Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Variety is the Spice of Life: 1 Noodle for Each Day of the Month (and Home of the Best Japanese Curry in L.A.!) - Foo-Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights)

I remember first hearing about Foo-Foo Tei, a strange, hidden Ramen Shop tucked away in some industrial part of Hacienda Heights a few months ago, from my good friend, Keizo of Go Ramen!. It sounded intriguing, with a restaurant that had 31 different bowls of Ramen / Noodles, one bowl for each day of the month(!). Add to that a few follow-up posts from Keizo, and Rameniac challenging Keizo to try all 31 flavors of their Ramen for a prize, and I knew I had to visit this place at least once. (^_~)

So on a fateful night, I found myself driving through a quiet residential neighborhood before finally finding the lone, simple restaurant in what looked like an abandoned, industrial section of town(!). There was nothing around that looked even remotely like it was open to the public. It was exciting and strange at the same time.

Upon entering, we were greeted with a very simple decor of flourescent lighting and simple red tables, and stacks of Japanese Manga (comics). We were seated promptly and I immediately noted the 31 different placards hanging on the wall, depicting a different Ramen / Noodle... this was impressive!

Looking towards the kitchen, they had a lineup of various drinks offered, from some popular Japanese soft drinks, to Sake, Shochu and Beer.

After looking over the menu, we decided to start at the top, with their 1st and 2nd Ramen Noodle offerings. The first Ramen to arrive was their Shoyu Ramen (Noodle with Clear Soup (Soy Sauce Base)). As soon as it arrived, I could tell that this was going to be a traditional, straight-forward Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Ramen, not to be confused with the more popular type of Shoyu-Tonkotsu (Soy Sauce & Pork Bone).

The first sip was clean and pure, but overpowered by mass quantities of Menma (Preserved Bamboo). (I found out later from Keizo and others that this was an aberration, and that normally it's not so overpowering.) I'm not a fan of too much Menma, so this was slightly off-putting. But the Shoyu Broth was very light, and not too salty, and I could detect no MSG. The Moyashi (Bean Sprouts) and Naruto (Fish Cake) were fine, but the standout was the Chashu (Stewed Pork). This was meaty, moist, and thick; it tasted very *fresh*, a far cry from 99% of the Ramen shops in L.A. where the Pork Slices taste old (which is usually the case at many places, where they cook a large batch to last for a few days-to-a-week). The Ramen Noodles were ~OK, a bit soft for my tastes, but it had a little bit of a chew to them.

However, I'm glad we tried things in order, and the #2 item on the menu was the other classic Ramen Noodle style: Shio Ramen (Noodle w/ Clear Soup (Salt Base)). This looked clear and light, and taking a sip...


There's no other way to express how I felt after sampling the Shio Broth. I took a bite of their Ramen Noodles, a bit of the Chingensai (Bok Choy vegetables) and some Negi (Green Onions) and it was simply the best, *pure* Shio Ramen I've had in L.A.! It's made with Torigara (Chicken Bones), Konbu (Kelp), and a special imported Shio, with a great balance of light flavors. (Note: I count Santouka's Shio-Tonkotsu Ramen in the "Shio-Tonkotsu" category (^_~).)

And then I tried their Chashu (Stewed Pork Belly). Wow! Without the overpowering, pungent Menma from the Shoyu Ramen I had earlier, I was able to really appreciate just how succulent, moist, tender, and mouth-watering the Chashu was! This was so fresh (it tasted like it was made that day, maybe an hour or two ago, not like the old Chashu at too many places locally)), it started reminding me of the great Chashu I had in Japan.

They also brought out our side order of their famous Gyoza Dumpling, which are hand-made in their kitchen, and cooked in the rarer (but more tasty) method of the "crusted" bottom from the excess starch and broth water they added while cooking. It's visually striking and I was excited to try it, but after dipping it into some Vinegar, the crust got soggy and it really highlighted a slightly burnt aftertaste. The Gyoza themselves were very meaty and delicious and stood out from the usual store-bought varieties. I think the secret is to eat them straight with the crisped pieces, without dipping them into anything.

We left and I reflected on the interesting Noodle experience. On the one hand the Shoyu Ramen was a bit overpowered by the Menma, the Shio Ramen was really amazing, and the Chashu topping was excellent. At this point, I'm not sure what caused me to attempt to try each of the 31 Ramen (for every day of the month), but it was probably to provide moral support for Keizo in his mad undertaking, and I was genuinely intrigued to find out more about the chef and this restaurant that had such potential.

On my second visit, I met the persona behind this interesting Ramen-ya: Chef-Owner Takeshi Murakami, who turned out to be a humble, down-to-earth person who truly *loves* food, and especially Ramen. He's been operating this original Foo-Foo Tei in Hacienda Heights for about 8 years, and just spending a few minutes chatting with him was enough for me to realize his genuine passion for cooking and food in general.

During this visit, their Miso Ramen (Noodle w/ Miso-based Soup (Soy Bean Paste)) turned out to be another great Ramen flavor! The Miso Broth was really unique, tasting of multiple layers of different types of Miso and ingredients that put most So Cal Miso Ramen to shame. It turns out that this is a special Miso recipe that Murakami-san perfected to use as another great cornerstone of his menu. It is surprisingly elegant, light and sweet, while still retaining a nice Miso punch. And the Chashu was superb again! :)

(Note: I found out too late, but be sure to ask for a side order of their "Butter" Topping, which is a scoop of a premium Butter from France that helps transform this dish into something even greater, reminiscent of the classic Hokkaido Miso Butter Ramen.)

Since I had his attention, I asked him about the Chashu, and he smiled, explaining that he uses a nice cut of Pork Belly, and stews it for 6 Hours(!) to have it ready for the day's usage. The Chashu is so popular that he generally makes a new batch of Chashu once per day on average. That explains why it tastes so fresh compared to most other local shops' versions. Of the ~20 times I visited Foo Foo Tei, 19 of the 20 Times had nearly perfect, fresh, tender Pork Belly (Chashu), with only 1 time being a little disappointing. That's pretty amazing.

It should also be noted that all of his 5 Base Soups are Pork-Free (usually a combination of Chicken and/or Fish and other Vegetable ingredients) due to Murakami-san learning about the dietary restrictions of many people in the U.S. that couldn't eat Pork. He wanted to create a Ramen that his customers in the U.S. could enjoy, and that's how the Pork-less Soups came about.

The Torikara Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Fried Chicken Wings), Shio (Salt-based) looked absolutely delicious so I was anxious to try it. (Note that many of the Ramen offerings are offered with a choice of Soup Base: Shio (Salt-base), Shoyu (Soy Sauce), or Miso.)

The bowl arrived and a fragrant spice aroma filled the air from the Fried Chicken Wings. But sadly, the Chicken Wings were soggy / soup-logged by the time it was brought out of the kitchen. The soup base was Shio (Salt), and the Fried Chicken itself tasted fine on the inside, but it was off-putting eating soggy Batter (especially because you know mentally that this was something nice and crispy a few minutes earlier, but got dunked in the broth). It's a nice idea in concept, but I would rather order a Shio Ramen and then order the Fried Chicken Side Order and enjoy it that way. (^_~)

It should be noted that Murakami-san only uses Organic Eggs because of the difference in taste that he's noted from using them. He supports using the best-tasting ingredients when possible, and since the Tamago (Egg) is used in so many of his dishes, he knew this was a must-have item for his menu.

The Ma-Bo Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Mabo Tofu), Shoyu (Soy Sauce-base) sounded like a bad fusion or weird Chinese-Japanese creation, but turned out to be one of my favorite Ramen on the menu! :) It's immediately apparent that with the first sip, you're mouth is treated to a beautiful onslaught of a freshly-made Mabo Tofu recipe... in Ramen Soup form! This is also another of Murakami-san's creations, not some pre-made package, and it is truly satisfying to the soul: The spiciness of the house-made Chili base, the Tofu, Peanuts, Bamboo Shoots, Shiitake Mushrooms, the requisite Ground Pork, and other spices really made this a tasty dish on its own, despite it not being in the traditional Ramen canon. (On a side note, Murakami-san explains that this dish was created after a good friend of his kept requesting it to be made as a favor, and after perfecting that version, he realized it was good enough to put on the menu as well.)

At this point in my journey, I remembered a follow-up post from my 'dachi Keizo in which he raved about the Curry at Foo-Foo Tei. I was skeptical (and I'm sure most people would be as well): After all, who orders Curry at a *Ramen* Noodle specialist?! And generally, the skepticism would be warranted, as most places that serve something outside their specialty is usually the result of pandering to popular food trends, or just trying to find something extra to make money off of.

But I trust Keizo's opinion, so on the following visit, I ordered the classic Katsu Kare- (Curry Pork Cutlet) dish to see what the fuss was all about. The plate arrived and looked like a nice, thick typical Curry. But that's where the comparisons ended. The *aroma* floating upwards was the first sign that something was different. You could actually smell some exotic, exciting spices far beyond the typical Japanese Curry dish in So Cal. I gently scooped up some of the Curry and some fresh, steaming Gohan (Rice) and took a bite...

Notes of Cumin, fresh-grounded Garam Masala(?), and a flavor explosion of such complexity that I've never experienced in a Japanese Curry before. This is easily the Best Japanese Curry in L.A. / O.C. (and I don't like making hyperbolic statements)! Outstanding! (^_^)

I was so shocked by this that I had to ask Chef Murakami how this came about. It turns out that the one dish that Murakami-san likes more than Ramen is Kare- (Curry). He said he *dreams* about Curry and sometimes after work, he thinks about his Curry recipe and gets hungry thinking about it. (^_^) So as a result of his love of Curry, he created this current recipe on the menu which took him 7 *YEARS* to perfect(!). That's dedication.

The Katsu (Pork Cutlet) that paired with it was fine (standard, well-fried), but it is merely an accompaniment to this legendary Curry.

Foo-Foo Tei's Hotto & Sawa- Ramen (Noodle w/ Spicy & Sour Soup) was another dish that ostensibly seemed like it was out of some bad fusion restaurant, but turned out much better than I ever thought possible. This Ramen pairing was created when Murakami-san was on a trip to Thailand. He had run into a restaurant serving the Chinese-style Hot & Sour Soup, and thought about what it would be like to combine it with Noodles (since he was enjoying some Thai Noodle dishes at the time) and the result is the Hotto & Sawa- Ramen. :)

As the name suggests, imagine a freshly-made Hot & Sour Soup, with fresh and dry Shiitake Mushrooms, Tofu, Negi (Green Onions), Kikurage (Wood Ear Mushroom), Tamago (Egg), Vinegar, Chili Oil amongst other things, all bathing a full order of Ramen Noodles and you have the Spicy & Sour Ramen. I found it a touch sweeter than I would've preferred, but the spiciness, slight tang of the Vinegar, and the tons of other ingredients came together to make a satisfying alternative Ramen dish.

The Asari no Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Clams), Shio (Salt-base) is a creation I'm surprised isn't more commonly found in Ramen shops. Murakami-san thought about the classic Japanese Asari Soup, and imagined that it would go well with Ramen and after combining it with the already light and fresh Shio (Salt) Broth, it was the perfect match! :) It exudes a wonderful brininess from the Clams, and creates this hybrid Chicken-Clam Broth mixture that was very satisfying!

The Ramen Noodles paired nicely with this broth, and the Chingensai (Bok Choy) was a great complement.

The Shiitake no Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Shiitake Mushroom), Shio (Salt-base) was another dish I was looking forward to, as I love Shiitake Mushrooms in general. (^_^) Murakami-san uses 2 types of Shiitake Mushrooms (Dried Shiitake and Fresh Shiitake) because of the distinct flavors that you can only get from both versions of the mushroom. This is pure Shiitake Mushroom goodness. :)

The Umani Ramen (Seafood, Pork, Vegetable, Mushroom w/ Gravy), Shio (Salt-base) is actually Chef Murakami's interpretation of the classic Japanese Gomoku Soba, which was named from 5 base ingredients that formed that dish. Murakami-san has added additional ingredients to make a mountain of a dish that offers so many ingredients that the word "bountiful" is an understatement.

In this bowl of Ramen I found: Ebi (Shrimp), Takenoko (Fresh Bamboo), Buta (Pork Slices), Shiitake Mushrooms, Ninjin (Carrots), Naruto (Fish Cake), Enoki Mushrooms, Kinusaya (Snow Peas), Uzura (Quail Egg), Benishoga (Red Pickled Ginger), Ika (Squid), Tamanegi (Onions), Kyabetsu (Cabbage), Negi (Green Onions), Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-Boiled Egg), Baby Corn, Italian Squash... and I think I missed about 2-4 other ingredients!

The end result was that it felt like a huge bowl of pretty healthy ingredients (lots of different vegetables), with a bit of Seafood and Pork thrown in for good measure. A bit too chaotic for my tastes, but there was nothing wrong with it.

Trying one of the 46(!) Side Dishes on the menu, their Deep-Fried Stuffed Soft Shell Crab is surprisingly good! Foo-Foo Tei takes a Soft Shell Crab, and stuffs the inside cavity with their house-made stuffing of Marinated Ground Pork and Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) and deep fries the whole crab. Each bite gives way to a crunchy, delightful burst of Soft Shell Crab along with a very savory Pork flavor.

The Kaki no Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Oyster and Vegetable), Shio (Salt-base) was inspired by a Taiwanese dish that Murakami-san sampled years ago, that used Oysters with a thinner type of noodle. He decided to create his version of that, but amplified, and this is the result.

This is the first time that I felt that there was a bit of an overlap in flavors, as this bowl of Oyster Ramen had many similar ingredients to the Umani Ramen. An overview of some of the ingredients (still impressive), include Kaki (Oysters), Uzura (Quail Egg), Moyashi (Bean Sprouts), Ninjin (Carrots), Shiitake Mushrooms, Negi (Green Onions), Kyabetsu (Cabbage), Hyakusai (Napa Cabbage), Baby Corn amongst many other ingredients(!).

I also found the Oysters to be OK, but not as fresh and sweet as would be ideal (but honestly, at $9 for the entire huge bowl of ingredients, it's more than a bargain :). The other thing I noticed is that working your way through all of the ingredients resulted in the Ramen Noodles sitting in the soup for too long (and becoming too soft). So it might be worth it to order the Ramen Noodles as "Katamen" (Hard /Al Dente) on certain Ramen offerings.

Next up is their Ebi Wantan Men (Noodle Soup w/ Shrimp & Shrimp Wantan, Salt-base Soup). Their Tezukuri Wantan (Hand-made (in-house) Wontons) are so light and delicate: A Marinated Ground Pork basis, Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe), and another great Murakami-san recipe! :) This is better than most local Hong Kong-style Wonton Soups with the Chingensai (Bok Choy), delightful Shio Soup and the Ramen Noodles complementing each other perfectly. This was another favorite.

On a side note, Murakami-san mentioned that this was a popular dish while he was growing up in Japan, and he incorporated it into his menu for the 1 Ramen per Day goal. :)

On today's visit, I brought along another Ramen Hound to try out a few more dishes. We started off with their Sunagimo Furai (Fried Gizzard). This was a potentially risky move, since it is a Ramen Shop, and unfortunately this was one of the few misses I ran across during my multiple visits. The Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard) just didn't work well in the fried format, being overcooked and really chewy / tough. The outer batter didn't help this dish either.

Their Yasai Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Lots of Vegetables & Mushroom), Shoyu (Soy Sauce-base) was next on the list. I ordered it with their Shoyu Soup base to give their Shoyu Soup another try (hoping it wasn't overpowered by Menma) and this time, it was perfect! It paired well with the lighter Vegetables in this Ramen dish and it was a focused, simple Shoyu base, with none of the Menma problems I found earlier.

This dish was literally the Umani Ramen (listed above), but without the Seafood and Meat. It was all the same (massive) amount of Vegetables. :) Chef Murakami created this dish for those people that wanted a Ramen on certain days and didn't want to feel too "weighed down"; something healthy and lighter, and this was the result. If I was in the mood for a mass of cooked Vegetables in a light Shoyu Soup base with Ramen Noodles, this would be my order.

The Buta Miso Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Pork & Lots of Vegetables & Mushroom) initially sounded strangely like their "Miso Ramen" (which comes with Chashu (Stewed Pork Belly)), but when it came out, it turned out to be a nice twist on expectations.

Murakami-san really likes Pork and the flavor combinations of using a Stewed Pork Belly versus Sauteed Fresh (leaner) Pork Slices are vastly different. So he ended up creating this dish, which celebrates lots of (leaner) Pork Slices, Sauteed and mixed with lots of Vegetables (essentially the gigantic Umani Ramen mixture of Vegetables), paired with his delicious Miso Ramen base.

The result is fantastic! This utter and complete Porky goodness, totally enhanced by the special Miso Broth made for a great bowl of Ramen. My only complaint would be that the "Umani mix" of Vegetables was slowly becoming too common and added to a slightly homogenized feel in a few Ramen dishes so far (but here, the Pork and Miso saved it).

The Komutan Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Kelp, Beef & Garlic Sesame (Salt Soup Base)) was next, and it was a rarity to have a Beef Ramen. It arrived in a beautiful contrast to the previous Ramen offerings, with lots of Wakame (Kelp), slices of Beef Brisket, Negi (Green Onions), and chunks of Fried Garlic Sesame, and a mainly Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-Boiled Egg).

Using his wonderful Shio (Salt) Soup as a base, the flavors of the Wakame Kelp and thick slice of Beef Brisket really shown through, especially with the Garlic Sesame backing up each bite (a nice pairing). Unfortunately, the Beef Brisket tasted old (as in, leftovers from maybe ~2 days earlier). This is actually commonplace in many eateries, but for all the greatness of the fresh Chashu (Stewed Pork Belly) and fresh-made Soup Bases, this felt incongruous with all the other fresh things at the restaurant and is unfortunate.

On an interesting side note, Murakami-san thought of this dish years ago when he was explaining to a friend of his about the healthful effects of eating lots of Wakame (Kelp) to help counteract a night of heavy drinking. (^_~)

Another interesting Ramen is the #15, Kakiage Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Shrimp & Vegetable Fritter), Shoyu (Soy Sauce-base). This was Foo-Foo Tei's Shoyu Ramen (Soy Sauce-based Ramen Noodle Soup) with a large Kakiage (a batter-fried "disc" of Shrimp, Carrots and Onions). Unfortunately, like the Torikara Ramen earlier, I found it disappointing that the Kakiage turned to mush / got soggy as it got to the table. It made it less appetizing for me, but others may find it delightful served this way.

For this Ramen it was interesting to learn that it was created as a reminder and a personal love for Kakiage: While growing up in Japan, after school, Murakami-san and his friends would hit up the local eateries and Kakiage was one of his favorite snacks. :)

The next Ramen on the menu was definitely an interesting one: Kaisen Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Seafood), Shio (Salt-base). This was another impressive offering, a huge bowl of Kani (Crab), Hamaguri (Clams), Muurukai (Mussels), Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Kyabetsu (Cabbage), Ninjin (Carrots), Sansai (Mountain Vegetables), 3 types of Mushrooms, and Baby Corn.

The idea is brilliant, throwing together lots of different Seafood and creating a Ramen Noodle dish based on the Sea. Unfortunately the flavors seemed to have been a bit too disparate at times, and was undermined by one of the rare cases of not-as-fresh-as-can-be ingredients. The Kani (Crab) was fine, but it was a lot of work to extract the little bit of meat in the small Crab, but it was the Clams that were the disappointment in this dish: They tasted surprisingly old / not fresh, which isn't a good thing for shellfish. I hope I just got a bad batch, but it took away from the dish as a whole. The Mussels were decent. But again for a giant bowl of this with various Seafood for under $10(?!), that's a bargain. Personally, I would rather spend a few extra dollars and hope for higher quality ingredients (e.g., a bigger / fresher Crab).

This brings us to the most popular Ramen on Foo-Foo Tei's menu: #17, Nanchatte Tonkotsu Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ White Cream Soup). Essentially, the name is a playful joke on providing the customer with a Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) Soup. "Nanchatte" means "Just kidding." So this is basically "Tonkotsu Soup... just kidding." :) This Ramen was created because Murakami-san recognized the popularity of Tonkotsu Ramen, but with his belief of creating the most customer-friendly Soup bases possible (Pork-free Soups), he created a homage to the Tonkotsu style Ramen, with this dish.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this Ramen, but it had a white, creamy visual that tried to mimick Tonkotsu Broth. The flavors were surprisingly delicious! There was a delightful creaminess to the soup, made from a special Tofu, Honey, Murakami-san's nice Miso base, Garlic and other ingredients. There's no dairy in this soup, but it tastes like a freshly-made cream-based soup (in a good way). It was just a touch too sweet for me at times, but in general I found it really nice.

The accompanying Chashu (Stewed Pork Belly) was especially delicious in this broth, and the Dried Onions helped perk up the already interesting flavors even more. Very nice. :)

The Kamo Negi Ramen (Duck Noodle Soup w/ Fried Green Onion) was also a dish my friend and I were eyeing because we both love Duck. :) The Duck served in this Ramen dish is roasted on the premises, which added even more to my excitement.

Sadly, like the Komutan Ramen, the Duck tasted old and tough. It tasted like it was sitting around for a while, but to be fair, it was really flavorful imparting a nice Duck aroma to the Broth. The highlight that almost saved the dish was the Fried Green Onions. It sounds simple, but the flavors of Fried Green Onion slivers were powerful and arresting, grabbing attention of my tastebuds, throughout each sip and bite of the dish. The Ramen Noodles paired nicely with the Shio Broth and the Green Onions.

The Negi Daku Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Lots of Green Onions), Shoyu (Soy Sauce-base) was true to its name: The Ramen Noodles arrived at my table with mounds of Green Onions throughout the entire dish! Luckily I like Green Onions a lot, and that was actually the inspiration for Murakami-san for this dish: He loves Negi (Green Onions) and wanted to have one Ramen that could satisfy a Green Onion Lover's craving for lots of Green Onions. :)

I found the fresh Green Onion slivers to be a great, spring-like refreshing break from all the previous flavors. It worked nicely with the Shoyu base, and the small touch of Chili Paste added just the right amount of light spiciness to keep the flavors interesting.

Their Shin Shin Ramen (Very Spicy Noodle Soup w/ Bean Curd, Oyster, Squid, Mushroom & Vegetable) provides a great contrast item on the menu of 31 Ramen. As Keizo mentioned, Murakami-san took inspiration from the Korean Sundubu (the famous Korean Soft Tofu dish), and concocted his own version, the result of which is a very spicy (in a good way) Ramen, with his own version of Gochujang (Korean Spicy Paste) with his Miso Soup base, Ika (Squid), Kaki (Oysters), Tofu, 2 types of Mushrooms, Cabbage and more. The one downside was that the Ika (Squid) I had was extremely chewy.

It reminded me of an extra-spicy Sundubu order, but with a fresher, livelier taste. Surprisingly enjoyable, even with the spice level! :)

On any given Weeknight(!) you might find a moderately-sized crowd of people (like the group in this picture), and the Weekends can be even busier.

Tonight's Ramen started with their Tenshin Ramen (Crab Omelet Noodle Soup w/ Gravy). Murakami-san notes that many renditions of Tenshin usually use an Oyster Sauce pairing, but he wanted to get away from that aroma and flavor, and went with a sweeter, Tomato base, which provided a nice foil to the saltier Omelet and Crab Meat itself.

This was essentially a giant Egg Omelet filled with Kani (Crab) meat and Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe), atop Ramen Noodles and served with this new gravy. I found the Tenshin Ramen to be interesting (the sweet and salty providing a good foil), but it turned out a bit too salty in the end.

The Kimchi Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Korean Spicy Pickles), Shio (Salt-base) was a surprise: Initially this looked like a basic Shio Ramen with a small stack of Kimchi on the side. But when you spread out the delicious, house-made Kimchi, it transforms the Shio Soup into a lightly spicy, tangy cousin of the regular Shio Broth. The provide just enough Kimchi to transform the soup without overpowering the whole dish and it makes for great variation.

Trying another classic Side Dish, we order their Agedashi Tofu (Deep-Fried Tofu), which turned out to be very crispy (they were sensible enough to serve the Tofu outside of the Sauce that usually turns it soggy). I found this dish just a little too sweet (but it's minor).

This next Ramen is technically "#32," but hasn't been introduced on the menu. For now, you'll have to order it like the secret lingo at In-N-Out Burgers ("Animal style"). The Kokudama Shoyu Ramen was something Murakami-san created and debuted in response to Edjusted's thoughts on the Shoyu Ramen(!). Thanks to Keizo's early report, I was able to ask Murakami-san to make it for me that night.

This begins with the Shoyu Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Soy Sauce Base Broth), but it's served with a large scoop of Ground Marinated Pork that's been sauteed with Caramelized Onions and Garlic and Pork Fat in addition to a mix of Murakami-san's spices in his recipe. When the scoop of Pork goodness is lowered and mixed into the Shoyu Ramen, it truly turns the once passive, straightforward Soy Sauce Broth into a much more fragrant, Porky extravaganza. It reminded me immediately of the unfortunately missing Pork base that's commonly found in Ramen.

This next item shows off some of the culinary creativity of Chef Murakami: He hasn't thought of a name for it yet, but he was offering his customers a sample of a new creation he was making - Fresh-smoked Liver, Pi-tan (Thousand Year-Old Egg) atop Baguette.

Usually Liver can be really bad-tasting, and have a pungent aftertaste. Murakami-san explained that he was in the market that day and saw a very beautiful, fresh whole Calf's Liver, and decided to buy it and try out a new recipe. :) He infused the fresh-smoked Liver with Shiso Leaf (which has a distinct, strong, beautiful aroma in its own right), and Pecans and Celery, and the result is a blend of ingredients that actually counteract / nullify the Liver's more unpleasant taste! This was surprisingly delicious and I'm happy I was able to sample it.

On another visit, I ended up bumping into Keizo as he was still going through his challenge. We shared a table and chatted about all things food before Murakami-san joined us a bit later. I started off with the Tanmen (Clear Noodle Soup w/ Sauteed Pork & Lots of Vegetables (Salt-base Soup)). It turns out that Tanmen was another popular style of Noodle in Japan that Murakami-san drew inspiration from.

It involves rendering out the fat from some Pork and then heating it to a very high heat before dropping in the Vegetables and Pork to saute in the high heat and then adding the Soup to the wok(!) causing a major reaction of flavors and aroma. While it looked very similar to other offerings, this style of cooking did help it stand out, as you could taste the more oily, sauteed ingredients aspect to the dish.

This was another dish, however, that seemed to share too many of the same "Umani Vegetable Mix," which homogenized this dish a bit, but it's a minor quibble.

As we finished our meal, Chef Murakami came out and greeted us. He pulled up a chair and we talked about certain styles of cooking and refinement, and then he asked us to wait a second. He came back a few minutes later with a small sample of something he just whipped up in minutes in the kitchen: Yuzu Soumen! This was a small taste of some ultra-fine Soumen that he had in stock, fresh-ground Wasabi from the Wasabi Root (it's amazing what items he stocks in the kitchen of a Ramen Shop :), and fresh Yuzu, with a slice of his Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-Boiled Egg). The Soumen Sauce was also his own recipe.

The result was a simple, refreshing dish of such refinement and care and *kokoro* (heart) that it only reinforced that Murakami-san is a true Culinary Artist and someone highly-skilled to create dishes far beyond what he's serving at this Ramen-ya. It was an outstanding Soumen dish!

On another visit, their Nanchatte Chanpon (Noodle w/ White Soup, Sauteed Lots of Vegetables) is the order of the day. The English translation on their menu is missing some important ingredients, such as mentioning that it comes with a ridiculously ample amount of Pork and Seafood mixture, in addition to the Vegetables (that would probably help sales of this dish).

Using their Nanchatte Tonkotsu ("Just Kidding Pork Bone") Soup, this is their interpretation of the classic Nagasaki Chanpon Noodle dish found in Japan. I always enjoy a good Nagasaki Chanpon, so I was curious how this version would turn out. It begins with the oft-used "Umani Vegetable Mix" (Cabbage, Napa Cabbage, Enoki Mushrooms, etc.) and then adds in Ebi (Shrimp), Ika (Squid), Hamaguri (Clams), Kaki (Oysters), with Dried Onions and mixed into the Nanchatte Broth. It works pretty well, with the Seafood mixture here being more successful in this broth with the Pork than in the Kaisen Ramen.

The next dish had the most interesting story of all of the creations on Murakami-san's menu: The Tan Tan Men (Japanese Style Noodle w/ Hot and Sour Sesame Soup) may seem like a version of the Chinese "Dan Dan Mian," but it was actually taken from Chin Ken Min, known as the "Father of Chinese-Japanese Cooking" in Japan, and the father of Original Iron Chef Chen Kenichi! (O_O) When Murakami-san wrote down the name of Chin Ken Min, I was looking at the kanji and asked him if he happened to be related to Iron Chef Chen Kenichi, and Murakami-san laughed and told me about his father! Wow.

So essentially, the father of Iron Chef Kenichi took inspiration from the original Chinese Dan Dan Mian dish, and made it into a Soup-based Japanese version years ago. Murakami-san drew inspiration from that and created his own version of that Tan Tan Men!

The first thing that struck me about the Tan Tan Men was the bold, beautiful colors and massive amounts of Sesame Seeds floating in the soup. The nutty fragrance of the Sesame Seeds were incredible! When combined with the Chili Oil, Sauteed Ground Pork mixture, Sauteed Peanuts, it was a really satisfying, earthy, nutty alternative to the usual Ramen flavors. Very nice. :)

Their Ja-Jang Men (Chinese Style Spaghetti w/ Assorted Diced Vegetables) was the first soup-less Ramen / Noodle dish I had at Foo-Foo Tei so far. It was created, in fact, as a response to many customers' requests to have a "Yaki Soba" or "Dry Noodle" dish. So Murakami-san thought about it and came up with his take on the classic Chinese Dry Noodle dish of the same name.

The Sauteed ingredients were interesting, with nice chunks of Bell Peppers, Mushrooms, Onions and fresh Cucumber slices amongst other things, but the problem was that unlike a traditional Ja Jiang Mian, here, the ingredients and Ramen Noodles just didn't work well: It was surprisingly hard trying to mix these "dry ingredients" with the Ramen Noodles, as the noodles just stuck together. Flavor-wise, it was robust and this was a good variation on the traditional Chinese version of this dish.

The Hiyashi Chuuka (Cold Noodle Salad w/ Egg, Cucumber, Ham, Kelp) (Summer Only) is another reinvented version of a classic Japanese Noodle dish of the same name. And it's usually served in the Summer Season only as well. The Hiyashi Chuukas I've had in the past (at Santouka and other places) are all pretty straightforward; I've never been too much of a fan because usually the paired Sauce / Dressing is a salty Shoyu-base.

But with this version of the dish, it's served with another creation of Murakami-san's: A
house-made Sesame Dressing. It sounds rather simple, with slices / shredded Cucumber, Ham, Egg, Wakame (Kelp), Negi and Karashi (Japanese Mustard). But when combined together, the lightly sweet, nutty facet that arises is the perfect thing that is missing from too many Hiyashi Chuuka dishes I've had in the past. It's strangely addicting, refreshing and delicious.

And for the wildest-sounding Ramen on the menu (and one I wasn't sure I'd like): Motsuni Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Beef Menudo(!)). I enjoy Menudo from time-to-time, but combining it in a Ramen Noodle dish?? I was skeptical, but at this point, why not? :) I found out that Chef Murakami created this dish because he really enjoys Motsu (Menudo) in all types of ways, from Japanese styles and beyond, so he thought of a way to combine his love of Motsu with Ramen and this dish was born.

The Motsuni Ramen uses the Miso Soup Base, with plenty of chunks of Motsu (Menudo) and Ushi no Akiresuken (Beef Tendon), with a light spiciness. The result is a Miso Ramen dish with Menudo instead of Chashu. Flavor-wise, there wasn't anything "weird" or "strange" at all; just a surprisingly tasty Ramen Noodle dish.

The Gyu Niku Tomato Ramen (Noodle Soup w/ Beef and Tomato) was inspired by the classic Chinese dish: Hong Shao Nio Ruo Mian. Only Murakami-san wanted to make a lighter, different version, and the result is #29 on the menu.

This Soup is the 5th original Soup Base at the restaurant, and it comes across as a lighter, sweeter version of the Beef Soup when compared to the Chinese original. Fresh slices of Tomato and Hourensou (Spinach) round out this Noodle dish. I found the Beef Shank to be a little bit firmer than what I would've liked (but it was still relatively tender), and the Soup Base was good, but a touch too sweet. Still, a good effort and a nice alternate flavor on the menu.

The Kare- Nanchatte Men (Noodle Soup w/ Curry) is the final Ramen to use their unique "Just Kidding Pork Bone" Soup Base. The Nanchatte by itself was already very tasty and a hit, and Murakami-san combines it with his legendary, house-made Curry; I could tell this was going to be good. (^_~)

With the first sip, the single word that popped into my head was "Incredible."

The sweetness and creaminess of the Nanchatte Soup base, combined with the aromatic nirvana that is Murakami-san's Curry creates this great Spicy and lightly Sweet Soup that is surprisingly like a Thai-style Curry, and that was what Murakami-san was going for in this creation (and it worked).

And the final Noodle dish on the menu: Katayakisoba (Deep Fried Noodle w/ Pork, Seafood, and Vegetable in Gravy Sauce) was inspired by the classic dish from Nagoya, Japan known as Katayakisoba (and the version from Kyushu known as Sara Udon). Only here, Murakami-san uses a thicker, freshly deep-fried thick Noodle and more Vegetables for his version. He mentions that the thicker Noodle was chosen to satisfy both the customers who enjoy the crispiness of fried noodles (since the thicker noodles hold up well to the mass of gravy and ingredients), and the customers who like a softer, saturated noodle (they can let the gravy and ingredients soak in a bit longer before eating).

In a bit of deja vu, the one downside to the Katayakisoba is that all the toppings on this pan-fried Noodle dish are what were in the Umani, and like before, the Squid was too chewy. It was also just a bit too salty for my tastes.

Service at Foo-Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights) is varied. They usually have just 2 waitresses taking care of the entire restaurant, so you may have to flag them down for whatever you need, but it's par for the course. The prices are definitely very fair, ranging from $6 - $9.90 for a huge bowl of Ramen, and their legendary Katsu Curry Rice dish is $8.50. We average about ~$10 per person (including tax and tip). Also, note that on Saturday and Sunday, expect long lines unless you get there early.

The Original Foo Foo Tei in Hacienda Heights is a labor of love for Chef-Owner Takeshi Murakami. He opened the restaurant about 8 years ago, and it has taken him about 7.5 years to evolve and grow his menu to where it is today (with the 31 different Ramen for each day of the month :). While some may think that the 31 different Ramen / Noodles are a gimmick, it's clear after trying them all and hearing about how and why they were created, that these 31 dishes represent Murakami-san's continued passion towards food and cooking. Much like Mr. Kim of Scoops fame, his dishes are made in the continued pursuit of culinary artistry and inspiration.

But with a menu of that magnitude there are some misses and disappointments. If I may be so bold, I would suggest a few things that would make Foo-Foo Tei truly amazing: (1) They should lean towards the "less is more" / "quality over quantity" philosophy of having smaller quantities of key ingredients (e.g., Komutan Beef, Kamo Duck, etc.). It would be better to "Sell Out" of a dish earlier in the day and keep it always fresh for the next day, than to have too much and carry it over for a few days. (2) Consider specializing some of the Ramen offerings so that there aren't so many of them using the same "Umani Vegetable Mix" (perhaps some Ramen flavors work well with only 2-4 Vegetables and others with another grouping, etc.); and (3) Hopefully one day they can make their own Ramen Noodles in-house to improve the type of Noodle they use (the one they use now is fine, but creations of Murakami-san's imagination deserve better Noodles to support the great flavors he's made).

But ultimately, those are minor complaints about a restaurant that delivers some unique and interesting Ramen flavors, and the best Japanese Curry I've had in So Cal to date. Variety is the Spice of Life! (^_^)

Favorite Foo-Foo Tei Ramen
1. Shio Ramen (Salt-based Noodle Soup)
2. Miso Ramen (Miso-based Noodle Soup)
3. Nanchatte Curry Ramen
4. Ebi Wantan Men
5. Ma-Bo Ramen

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)
(Rating for just their Curry + Top 5 Favorite Ramen: 8.4 (out of 10.0))

(*** NOTE: This should not be confused with the imposter Monterey Park Foo-Foo Tei, which is being brought to court by the owners at this original Hacienda Heights location. ***)

Foo-Foo Tei (Hacienda Heights)
15018 Clark Ave.
Hacienda Heights, CA 91745
(626) 937-6585

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. (last order 2:15 p.m.)
[Dinner] Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.)
Sat, 12:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. (last order 9:30 p.m.)
Sun, 12:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. (last order 8:30 p.m.)


Keizo Shimamoto said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

Great review! I can tell you really liked the shio...haha. Wasn't October a great month? I can't believe it's over! Your post makes me miss Foo-Foo even more. I think I'll go back tomorrow. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keizo,

Thanks! :) It was all thanks to your prodding to try this place out and it turned out to be really fun, with some good discoveries. (^_~)

christopher said...

why can't this be closer to me?!?!?!? thanks for another great post and a new destination for a road trip.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi christopher,

Thanks. :) If you end up going, please report back. Hope you enjoy the visit!

Anonymous said...

Wow! That's a lot of ramens you ate. I visited Foo Foo Tei in Monterey Park once. I thought the soup base was a bit too salty for my taste and didn't like it that much. But somebody told me the Hacienda Height one is the REAL Foo Foo Tei and the ramens are much much better there. I will visit this location soon.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eileen,

Yah, the Monterey Park location is fake (they are being sued by the owners of this Original Hacienda Heights location). Definitely try this Original location and skip the imposters in Monterey Park.

I hope you enjoy your visit! :)

edjusted said...

Oh wow, you ended up trying all 31 ramen as well? That's great! I feel left out now :P

Great review! It's interesting to read a different take. Of course, I'm even more undecided than ever about what flavor(s) to try the next time I'm up there! Hahaha

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Edjusted,

Hehe, yah, I don't know what possessed me to try each of Murakami-san's different Ramen (I blame Keizo! :P), but eventually (after a month+) I tried them all.

I would say it's worth trying their Shio Ramen (since you started with the Shoyu). I find it much more satisfying and thought it seems simple, it's one of the best on the menu (and my favorite in L.A.). Hope you enjoy your next visit and let me know what you end up trying. :)

edjusted said...

Call me boring but I tend to like the "simple" foods. Shio is at the top of my list, but I gotta say I'm intrigued by the Nanchatte tonkotsu...and then there's the Kokudama Shoyu...decisions decisions

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