Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Home of the Black Sesame Ramen - Ma Ru Yu

I had first heard about Ma Ru Yu awhile back, thanks to Keizo at Go Ramen! It was always nice to hear about new Ramen shops opening up, especially ones that sound like they have the dedication to make food from the heart. While Keizo's review warned of mixed results, I was hoping that his visit and talk with Mayumi-san (the owner) and the subsequent passage of time would provide the opportunity to improve their recipes since their Grand Opening. Plus they had one item that sounded so bizarre and intriguing that I just had to try it once: Black Sesame Ramen. :)

Ma Ru Yu is located in a rather obscure location in Santa Ana, on the corner of Harbor and Warner. Upon entering, we were kindly greeted by Mayumi-san, the owner. We perused their menu and it was nice to see her mission statements proudly proclaimed on the menu: "No MSG" and only "Using the Freshest Ingredients imported direct from Japan." This sounded like there could be potential. We quickly placed our order to try two of the Ramen, and awaited the food.

After a few minutes, the reason for my visit arrived: Their house specialty, Kurogoma Ramen (Black Sesame Ramen Noodles)! Mayumi-san mentioned to me that this was a creation of hers, and it certainly looked... imposing. The Kurogoma Ramen was a huge bowl of Black Broth, with bits of Negi (Green Onion), Chashu (Stewed Pork Slices) and Tamago (Egg) poking out from beneath the viscous liquid. I braced myself and dug in.

I normally enjoy Black Sesame, having had it before in various Asian cuisine, with my favorite being the classic Chinese dessert known as "Zi Ma Hu" (Black Sesame 'Soup'), seen in various Dim Sum restaurants. But here, it was interesting to say the least: The fragrance and nuttiness of the Black Sesame really overpowered much of the dish. There were savory hints of a combination Ramen broth of Torihone (Chicken Bones), some type of Sakana (Fish) as well, but when mixed with so much Black Sesame, it was slightly unnerving. The Chashu was decent, but pretty much everything was overtaken by the murky broth. It's a break from the usual Ramen Noodle / Broth combinations, but not something I'd order again.

The other Ramen we ordered was the Tonkotsu Ramen (Long-Cooked Pork Bone Ramen Noodle Soup). I enjoy Tonkotsu Ramen, so I was looking forward to this version. It arrived in a milky white broth (a characteristic of cooking Pork Bones for a long time), and had a nice topping of Beni Shoga (Pickled Red Ginger), Negi (Green Onions), and Chashu. Taking a sip of the broth... it was odd. I made sure this was the Tonkotsu Ramen, and took another sip with some Ramen Noodles this time. The Broth, which should be nice and rich and porky, tasted more like it was made of Torihone (Chicken Bones) and various types of Fish and Katsuobushi (Bonito Flakes). There was only a hint of Pork, but it was overpowered by a rather bland, heavily Fish-influenced broth.

With no overpowering Black Sesame this time, I was able to taste the Chashu better, and it was decent, but tasted old (as if cooked a day or two in advance and pre-sliced). The Tamago (Egg) was hard-boiled, as is sadly the case with So Cal Ramen-yas, and the Ramen Noodles were a bit too thick for my tastes. They were similar to the ubiquitous yellow, curly egg noodles found in so many Ramen shops. Mayumi-san said that she had her Ramen Noodles custom-made from a local supplier, which makes the Noodles to her specifications (a certain amount of egg, water, flour, etc.). I couldn't discern much of a difference when paired with the bland broth unfortunately.

We also ordered their handmade Gyoza (Dumplings), which arrived a few minutes after our Ramen. They indeed tasted like a custom-stuffing, and they were decent, but just a bit too simple in recipe (a little bit of ground pork, some cabbage and garlic is what I could taste). There was nothing wrong with them, but nothing outstanding as well.

Before leaving, Mayumi-san checked in on us, and I asked her if all the items were made from scratch by her kitchen, and she nodded. Wanting to give Ma Ru Yu another shot, I came back a week later to try a couple more items on the menu (one of them on her cute, handmade Wall Menu).

This time I ordered their Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls), hoping to try something that might taste like the amazing ones I had in Ueno Park in Tokyo (or something close to it). The Takoyaki arrived looking quite delicious, with a beautiful, golden-brown, crispy exterior. The exterior was nice and crisp, with a fluffy interior, but sadly, there was such a tiny piece of Tako (Octopus) that it was really ~70% Pastry and 30% Octopus. The dough inside was a bit undercooked for my tastes as well. It was nice that they didn't drown the Takoyaki with too much Aonori (Green Seaweed), Katsuobushi (Bonito Flakes) and Okonomiyaki Sauce like some places.

Their Katsu Kare (Pork Cutlet Curry) is a completely made-from-scratch Curry, according to Mayumi-san, which was exciting to hear, since so many places use a pre-made base (or use completely store-bought curries), and with her philosophy of "No MSG," I was hoping for something elevated from the standard versions found around L.A.

Unfortunately, their Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) had too much breading, and was overfried. I realize I was asking for trouble when trying to order Curry in a Ramen restaurant, but Mayumi-san was so proud of the fact that her Curry was made-from-scratch, that I wanted to try it and like it. The Curry itself tasted much richer, spicier and fresher than the usual glop found locally, but still a bit too artificially thickened for my tastes (after having some wonderful, made-from-scratch, homemade Japanese Curry, from a variety of Fruits and Vegetables, I'm spoiled :P).

Service was to be expected from a simple mom-and-pop type establishment, with Mayumi-san actually serving us and helping serve most of the restaurant (with 1 other waitress). We averaged about ~$12.50 per person (including tax and tip).

Ma Ru Yu is a Ramen Shop with the right attitude - No MSG, using premium ingredients from Japan - but in need of a better cook. Keizo mentioned that Mayumi-san is trying to recreate recipes from her mother's shops in Tokyo, but she's not cooking, nor was she formally trained. You can have all the Heart in the world (which is a good start), but if you don't have the Cooking Skills, you just fall short, which is the case here, unfortunately. I sincerely hope Mayumi-san and the kitchen can improve the recipes and execution of their dishes, in which case I'd be more than happy to come back. I would say that if you were "in the area" to give them a shot, but sadly, just down the street and one exit over is Santouka, which is basically superior to Ma Ru Yu in every way. Here's to hoping Ma Ru Yu can somehow improve their cooking in the near future.

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

Ma Ru Yu
3748 W. Warner Ave.
Santa Ana, CA 92704
Tel: (714) 549-8121

Hours: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Keizo Shimamoto said...

Nice review! I agree with you on the Kurogoma--don't think I'll be trying that again. As for Mayumi-san, hopefully she'll improve on things fast because I heard that they are having a rough time. Coupled with the bad location, they seem to be heading in the wrong direction...

Exile Kiss said...

Thanks Keizo! :) Glad to have at least tried it once, thanks to you.

Sorry to hear about Mayumi-san. As you said it's a poor location. I, too, hope she can get her kitchen to improve on the execution. They have the right mindset...

edjusted said...

Nice review! I had similar thoughts going through my head when I went sesame...great in Chinese desserts...but ramen?! I chickened out and had the shoyu, but I'll give the kurogoma a try next time.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi edjusted,

Thanks! Yah, if you were visiting Ma Ru Yu, I think the only reason to go would be to try Mayumi-san's creation. ;)

edjusted said...

Yeah, but I'm kind'a funny that favorite ramen is still simple shoyu. I'll leave the more exotic stuff for you more adventurous bloggers, haha!

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