Every time I see one of these lists by a food blogger, a yelper, or critic, I always wonder how that list came to be #deepthoughts. Well, obviously these lists are made to attract readers and web traffic to increase ad revenue, so I had to do one that highlights a lot of the ramen-ya’s that didn’t make the cut or may have been overlooked.
“I like to know the good and the bad that’s why Yelp has its place, except on Yelp, most of the writers and “Elites” are calling tonkotsu (pork broth), “tonkatsu” (breaded pork cutlet).”
Just so that there’s no mystery on my end, I’m going to state what my criteria is along with a more well-rounded picture of some of these restaurants because I’m not a fan of some of the media outlets one-sided sales pitches. I like to know the good and the bad that’s why Yelp has its place, except on Yelp, most of the writers and “Elites” are calling tonkotsu (pork broth), “tonkatsu” (breaded pork cutlet). As for the major outlets, those lists are unfortunately restricted by their sales/advertising department which can’t get business if you’re too critical of a place. I’m luckily not bound to any of that so that you won’t get the obvious glowing endorsement which is all puppy dogs, rainbows, and kittens with me… and a lot of other things. For those “other things” such as grammar or being succinct, I highly suggest reading the other lists out there because some do offer up some good additional insight.
To be as transparent as possible, I also want to make sure I state how many times approximately I have been to each restaurant. That’s one aspect of these lists I question because I wonder how many times has that person gone to that place for them to deliberate on a lot of these businesses. Yea, I know you don’t have to go hundreds of times as I have with a few, but on occasion or two, I had to remind myself where I stand with a particular place by making an additional visit.
- Butaton Ramen (1), Garden Grove
- Fukusuke Ramen (1), Fountain Valley
- Gomen Ramen (1), Stanton
- Habuya Okinawan Dining (5+), Tustin
- Huntington Ramen (3), Huntington Beach
- Ikkousha (Hakata) Ramen (5+), Costa Mesa
- Kairakutei (2), Tustin
- Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai (4), Costa Mesa
- Kopan Ramen (1), Fullerton
- Local. Healthy Tapas & Sake (2), Costa Mesa
- Santouka Ramen (200+), Costa Mesa
- Shin-sen Gumi Hakata Ramen (2), Fountain Valley
- Toraji Ramen (10+), Costa Mesa
- What’s Up Men (5+), Fullerton
- Yamadaya Ramen (30+), Costa Mesa
- Yoshiharu Ramen (2), Orange
- Yushoken Izakaya & Ramen (3), Irvine
- Zetton Ramen (15+), Costa Mesa and Cypress
*Note: I have not been to Gu Ramen in Santa Ana, so I did not include it on the list although I plan on going to Fukusuke today (11/16/16).
Tastes differ which is why these lists are subjective (even the “ultimate” ones), but it’s also the reason why I’m going to spell out the criteria in which I rank these restaurants. I do that to dispel the myth that these restaurants are only on this list because they got a purdy looking bowl or I’m in collusion with any of them (for free ramen, haha. If that were the case, I’d be another 20 lbs. heavier in no time).
- At the top of my criteria is the broth because good luck finding a good recipe for tonkotsu online or anywhere for that matter. If you had wanted to get a hold of one that will even come close to a decent ramen-ya, they would typically go for tens of thousands of dollars or more. The type of broth that is the most popular currently is tonkotsu. By flavoring it (tare), either shio, miso, or shoyu are the typical and most common. Other broths include chicken, beef, and fish which also consist of a variety of vegetables, but the standout ones are currently not as common at all in the U.S.
- As for the noodles, a lot of the ramen-ya’s in the states get it from one major supplier, so I’m not extremely critical of the noodles themselves although I do care how well they were paired up with the broth and the toppings. I think I can just break this down into two camps which is yellow or thin white noodles. The crinkly, yellow (the kansui or alkaline gives it that hue) often come in a variety of thicknesses which are typically chewy. On the other end you have the regional Hakata style noodle type that are white, straight, and thin noodles which are traditionally paired with tonkotsu (like Ichiran Ramen).
- There’s a standard set of toppings that match a particular broth such as with Hakata ramen you’d get green onions, kikurage (wood ear mushroom), chashu (roasted pork), and an egg. Other types of toppings can be menma (bamboo shoot), ninniku (garlic), nori (seaweed), kamaboko (fish cake), beni shoga (pickled ginger), moyashi (bean sprouts), to corn.
- In Japan, a bowl of ramen will go for on average of ¥680-780 to upwards of ¥1,000 which is only about $6 to upwards of $9. In the US, most places charge on average of $8.50 (¥920) to upwards of $13 (in LA and SF expect to pay up to $16), so I’m very critical of places that charge a premium. Although some of the pricey ones that I have had so far have been the best I’ve had in the U.S.
- Service in Japan is very professional, and a lot of the customs have been brought on over from the time you walk in to hear “irrashaimase!” (welcome) to the time you leave with “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much).
#10 Yoshiharu Ramen (EDIT: 11/16/16, 3:10)
Jay Leno is known for his matching denim jeans, denim shirt, and probably denim socks outfits. An ensemble that reminds me of the bowls and other containers at Yoshiharu because they all have the same matching look which is a speckled pattern that doesn’t necessarily allow the ramen to pop. Luckily they have a new black bowl that gives a little more contrast, and now the ramen looks a little less like the dudes from Duck Dynasty with their camouflaged bowls, gyoza plate, and salt and pepper shakers. Overall, including the dinnerware, this is one of the bigger more modern looking spots which reminds me a lot of the places in Korea (with the blue neon lighting).
The broth is a decent one. It’s on the assari (lite) side which compliments the thin noodles and wakame and menma, but the pork belly chashu was, unfortunately, a chore to eat. It was slightly on the tough and dry side and no amount of torching could make it more appealing for me to want to eat it again. It’s also how I feel about their frozen package looking gyoza although they were tasty and not entirely bad for +$3 (ramen combination).
Type of ramen offered: tonkotsu, tonkotsu spicy miso, tonkotsu miso, tonkotsu black, vegetable, and cold ramen.
Address: 1891 N. Tustin St., Orange, Telephone: 714-998-1940
#10 (TIE) Fukusuke Japanese Ramen Dining
Fuk-Greg-u-suk. I shouldn’t have been so quick to write this place off because it deserves to be on this list from what I had. What were the odds since I had been to all the other ramen-ya’s numerous times or at the very least, at least once, yet most would not be able to make the list. So I was thrown off that this place out of them all proves to be a decent contender… my bad bro.
The reason I had those prejudices is that this location has turned over I think at least 2-3x’s with different owners who killed my perception of any place afterward.
Since tonkotsu is the most popular, that is what I stick with that to make an apples-to-apples comparison, but this time I went with the waiter’s suggestion which was the shio (salt) ramen. Despite it being called “salt” ramen, it is not “extremely salty” like one media outlet claims, just wow. It is a very lite broth with a subtle taste which matched all the ingredients, and the soft chashu was not a chore to eat here.
10k apologies Fukusuke. “Owned by Ikeda” does have some serious weight to it.
Type of ramen offered: tonkotsu, shio, shoyu, and miso. Address: 18687 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, Telephone: 714-274-9763, fukusukeusa.com
#9 What’s Up Men
What’s up man?! Yea, what’s up with the name? I think the business name is probably the one part of the place that probably gets the most attention which is a play off of “ra-men”?
This ramen-ya is also one of those spots where the entire staff seems to be all Japanese, so I sometimes forget for a split second that I’m still in Fullerton although the Pieology next door and the casual atmosphere and ramen will remind you that you’re still back in the good ole U.S. of A.
To me, this is a very lite (assari) ramen broth, but I like this spot because they have the right kind of sides to ramen which are either chahan (fried rice) or gyoza (pan-fried dumplings). Having either one makes it all that much better although which one I chose is depending on if I drank the night before. If I did, I typically go with the chahan, but on some occasions, I go for both. The only downside is that you’re committing major carbocide, so I end up on a vegetable and protein diet for dinner to counter my lunch. If I were to eat all that for dinner, fuhgeddaboutit.
Type of ramen offered: KURO tonkotsu shoyu, SHIRO tonkotsu shio, AKA kara miso, CHA miso, CHUKA SOBA classic ramen, TANMEN vegetable, SARA UDON fried crispy noodle, CHANPON vegetable and seafood ramen. Address: 512 N. State College Blvd, Fullerton, CA 92831, whatsupmenus.com
#8 Yamadaya Ramen
Yamadaya is one of the first waves of new ramen spots to open up in Orange County with almost 1,300 reviews on Yelp and counting, so they had a head start on the competition when it came to a lack of competitors. Now the competition has heated up, they have still been able to hang in there. Unlike several other places that have come and gone like Jinya, Mizuki, Iroha, Ken Ramen, Mentatsu, and a couple more. Fortunately Yamadaya remains, and they keep on going even though I don’t think it’s been incredibly easy for them.
To me, this is one of the most basic tonkotsu broths you’ll try, but it’s a hearty one that doesn’t necessarily slack. Hearty as it is, it still lacks depth which may be why they decided to offer up a couple of new offerings other than pork based although I couldn’t take the risk to try them because I’m not the gambling type. What I did do was play a sure thing, and I stuck it out with the tonkotsu or the tsukemen which are my go-to’s. The only downside is that these two had some inconsistency issues over the years. The biggest one is with their chashu which is a hit or miss, and quite often it’s on the “meh” side of things, and the BOH (“back of the house” aka the kitchen) just can’t seem to be consistent with their kakuni. If you cook like I do (see how I dropped that gratuitous bit in there about my skillz), you’ll know that they either over cooked it or over-prepped for lunch or dinner service, so they probably carry over the leftovers from the day before, and the day before, and the day before. When they do that, you end up with a dried out slab or a piece of pork that is chewy, dry, and inedible to the discerning individual which means if you eat all your steaks well done regardless of the cut, you’ll love the chashu/kakuni here.
Kam (I think that was her name) is the one who ran the FOH, and the service was always good because she was the shot caller. If it weren’t for her, this place would be a zoo because it can get terribly busy. Only thing now is that she’s not here anymore. What impact that has had, I’m not entirely sure since I haven’t been back much, but the times I had been, the service was still luckily good.
Type of ramen offered: tonkotsu, spicy tonkotsu, premium shio, premium shoyu, vegan ramen, and tsukemen. Address: 1175 Baker St. Costa Mesa, Telephone: 714-556-0091, ramen-yamadaya.com
#7 Butaton Ramen
Nanchatte is how I’d describe Butatons ramen which is “pork style” (think Foo Foo Tei), so I wouldn’t consider it a pure pork (tonkotsu) style ramen although it’s not bad by any means. It’s the reason why it makes the top 10 list, but the real reason is their slabs of pork belly that they do a final torching to that gives this place a solid place on the Orange County top 10 list.
I liked the staff, the atmosphere, and the service the day I had come, but I have to admit I’ve only been here once. One reason I have a hard time coming back is that my ramen was upwards of $13 a bowl. For that kind of pricing, I’m going to demand a whole lot more for me to consider it a value worth going out of the way for.
Type of ramen offered: spicy tonkotsu, spicy miso broth, rich tonktsu, shoyu, and veggie ramen. Address: 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, Telephone: 714-537-7098
#6 Zetton Ramen
When they first opened, I used to go here for a stint of upwards of once or twice a week for lunch or dinner. Unfortunately, on many occasions the service was so bad, I just decided one day to write this place off entirely. For me to do that when service is fifth on my criteria, it has to be atrocious, and it was just that. The original location in Costa Mesa is tiny, and it probably seats only 10-14 people (maybe 3 more in the bathroom), yet the waiter or waitress would not acknowledge you. They would not seat you, or say anything even though you’re standing inches away from them. This incident happened over several months and to be clear, it wasn’t necessarily me that was receiving this service. It was the other patrons who had walked in, and the waitress at that time wasn’t able to even acknowledge them with only 3-5 diners in the restaurant which was appalling to see that the person would just walk out. It didn’t stop there, and on several occasions, my food would take at least a minimum of a half-hour to come out, and it didn’t always come out correct either (not going to wait for another half-hour for it to come out right).
If your front of the house sucks that bad, I can only imagine how your kitchen is which is probably one of the biggest driving factors why I stopped going but enough about that because main dude here is good (I forgot his name). It’s why I do recommend this place because every time I’ve been, I’ve always been impressed with the owner’s offerings. Things may have been on the oily, salty side, but his broth, chashu, gyoza, etc. were always some of the best OC has to offer. I also assume after this many years, and the fact that he opened a second location in Cypress, I have to think a lot of those issues may have been ironed out.
Other standouts about this spot are the name “Zetton” which is the theme of the place based on the Japanese Ultraman character who’s a horned, beetlelike humanoid. You’ll find that theme rampant throughout the restaurant along with one of the best music playlists of any ramen spot in Orange County. That combined with one of the coolest bathrooms that you could practically lounge in, makes it so that the only thing you could not like is the service.
Type of ramen offered: Dashi and chicken based ramen which include classic, old school, special salt, special soy, miso tan tan, MBC, spicy garlic, mabo tofu ramen, curry ramen, and wonton ramen (some offer vegetarian options).
Address: 735 Baker St., Unit B, Costa Mesa, Telephone: 714-241-1625
Address: 5721 Lincoln Ave., Suite F, Cypress, Telephone: 714-236-5474
#5 Kitakata Ramen
There are the types that like thick and savory (kotteri) broths or lite (assari) ramen which is what Kitakata is, the latter. It’s also one reason why this spot draws crowds and long lines at all hours of the day from the time they open, to the time they close.
“Kitakata” is the regional style and “Ban Nai” is the most popular eatery from Japan, and this is also one of the only Kitakata style ramen spots from Fukushima, Japan… yes, the actual birthplace of Godzilla.
Ramen? Forget about the ramen here (well, not really), but to me, it is all about their gyoza and that dab of yuzu koshou to dip it into that sets this place apart from the crowd. If that wasn’t enough, they did an excellent job converting Kohryu Ramens old location into a tiny slice of Japan in Costa Mesa. They have so many cool things spread out through this restaurant, that it is the spot you want to take your out-of-state friends too because this place epitomizes Japan because it makes due with the small square footage. In Japan, I’ve been in bars where the bathroom is the size of a closet, or the area under the stairs usually reserved for a broom closet is a table for two. In the U.S. you only typically see 60-100 person locations like with a pho restaurant or a Korean BBQ while Japanese stick to their 20-40 person venues.
I love chashu, but the chashu here doesn’t seem to be toro-chashu. It’s the one reason why it was a struggle to finish my chashu ramen because each piece was on the lean and tough side that didn’t “melt in your mouth.”
Type of ramen offered: Kitakata (pork based) ramen, chashu ramen, aburi miso ramen, green chili shio ramen, mixed green vegetable ramen, and tsukemen.
Address: 891 Baker St, B21, Costa Mesa, Telephone: 714-557-2947, ramenbannai.com
Address: 7550 Orangethorpe Ave, Buena Park, Telephone: 714-752-6878, ramenbannai.com
#4 Huntington Ramen
If you can’t do one thing right, you usually do a ton of things in the hopes that something might stand out. That’s what I thought when I saw that Huntington Ramen not only did ramen, but they also do makizushi (rolls), a variety of appetizers, and upwards of six different types of ramen from tonkotsu shoyu, spicy miso, to a vegetarian ramen. Fortunately for happy Greg, I was proven wrong.
Orange County isn’t the most diverse county, so it’s a surprise to hear that a ramen-ya had opened in that area. Typically, most Japanese restaurants locate (strength in numbers) where other Japanese-related businesses typically locate in Tustin, off of N. Harbor, Beach, or Brookhurst, or stay closer to Costa Mesa (7 out of the 18 ramen restaurants have opened up shop there). The ones that take a risk and establish themselves in fringe areas need to pull people in from the surrounding neighborhoods which can be a daunting task for most small businesses.
In a small strip mall basically in the middle of nowhere when it comes to all things Japanese or Asian, the staff here surprisingly wear hakama. Hakama are typically confused for kimono (a generic word for us Muricans for all things worn by Japanese) just like yukata (made of cotton) are often confused as kimono (silk). Having the staff dress in such traditional clothing makes this an oasis of Japanese culture in HB which gives you another reason to drive on out to them.
Price, atmosphere, professional service, and such an extensive menu make this one of the standout ramen-ya’s in Orange County. Throw in a lunch specials (ramen + roll/salad all for only $11.85), happy hour ($2.50 Asahi’s…wuuuhh!!?!?) menu’s, and we good…. oh we good.
Type of ramen offered: HB tonkotsu, assari shoyu, spicy miso, real tan tan, shrimp special, fresh citrus, and vegetable miso. Address: 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, Telephone: 714-537-7098
#3 Hakata Ikkousha
Ikkousha is another ramen-ya with locations throughout the world, and they currently have two in SoCal which includes one in Costa Mesa and the other in Torrance.
My biggest gripe with Ikkousha Ramen is that they decided to charge customers a premium initially. They started off with $9 for one of tiniest bowls of ramen and $5 for their little bite-sized gyoza. Only a year ago (10/1/2015), the pricing went from $9 to $7.90 for their tonkotsu ramen, the five piece gyoza from $5 to $3.50, and the ajitama (flavored egg) from $2 to $1.50. Yea, $2 for an egg! I don’t know if they were charging more to cash in on the hype on ramen or if I believe that they had “renegotiated with their distributors to get a lower price” (their stated reasoning). Whatever reason it was truly for, it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I doubt they were able to get people to line up out the door which is why I think they may had to come down on the price.
Biggest highlights, of course, is the frothy pork broth, the Hakata style noodles, and their fastidious ordering checklist to get you your ramen exactly how you like it. Although I can’t say for certain if they get it right. Kind of like ordering a “med rare” burger, but you always get it cooked “medium” no matter how many times you insisted on “medium rare.” Regardless, of my pessimism, you can dial it all in as you like it. You’ll be able to choose the firmness of your noodles (“soft,” “normal,” to “hard”), taste (“light” or “normal”), to the amount of green onions (yes, none, to extra) to name a few of the choices.
Got to love this, and they deserve a couple of ranking points for it, is that they are open till 11:30 PM (6 days a week except for Sun, till 9:30). I can only think of Masa in San Diego that is open that late (till 1 am).
Type of ramen offered: tonkotsu, shio tonkotsu, mentaiko tonkotsu, black tonkotsu, and god fire. Address: 3033 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, Telephone: 714-540-2066
#2 Santouka Ramen
Bow down foo! Santouka is the king of ramen in California and most likely globally because they’re old school. Not only were they one of the first in the U.S., but they also brought their “A” game since day one. Even with all the new competition, they probably don’t struggle to maintain their lines that typically had a half-hour wait or upwards of a forty-five-minute wait back ‘n’ the day when they were one of the only good spots in all of California.
While some ramen joints struggle to do one type of ramen, Santouka can offer up upwards of several types of which consist of shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste) ramen and spicy miso. Keep in mind that they don’t do that in the hopes that one just might work out, but they do it because they’re killing it by making them all equally as good.
Key points of Santouka is that they’re located inside a food court inside Mitsuwa Market which means you’re not solely here for atmosphere although their other locations throughout the world get their own digs. As for the food courts, I don’t mind them because it minimizes the bottom line because they don’t use servers, so you’re not required to tip (just like Japan).
My only long-standing gripe that I’ve made known is that they need to offer a bigger spoon. At one point Santouka had them, but as “easily as they giveth, they easily taketh away.” My guess is that people started to steal or throw them away which is why we can’t have nice things…. like big spoons to maintain one’s dignity.
Type of ramen offered: salt ramen, soy sauce ramen, miso ramen, spicy miso ramen with either regular or toroniku chashu. Address: Costa Mesa, CA, 714-537-7098, Santouka.co.jp
#1 Toraji Ramen
What Toraji is your number one!?! Why yes it is, and you typically won’t hear the casual ramen eater or local newspapers touting this as their favorite either because they may be too caught up in the perceived hype of a place.
If you can look past the hype, and the fact that they are located in the newly remodeled food court inside of Tokyo Central, you’ll find out that this is legitimate ramen contender. Oh, and if you really can’t look past the decor, you can always head on up to Gardena for their full-sized restaurant if you’re into atmosphere because my friends 6 yr old son loves Rainforest Cafe for the same reason, so I’m not judging you.
If you’re from Japan, or you’re hardcore into ramen, you’ll probably realize the level at which ramen is and is not at in Orange County based upon the number one ranking because Toraji isn’t the best ramen in California. Although it is a very strong competitor for Orange County because of it’s savory kotteri (thick) and rich tonkotsu shoyu (soy sauce) broth and the thick noodles, juicy slabs of chashu and all the nicely chosen/paired toppings only complete the picture.
Don’t expect an enthusiastic staff, or an atmosphere that says “hey this is really good eff’n ramen.” You’ll have to figure that out yourself. Now, I know it might be hard to think that because this is the same spot that was once the pathetic Daikokuya location. The spot where the dude who worked the register never seemed happy to be at work, or Iroha Ramen who had an excellent staff and management, but their ramen could never cut it even with the hype of being from Japan. What you can expect from Toraji is a casual and “I’m only here for the ramen…and maybe to pick up some Pocky, Taketsuru whisky, or Keoki’s lau lau” type of place since I’m here at Tokyo Central.
Type of ramen offered: Hakata tonkotsu ramen, tonkotsu shoyu ramen, shoyu ramen, and tori shio chi-yu ramen.
Address: 2975 Harbor Blvd, Costa Mesa, 714-537-7098, torajiramen.com
Not strictly ramen restaurants or places that I feel have gotten much attention, so here’s my attempt to give them their 15 minutes of fame. Well what little fame I can muster up.
- Local. Healthy Tapas & SakeI get to feel like a vegetarian for a good hour when I eat here, but for all of you full-fledged carnivores, Local also serves several meat dishes which include Jidori chicken karaage $8 to Wild caught “Mr. & Mrs. Cod” for $13. Although their primary focus is a vegetarian-centric menu, so you’ll want to try the “tonkotsu” vegetarian ramen which is their take on the highly popular pork ramen that is fueling the growth of ramen-ya’s throughout the U.S.Regardless if you’re vegetarian, I highly suggest you stop on by to check out the vibe of this spot that is duly exemplified through their social media presence and their website which are very well done. Whoever is administering it is no creative noob.Address: 1907 Harbor Blvd, Costa Mesa, 949-873-5333, localhealthytapas.com
- Habuya Okinawan DiningIf you grew up in the 80’s and you remember the Karate Kid or Mr. Miyagi, you just might remember he’s from Okinawa. The land of Karate, Orion Beer (Kill Bill) and Okinawan cuisine.If you’ve also been to the now closed Kohryu, the spot that Kitakata Ramen is currently located at, this is Mayumi Vargas’s restaurant who was once a server at Kohryu years back.Stepping inside Habuya, you’ll find Mayumi’s artwork and incredible sense of style rampant through the interior of this tiny restaurant that you’ll feel like you walked right into a small slice of Okinawa in Tustin (just make sure you call in for reservations).
Address: 14215 Red Hill Ave, Tustin, 714-832-3323
- Yushoken Izakaya & RamenWhen you cater primarily to college students, you just might expect to get a 2.5-star rating over a span of 200 reviews for all sorts of complaints. Most are for slow service because they get very busy with all the students, so those claims easily find its way onto social media platforms like Yelp. Keep in mind; the highly popular Lee’s Sandwich (3 stars) also closed their UTC (University Town Center) location which goes to show you how this is a tough location.Yes, it might not be the greatest izakaya regarding the food and service, but from what I had, I think they deserve the chance to expand their clientele beyond just UCI Anteaters. So I highly suggest you give them a try, and maybe you can reminisce about your college days over some ramen and a beer bong (you’ll have to bring your own).Address: 4187 Campus Dr, Ste M171, Irvine, 949-396-6647, Yushoken.com