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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Yamadaya Ramen: Weak Broth, Go for the Chicken Karaage

I had high hopes for Yamadaya Ramen, which recently opened outposts in Culver City and Westwood. I should have been more skeptical in retrospect, considering I haven't been able to find a bowl of ramen better than Shinsengumi's, with Santouka's a distant second. The post on Shinsengumi was my very first post back in April 2007. How quickly they grow!

Then there's also the element of the all-too rapid expansion. It took Shinsengumi years to open that many locations, but Yamadaya's seemed rushed. Just like a burger, the best ramen consists of all its excellent components working in perfect harmony together.

So let's dissect. The first things I dig into when tasting a bowl of ramen are 1) broth and 2) the noodles. The broth of the Yamadaya Ramen, which is allegedly a result of bones boiled for 20 hours plus, was so weak it was embarrassing. Ok, a reliable source told me it wasn't anything like this one in the original Torrance location and I believe her. But this was ridiculous. Diluted. Watered down. No self-respecting ramen joint would ever call this tonkotsu ramen broth.

The noodles weren't exactly overcooked but weren't as katame (al dente in Japanese -- thanks MN!) as I usually like them. Hate to belabor the point but Shinsengumi is probably the only ramen shop where you can choose the hardness of the noodles (and the strength of the broth and oil level).

Yamadaya offers fresh garlic to be minced table side into your broth. I loved the concept (and cool-looking retro tool) and I ended up adding some as a last ditch effort to salvage my sad broth. But no amount of garlic could bring this liquid back to life. Sigh.

The other works, like bamboo shoots, green onions and chashu, were fine. I particularly liked that the hard-boiled egg half was done just enough for the yolk to be soft but not oozy and not completely solid. That and the chashu pieces, which were soft and not at all too porky-smelling, may have been the best parts of this otherwise below average ramen.

The ramen that came with a massive block of pork belly was another disappointment. That pork belly should have been crumbling at first bite, dissolving softly in your mouth from 20-plus hours of slow cooking. It was tough and didn't fall off at all. It's a travesty not cooking a great part like pork belly right.

To be fair, Yamadaya raised our expectations by serving excellent chicken karaage before our ramens arrived. We just wanted a good appetizer to go with a nice cold brew, but we got crispy and perfectly-seasoned fried chicken (usually dark thigh meat) that exceeded my expectations. The meat inside was juicy and soft. Little did we know that we were in for a free-fall soon.

The gyoza arrived late, which was odd because those usually get to the table before the ramen too. These were hands-down the worst thing we had there. They were greasy but most importantly, the pork filling smelled really bad -- like the pork was either quite old or just not good quality when purchased.

You really need to step up your gyoza and broth game, Yamadaya.

I used to be biased against ramen joints that opened on the west side because I've never been impressed with their ramen. I would like nothing more than having that myth dispelled because it's close to where I am. For the time being, I'll have to venture to Santouka in Venice for immediate cravings and drive down to South Bay or Little Tokyo for Shinsengumi and other joints I have yet to try.

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