Saturday, October 10, 2009

L.A.'s Ever-Popular Ramen Noodle Hotspot - Daikokuya (Little Tokyo)

Driving by Daikokuya in Little Tokyo and seeing a crowd of ~10-15 people waiting in line to get in, one has to marvel at the ever-growing popularity of this Ramen shop. In its 7th year of operation (and having just opened up its 4th branch (in Hacienda Heights)), Daikokuya shows no signs of slowing down, even in this tough economy. Over the course of my numerous visits the last 2.5 years, this popular eatery seems to have a perpetual wait, making it feel like an L.A. institution in the making, akin to Pink's Hot Dogs in that you expect to wait with a throng of people whenever you go.

Perhaps one of the coolest aspects of Daikokuya is its post-WWII, Showa Period decor with old advertisements, kitschy trinkets and early Japanese cinema movie posters, making it feel like you've stepped into an old Ramen shop from another era.

Daikokuya offers a wide variety of appetizers, some catering to the general So Cal crowd such as California Rolls, Spicy Tuna Rolls and Chicken Teriyaki. One of the most popular and most talked about starters would have to be their Gyoza (Pan-Fried Pork and Vegetable Dumplings), made in-house.

Their Gyoza has been wildly inconsistent during the last 2.5 years I've visited Daikokuya: Sometimes, it has a beautiful crisped bottom with perfectly cooked through skin and a good savoriness. Other times they've come out chewy and overcooked. One time, it was so overly salty that we couldn't finish it.

For those looking for a more substantial side dish with your Ramen Noodles, Daikokuya's Combinations are the way to go: They offer up their one-and-only Ramen Noodles with a Small Bowl of their various specialty Don (Bowls) like their Oyakodon (Chicken and Egg Rice Bowl), Katsudon (Pork Cutlet Rice Bowl) and more. Whenever I bring various guests to eat Ramen, Chahan (Fried Rice) is something that's always brought up, so I always find myself ordering this at nearly every Ramen-ya I go to. :)

Daikokuya's Chahan has been pretty consistent for me over the years. It's always cooked to order, with bits of Green Onion, Egg, chopped up Chashu Pork and Corn mixed in with the Rice. The Corn and its inherent sweetness always throws me off, even after all these years, but overall it's been consistently average. Not bad, but not great.

But at the end of the day, what people flock to Daikokuya for is their Daikoku Ramen, a Tonkotsu-Shoyu (Pork Bone and Soy Sauce) Soup blend with Ramen Noodles.

I remember the first time I took a sip of their soup years ago: A milky, slightly pungent, porky mixture that when mixed with their massive pile of Negi (Green Onions), Moyashi (Bean Sprouts) and Menma (Bamboo), created an enticing Broth... until a few minutes later, a tingling sensation came over me and I started to react to what I later confirmed with the cooks to be MSG. :( (A note for those averse to MSG: The kitchen confirms that besides their Sushi, Tsukemono (Pickles) and Boiled Soy Beans, everything else they serve uses MSG as part of their recipe.)

Still, over the years, their regular Daikoku Ramen Soup has been a bit inconsistent, sometimes tasting richer than other times, and for a few of my visits, it was shockingly flat (tasting like it was rushed, or not cooked long enough).

Their Noodles are a big disappointment, however: They use the mass-produced, standard yellow, curly Noodle found at many Ramen shops around So Cal. It's thick, doughy, and mismatched with the Tonkotsu Soup.

Their Chashu (Roasted Pork Slices) is something that's generally been pretty consistent: They use a fatty cut of Pork, resulting in a (usually) buttery, tender and fresh piece of Pork goodness. On a few occasions it's tasted like it was sitting around for ~1-2 days, with a bit of a musty funk.

For Pork lovers out there, their Yaki Buta Don (Shredded Pork Bowl) is something worth ordering: Utilizing their Kurobuta (Berkshire) Pork Belly grilled and then served with Beni Shoga (Pickled Ginger), Negi (Green Onions), Tamanegi (Onions) and Goma (Sesame Seeds) over Rice, it's sweet and fragrant from the grilled Pork Belly, and of the 3 times we've ordered it, it's been fresh (thankfully), tasting of Pork made that day.

The same can't be said of their Katsu Don (Pork Cutlet Bowl), which takes a Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) and tops it with Egg, Seaweed and a Sweet Soy Sauce finish. The Katsu itself is very lean and a bit dry (even though the breading has been soaked up with the sauce), with the Sweet Soy Sauce and Egg being the highlights.

But probably their strongest dish would have to be their Kotteri Daikoku Ramen, which is their standard Ramen Noodles, amped up and infused with a heavy dose of Fatback Broth mixed in with their Tonkotsu-Shoyu Soup.

Just one look at the upper layer of Oil and Bits of Pork Fat floating around and you know that you're trying a completely different dish. :) Taking a sip, it's much more porky, viscous and rich compared to their regular Daikoku Ramen. But in the world of blended Tonkotsu broths, I prefer the Tonkotsu-Shio Broth of Santouka and Asa's Kotteri Tonkotsu-Shoyu over this blend. And, like their regular Daikoku Ramen, the heavy-use of MSG really distracts from my enjoyment of this offering.

One other component of the Ramen that has been disappointing is their Egg. I've heard that Daikokuya used to serve a Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-Boiled, Liquid Center Egg), but in all the times I've been there, they now serve an ice-cold, nearly Hard-Boiled Egg that's really off-putting.

Service at the Little Tokyo location has been just fine: They usually have ~3-4 waitresses roaming the dining room, and you can just flag down someone if you need more drinks or want to add more dishes, etc. Prices range from $3 - $14.50, with their standard Ramen at $8.50.

Little Tokyo's Daikokuya is fast becoming a mainstay of the L.A. dining scene, if it isn't already. Serving up a solid (if sometimes inconsistent) Tonkotsu-Shoyu Ramen Noodle Soup, with mediocre Noodles and great Kurobuta Chashu (Roasted Berkshire Pork), and a heavy dose of MSG, it's a good choice for those not averse or allergic to the flavor crystals. And when it's midnight and you're craving a hot bowl of Ramen Noodles, it'll more than satiate your appetite.

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10.0)

Daikokuya (Little Tokyo)
327 E. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 626-1680

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Fri - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.
Sun, 12:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.


pleasurepalate said...

I just actually paid a recent visit to Daikokuya and wasn't as impressed with it as my very first visit a couple of years ago. I actually had the ramen with the kotteri and thought the broth was okay, but a little salty and the noodles did feel like they came from a package. So far, of the ramen places I've tried other than Daikokuya, I've really enjoyed Santouka and Hakata.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

The Noodles definitely are the biggest weakness in their dish. Glad to hear you enjoyed Santouka and Shin Sen Gumi (2 other L.A. standbys for Ramen). :)

weezermonkey said...

I've always been a fan, even though there are so many naysayers.

Then again, I'm only five minutes away, so it's the most convenient ramen place for me! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Hehehe, it's definitely a very solid place, and if it was 5 minutes from me, I'd gladly take that over any of the (random) national chain restaurants that flood most of L.A. :)

PIGMON said...

As a Chicagoan, I made it a high priority to hit several ramen places while in L.A. last February (Hakata Shinsen Gumi, Foo Foo Tei, Santouka, Asa Ramen, Shin Mama Ramen, Chin-Ma-Ya, Umemura, Shinsen Ramen, Gardena Ramen, and Daikokuya). Since I had been to Daikokuya a year earlier, I almost didn't retry it. Good thing I did because I thought it was the best of the lot, even with its standard issue curly yellow noodle. It might have had something to do with the fact that I got there first thing that morning. Who knows?
Thanks again for the great posts, exilekiss. I always look forward to them.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pigmon,

Very nice! Looks like you were able to try most of the heavy hitters for L.A. Ramen.

I'm glad you enjoyed Daikokuya, it's popular for a reason. Thanks for the report back. :)

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