Thursday, May 27, 2010

Serious Ramen Noodles Hit So Cal... For Four Days - 2010 Mitsuwa Umaimono Fair (5/27 - 5/30)

While Southern California awaits the opening of a hardcore Ramen shop helmed by a dedicated master who's been perfecting a potent Noodle Soup for decades upon decades, every once in a while we get a potential window into that greatness with Mitsuwa Market's Food Festivals that happen a few times per year. We've seen some average-to-good Ramen Noodles being served over the past few years, but this year, whether intentional or not, Mitsuwa has invited 2 of the heaviest hitters of Japan's Ramen scene to Southern California for 4 days, for their 2010 Umaimono Gourmet Food Fair: Chibaki-Ya and Hakata Ippudo!

* Mitsuwa Market Torrance - 2010 Umaimono Gourmet Food Fair *

Like previous years, Mitsuwa unfortunately splits their Guest Restaurants between the Costa Mesa location and Torrance location. We arrive first at the Torrance branch, and there's a small crowd beginning to build.

And right as we enter, I see the award-winning Takoya Kukuru, now a mainstay at the past few Umaimono Festivals.

And despite my disappointment every year with them, I'm always hoping that maybe this time, they might actually deliver some amazing Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls). They always look so good while being prepared that I can't resist. :)

Taking some lessons learned from previous experiences, I ask for No Mayo and I crack open the lid as soon as I buy it (to prevent the Takoyaki from steaming inside the box).

I gently pick one up, but sadly, I can tell they are already soggy. :( Again. Each Takoyaki contains a generous chunk of Octopus and the flavoring of the outside batter is well done. It's sadly about the lack of texture, as each Ball has turned to mush. The Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Shavings) and Aonori (Seaweed) help a bit, but it can't save it Takoyaki. This will probably be the last time I'm ordering these from this vendor.

Price for 1 Box (8 Pieces) of Takoyaki is $6.90.

Rating: 4.0 (out of 10.0)

Mitsuwa has also invited back the vendors for their bountiful Seafood Bento Boxes (they look absolutely delicious this year! :), and their Bakery specialists, Dango vendor, and more. (I posted thoughts about some of the smaller vendors during last year's report here. :)

But the highlight of this Torrance Festival is the famous Ramen specialist from Sendai, Japan: Chibaki-Ya. They've been invited before in the past, but every year, they show up with something other than their most famous Ramen. 2 years ago, it was the (in)famous Kaisen Fukahire Ramen (Shark Fin Ramen). And last year, at the Japan Festival, they brought their classic Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce-Base Ramen Noodle Soup). This year, however, Chibaki-Ya has finally brought their most famous Ramen offering:

Gyu Tan Shio Ramen (Ramen Noodles with Beef Tongue in a Salt-Based Soup).

Ever since I heard Silverjay talk about this Gyu Tan Ramen, I've been dying to try it, and instead of going to Sendai or visiting their Higashi Kasai branch, they've finally brought it to us in So Cal for this Festival! (^_^)

And to top it off, the Ramen master himself, Chiba Kenji-san - "Mr. Chibaki-Ya" - was in the house, preparing each bowl of Ramen. :) As soon as I set down my bowl of Ramen I could tell something was different: Not only was the founder of the venerable Chibaki-Ya here at the Festival cooking and serving, but they smartly took the time to arrange to have real Ramen Bowls (glassware) used, instead of the crappy Styrofoam containers used most of the time at these fairs. For Chibaki-Ya's #1 Ramen, there was no other way. :)

I take a sip: A very clean, Shio (Salt-Base) Broth washes over me. It's pure and bright, and has notes of Torigara (Chicken Bones), Pork and Tama Negi (Onions). The Negi (Green Onions) and Shirogoma (White Sesame Seeds) add even more wonderful layers with each sip.

Chiba-san uses a thin, straight, white Noodle, slightly thicker than the famous Hakata-style Noodle, but only just barely. It's still very thin and a great match with the Broth. The Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue) has a beautiful sear which gives each bite an irresistible smokiness, in addition to being surprisingly tender. The only negative is the quality of the product, but that's probably due to what he was limited to here, at this local market, compared to his usual sources in Japan. It's not bad Beef Tongue, but it lacks the vibrant, deep, soulful qualities of a high quality Gyu Tan like the Jotan (USDA Prime Beef Tongue) at Tsuruhashi. Otherwise, this is probably the best, pure Shio Ramen I've had in So Cal. (^_^)

Chiba-san also brought along his Gyu Tan Onigiri (Beef Tongue Rice Ball) as a side order option.

Their Beef Tongue Onigiri features plump, slightly moist Rice, with little, meaty, tender chunks of Beef Tongue, nicely distributed so you get a little bit with each bite. The Shirogoma (White Sesame Seeds) impart a fragrant nuttiness as well. A note for first timers trying Onigiri: It's on the "plain" side, but the beauty of them are in their austere composition. But with a sip of the Gyu Tan Shio Broth, it makes it even better. (^_~)

Price is $9.80 for their Gyu Tan Shio Ramen and $1.30 for their Gyu Tan Onigiri.

Overall, this appearance by Chibaki-Ya with their most famous Ramen is one of the all-time highlights of Mitsuwa's various Festivals over the years. Even more encouraging news is that when I asked Chiba-san about opening up a branch of Chibaki-Ya in Los Angeles, he said (in Japanese): "I really want to. We'll have to see if an opportunity arises." :) If Chibaki-Ya opened up in So Cal, we'd be a much better place for it. :)

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

As we were leaving, I noticed Chef Chiba standing in front of a corner booth. I took a glance and couldn't believe it...

As if we needed any more incentive to stop by the Festival this weekend, there's a booth carrying Chibaki-Ya's Instant Ramen! (^_^) Sure it's not as good as Chibaki-Ya's freshly made bowl of goodness, but when you're thousands of miles away from Japan and need a fix, this is probably going to be better than the usual brands carried by local markets.

They were carrying 2 flavors: Shio Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Salt-Based Soup) and Shoyu Ramen (Ramen Noodles in a Soy Sauce-Based Soup). I picked a couple of each and will relish these over the coming year when I crave Ramen. :)

* Mitsuwa Market Costa Mesa - 2010 Umaimono Gourmet Food Fair *

Arriving at Costa Mesa's Festival, it was already twice as crowded as Torrance as we approached the lunch hour (in their food court area). They had the exact same booths as Torrance this year, except for their own Ramen specialist.

Yes, Mitsuwa went all out this year and invited the legendary Hakata Ippudo Ramen specialist from Kyushu, Japan! I've heard so many good things about Ippudo and have never made it out to their main branch.

They offer only 1 item at this Festival: Their Shiromaru Motoaji Ramen, which is essentially their famous, popular Tonkotsu Ramen (Pork Bone Broth Ramen Noodle Soup).

As I stepped up to the register to pay, I noticed that not only was Ippudo here, but their founder and Ramen master, Kawahara Shigemi, showed up to personally oversee and prepare the Ramen! Wow. It seems Ippudo is just as serious about their So Cal showing as Chibaki-Ya for this Festival.

I turn around and notice there's a Seasoning Station set up just across from the register (be sure to stop by :). At the station they feature a variety of options to dress up the famous bowl of Ramen: Beni Shoga (Pickled Red Ginger), Fresh Garlic (with Garlic Press!), Shirogoma (White Sesame Seeds), and their own Karami Miso (Spicy Miso Paste).

Sadly, Ippudo served their Ramen out of the more convenient Styrofoam serving bowls, but perhaps they couldn't source any proper bowls in time for this festival. I sit down and take a sip:

Piping hot (excellent!), milky and creamy, with a beautiful reserved quality about it. It also has a great porcine pungency to each slurp. (^_~) After a few sips, I notice a bit of an MSG reaction and confirm this with Kawahara-san, but it's slight, and nowhere near as bad as Daikokuya. Still, for those that have no reservations for the flavor crystals, I urge you to try this Broth, it's easily the best pure Tonkotsu Broth I've tried in So Cal.

And then the Noodles: Ultra-thin, slippery, Hakata-style Noodles cooked perfectly (even under these foreign conditions for their kitchen staff). It's the perfect match for Tonkotsu, and one of the highlights of this bowl. Excellent! :)

And then their Chashu (Roasted Pork Slices): Tender, meaty, *fresh* slices of Fatty Pork. There's an edge or two that's a little dry, but ~80% of it is still very tender and very good! :)

(A word of caution: Over the past few years, I've heard reports that the Chashu on subsequent days of the Festival don't taste as good, because the various Guest Ramen Shops decided to just make 1 batch at the start of the Festival, and refrigerate and slice the rest for the remaining days. I don't know if Ippudo would do this (I hope note), but at least for Day 1 of the Festival it's been great. :)

Unlike Chibaki-Ya, Ippudo's appearance in So Cal is even rarer, and Kawahara-san said that he has "no plans at all" to open a branch of Ippudo in Los Angeles. :( Sigh. So for all the Tonkotsu Ramen fans out there, here's your chance to try Ippudo in your backyard for the next few days. :)

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

* The Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Food Fair runs from May 27, 2010 (Thurs) - May 30, 2010 (Sun) *

* Note: While the Festival hours run until 7:00 p.m., the Ramen specialists only sell a limited number of bowls of Ramen each day, and based on past experience, they usually sell out by ~2:30 - 3:00 p.m. over the weekend. *

* Cash Only * (FYI: There's a Bank of America ATM inside the Market.)

Chibaki-Ya Ramen @
Mitsuwa Market (Torrance)
21515 Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 782-0335


Hakata Ippudo Ramen @
Mitsuwa Market (Costa Mesa)
665 Paularino Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-6699

Call for Fair Hours (Ramen starts serving at 11:00 a.m. every day)


Darin said...

Oh man I wanna go! The pictures look great - definitely looks like a fun event. Thanks for the heads up on the ramen selling out early too.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darin,

Thanks. Let me know if you end up going and whatcha think. :)

Kevie said...

The Ippudo in NYC in one of my favorite places in the city. Transcedent ramen to say the least!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevie,

Nice! You're lucky enough to get a standalone Ippudo store in NY. :)

Kevie said...

The Ippudo in NYC is amazing. Best ramen in the U.S without question. Great to see they made the trip out there...

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevie,

And yes, it's pretty amazing Ramen. I can't imagine what it's like in NY. I'm going to head over to their Honten in Kyushu and try it. :)

Darin said...

I went on Saturday to the Costa Mesa Mitsuwa and I really enjoyed it, especially Ippudo. I'm gonna miss it.

I was kinda surprised that the festival wasn't really that crowded - I expected a ton of people to come out for at least Ippudo. Over the three hours that I was there, Santouka still had a consistently longer line.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Darin,

Thanks for the report back on Ippudo. Glad you liked it! :)

I'm gonna miss them as well, sigh. Hopefully they come back next year as well. :)

And yah, it's sad that many people ignore the festival (it's going on for a limited time only (4 days)) and head straight for the usual places that are going to be there all year long. :)

ila said...

we went to try Ippudo! After a 30 minute wait and intense table-fighting, we were able to try this famed shiromaru bowl. really chinsey for amount for 10 bucks, but it was delicious :)

the takoyaki, however, was FAIL :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thanks for the report back! :) I'm glad you got to try Ippudo. Yes, it's definitely chintzy for the price ($10) but I hear it's like ~$14 for a bowl in NY's Ippudo.

And bummer that you had the same experience I did with Takoya Kukuru's Takoyaki! Sugoku mazui desu! (>_<)

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