Thursday, September 2, 2010

Perseverance for the Love of Ramen (or, Handmade Wakayama-style Noodles in So Cal?!) - Gomen

People open up restaurants for a spectrum of reasons. It could be to seize an opportunity to fill a niche, to make a living, or for the love of cooking whatever it is they're serving. For Chuuka Soba Gomen, it's thankfully because of a love of making Ramen (Japanese Soup Noodles) despite a variety of factors stacked against them.

Considering Gomen is my 'dachi Keizo's favorite Ramen in Orange County, I couldn't wait to give this place a try. :) The first interesting and challenging factor is that Gomen is located in a quiet, seemingly half-deserted mini-mall in the heart of Stanton of all places (at least they don't have to worry about Ramen competition in the area). Opened by Chef-Owner Koji Takeda a few years back, Gomen is the result of Takeda-san giving up his previous Japanese Teishoku (Set Meal) restaurant and moving to Wakayama, Japan to study Wakayama-style Ramen-making. After finishing his training, he opened up Gomen and has been quietly making his Ramen ever since.

"Gomen" is an odd name for a restaurant (it means "I'm sorry" in Japanese), and it's in reference to the elderly Takeda-san apologizing to all his customers for his odd business hours (FYI: They're open Mon - Wed and Fri - Sat for only 3 hours for Lunch; only open on Fri and Sat for Dinner; and closed Thursday and Sunday(!)); Chef Takeda is literally a one man operation in the kitchen (with 2 waitresses and no busboys helping out front)), so at his current age, these hours are the most that he can maintain with his own strength. There's also a second meaning behind the "I'm sorry" name that I heard from a friend who spoke with Takeda-san years ago (a personal tragedy that's really sad), but at this point it's only hearsay since I didn't get a chance to ask Takeda-san personally (nor would I want to pry).

Stepping into Gomen for the first time (about ~1.5 years ago) reveals a well-lit, surprisingly spacious Ramen restaurant. There's a counter up front with 5 seats as well, and the classic bookshelf filled with Manga for those wanting to read something while slurping a bowl of Ramen. :)

Note: Takeda-san uses No MSG (besides the trace amounts found in Soy Sauce) for any of his Ramen offerings.

I start with their Tonkotsu Shio Chuuka Soba (listed as "Tonkotsu Salt Ramen" in English (Ramen Noodles in a Pork Bone and Salt-base Broth)).

It should be noted that despite the similar-sounding name, the "Tonkotsu Shio" Ramen served here at Gomen is a Wakayama-style creation, quite different from the popular "Tonkotsu Shio" served at Santouka, which is an Asahikawa-style Ramen.

Taking a sip, there's a light porcine flavor with notes of Torigara (Chicken Bones) and Katsuobushi. It's quite heavy on the Salt unfortunately, and the end result is a rather mild, slightly porky, mainly salty Broth. It's not bad, but it's definitely on the milder side if you're looking for a deep pork-fish funkiness (like at Santouka).

The Noodles are noteworthy in being Handmade Ramen Noodles, made fresh every day (they're open) by Takeda-san(!). Gomen now marks the first local Ramen-ya I've been to that serves Noodles made in-house, but sadly, they lack the body and proper bite of a great Noodle. Each time I've had their Handmade Noodles over the past 1.5 years, it's ranged from ~too soft (overcooked), to decent, but too egg-y (like Lo Mein with less body) than anything. While the Noodles fall short, it's still impressive that Takeda-san is one of the few Ramen shops in So Cal to make their own Noodles in-house on a daily basis.

Note: They serve the Handmade Noodles only with their house specialty Tonkotsu Salt and Tonkotsu Soy Sauce offerings. The other dishes use an outsourced, thicker variety.

For the accompaniments, their Menma (Bamboo Shoots) are of the extremely pungent and potent variety, so if you enjoy those strong flavors, this one's for you. :) Their Tamago (Egg) is of the Hard-Boiled variety, very typical and bland.

But if there's one thing that stands out beyond anything else in this bowl of Ramen, it's their Chashu (Roast Pork Slices). Every time I've gone to Gomen, their Chashu has been consistently fresh, tender, with a deep braised succulence; slightly fatty and juicy. They're right up there with Foo Foo Tei for best Chashu in a bowl of Ramen locally. :)

Their Gyoza (Pan Fried Pork & Vegetable Dumplings) are a decent offering.

There's a good sear on each Dumpling, but the Gyoza skin tastes like a standard, store-bought variety with an OK balance of Pork and Vegetables in a medium mince.

The highest recommended dish of their menu is their Tonkotsu Shoyu Chuuka Soba ("Tonkotsu Soy Sauce") (Ramen Noodles in a Pork Bone and Soy Sauce-base Broth)).

It's also what best represents Takeda-san's training in Japan, a Wakayama-style Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen. The Broth seems a bit inconsistent at times; on one of my earliest visits, it tastes really bland with only a light Tonkotsu flavor coming through. On a later visit, there's a nice, light creaminess with a good balance between the Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) and Shoyu (Soy Sauce), as well as Chicken flavors. Like their Tonkotsu Shio, this is very different from the similarly named offering at Santouka: This is a Tonkotsu-blend Ramen for those that enjoy a lighter, more balanced flavor.

The Handmade Noodles fare about as well as in their Tonkotsu Shio: A straight, thin, yellowish Noodle with not enough chew. Their Chashu is just as impressive as in their Tonkotsu Shio dish; buttery, fresh with a deep Soy Sauce flavor coming through.

On another visit, my guest and I start with their simplest Shio Chuuka Soba ("Salt Ramen" (Ramen Noodles in a Salt-base Broth)).

It's a rather simple Torigara (Chicken Bone) Broth, not as good as Foo Foo Tei's wonderful Shio, but it fills the need if you find yourself craving it at Gomen. The barely poached Moyashi (Mung Bean Sprouts) pair nicely with the Negi (Green Onions) and the more delicate, lighter flavors in this Shio Broth. And their Chashu is as delicious as always, with the rich, deep Mirin and Soy Sauce flavors permeating each bite.

Another classic side dish worth considering is their Yakimeshi (Fried Rice).

Wok-fried fresh to order, it's a touch too greasy but it's a piping hot bowl of Fried Rice with a good balance of Egg, Green Onions and bits of Pork.

The last of their three Tonkotsu-based Ramen is their Tonkotsu Miso Chuuka Soba ("Tonkotsu Miso" (Ramen Noodles in a Pork Bone and Miso-base Broth)).

It's lightly spicy, slightly oily, with a decent Miso flavor coming through that complements the Tonkotsu's porkiness a bit better than their Shio or Shoyu offering. There's also some Corn thrown in as well, which is decent, but doesn't seem to work as well as when it's found in a Sapporo-style offering.

In addition to the 3 Tonkotsu-blend Ramen dishes, Takeda-san offers another 13(!) flavors of Ramen, but they are all based off the plain Shio (Salt) or Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Broth, with different toppings added (e.g., Assorted Sauteed Vegetables, or tons of Bean Sprouts, etc.). I order their Mabo Chuuka Soba ("Mabo Ramen" (Ramen Noodles with Ground Pork, Tofu, Green Onion in a Mabo Tofu Sauce)), which has the potential to be the boldest flavor from this bunch.

The first sip reveals a very sweet, thick Mabo Tofu Sauce. It's a bit too sweet, with not enough depth or savoriness to give it a standout characteristic. There's a decent medium burn with each bite, but it's missing any numbing aspects of a good Mabo Tofu. The tender bits of their slow-roasted Chashu and the silken Tofu are nice, but they can't save the sugary Mabo Sauce. :(

But perhaps the most surprising Ramen on the menu might very well be their Negi Chuuka Soba ("Negi Ramen" (Ramen Noodles with Spicy Green Onions in a Soy Sauce-base Broth)).

The base Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Broth is nothing to write home about; it's quite tame and a bit too bland. And the Noodles here are the mass-produced, ubiquitous thicker, yellow, curly Noodles found in too many places around town.

But the combination of the fragrant, spring-like, refreshing, delicate, onion-y flavors from the finely shredded Negi (Green Onions), dressed in Rayu (Hot Chili Oil) with some of the slow-cooked, super tender, fresh Chashu, and the light Shoyu Broth = Happiness. :) It's just a satisfying, delicate combination that has more flavor then the individual components combined. (Disclaimer: I'm a huge Negi fan, so if you don't like Green Onions, this may not be for you. :)

Despite having only 2 waitresses and no busboys, the service at Gomen has always been just fine. You can wave to get the attention of any waitress and they quickly resolve whatever you need. Prices range from $3.60 - $7.25 with most bowls of Ramen in the ~$6 range. I average about ~$11 per person (including tax and tip)).

It's nice to see a place like Gomen trying to deliver Wakayama-style Ramen - with Handmade Noodles, no less - in the unlikeliest of places in Southern California. And while their Ramen tend to be a bit too timid and mild at times, and their Handmade Noodles lack the greatness of the best Handmade offerings in Japan, there's something admirable about what Takeda-san is doing. There's a saying in Japanese, "isshoukenmei", which roughly means "doing the best that you can; giving it your absolute all", and it's apparent here. Despite a completely unexpected and challenging location, despite the restrictions with his age and strength (that restrict his ability to open normal business hours) and other challenges, Takeda-san keeps plugging away, trying to make the best bowl of Ramen he can. This is not a destination restaurant in the slightest, but if I happen to be in the area and crave a bowl of Ramen, I'd be happy to stop by.

Rating: 6.7 (out of 10)

Chuuka Soba Gomen
7147 Katella Ave.
Stanton, CA 90680
Tel: (714) 761-8007

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Wed, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Fri - Sat Only, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Closed on Thursdays and Sundays.


edjusted said...

Great review. I'll have to try the negi ramen next time. I really wished Gomen was closer to me...and/or he had more regular hours. :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Yah, I think you'd like their Negi Ramen. :) And yes, their hours are just so odd, but that's all Takeda-san can do at this point.

gourmetpigs said...

It's always good to know they're giving it their all, even if they're not perfect :)
I haven't been to Stanton in years, but when I end up there again I'll know where to go.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Yah, if you end up going, let me know what you think. It's nothing amazing, but for the area it's works just fine. :)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin