Above: chashu ramen
The world of difference between instant ramen and real ramen is like the gap between great homemade chicken soup and canned condensed: it’s hard to appreciate either until you’ve had both.
My favorite in Southern California is Fountain Valley’s Shinsen Gumi (SSG), which specializes in a murky, pork-rich tonktosu soup. Ramen shops that offer tonkotsu soup on their menu in addition to soy and miso soups (*cough*…Ebisu, a half mile from SSG) most likely cheat by adding a commercial tonkotsu base to their all-purpose broth. Shinsen Gumi offers only this style of soup, and does it better than anyone in these parts.
SSG names their ramen after Hakata, a Kyushu port city. Their unique broth takes 15 hours to make by vigorously boiling bones, meat, and vegetables, rendering a richly murky, flavorful base the color of Mom’s pork chops. A secret-recipe soup flavoring is added to this broth, to your liking: light, regular, or strong.
Customize your ramen further at SSG. Kyushu soup is slicked with pork fat, and SSG lets you select how much you want. The noodles will be cooked to your spec: soft, regular, or firm. I order firm, because they’ll continue to cook in the bowl. Their extra thin noodles have an elastic resilience that please the teeth.
The standard ramen comes topped with chopped scallions, red julienned ginger, and a slice of chashu, Japanese roast pork. There’s a dozen additional toppings to choose from. Add extra pork, a hard boiled egg, bamboo shoots, nori, butter, or get a dollop of spicy miso on the side. This Korean influenced chili paste packs a lot of heat. Although I love spicy foods, the spicy miso overwhelms the delicious soup.
You can get an extra serving of noodles for 95 cents. For the stunt eater / frat boy set: men who can finish six extra helpings and women that polish off five get their extras for free.
Above: gyoza comes with the “A” set lunch
Lunch combos cost less than $8. The same items at dinner will run a lot more. Choose from several excellent sides, notably the gyoza: one-bite garlicky potstickers expertly cooked with a crispy crust. Dipped in a mix of soy, vinegar and chili oil, gyoza goes with ramen like strippers with rock stars.
I love the Spam musubi: a Hawaiian mom might pack this for lunch. A teriyaki-grilled slice of Spam between two layers of steamed rice, and wrapped with seaweed. These sounded wrong to me at first, but they’re delicious! Arrive early, because these sell out quickly. Other sides such as fried rice or salad are competent, but unexceptional.
SSG is part of a Gardena-based group of restaurants that offer Japanese specialties not found in your typical sushi / teppan shop. The Fountain Valley location has the ramen shop, and an adjoining restaurant that offers grilled Japanese pub foods called robatayaki – be advised to choose the right storefront. The exceptionally delicious (and fairly pricy) charcoal-grilled fare and sake selection at SSG merits its own review; watch for that in a future story.
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen
18315 Brookhurst St. Ste 1
(Across the parking lot from the Rite Aid)
Fountain Valley, CA