouka's small, and it costs $9.50 + tax = $10+. There were only 2 slices of chasiu. On the plus side, there's a condiments table of sesame, garlic, benishoga, pepper. The broth reminded me of shoyu broth, it was nice and flavorful, but it felt like it was cut with a bit of water. The noodles were the thin type.

I wish for this price there would be more green onions, and wood ear mushrooms. No bamboo, no seaweed, no fishcaake. It was an expensive meal that I didn't feel satisfied with. For the same price, my fav ramen is still Santouka, with their toroniku shio ramen, which I get as a regular size with 7-8 pieces of chasiu and lots of extras in the bowl.

It's worth going for a taste, but it's too expensive to go back and eat again. Now I'm not so sure I want to drive to Torrance to try the gyutan ramen with only 3 slices of gyutan.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tenjo Bara,

Thanks for your thoughts. :) I went already and posted my review of the Fair on the main page. ;)

I agree, the price is a bit steep for what you get. Definitely give Chibaki-Ya's Ramen a try (Torrance). Let me know what you think.

Philip said...

Hi Exile,

Just wanted to let you know that you can ask for straight noodles with the tonkotsu. I agree that it's not the best ramen I've ever had, but it still manages to satisfy in a pinch and is miles ahead of what used to be available in Rowland Heights. Always enjoy your reviews, keep up the good work!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Philip,

Thanks for your report back. :) Yah I heard from a few people that they've now added a straight noodle back on the menu to be requested for the Tonkotsu (phew!).

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