Main image courtesy of Santouka Ramen
In the last 14 years, I had been in LA, I have seen ramen ya’s (restaurants) come and go while some have gone on to blow up, making it rain Benjamins, enough to buy piles of blow and matching his and her Ferrari’s.
After a decade in the SF Bay Area, I moved to LA after a short intermission back in Colorado to spend some time with my fun happy family. Well, that is what I tell myself I did it for, but my place was in LA, where the ramen is.
Once in LA, one of the first things I did was to seek out ramen, although I knew it was not going to be easy to find an equivalent to the ramen in Japan. I did eventually find Daikokuya and Santouka which I should also point out was during the dark times. The days before Yelp which meant I had to actually eat at the restaurants to know any better. Restaurants such as Kouraku, Kohryu, Kairakutei, to Gomen were all experienced first-hand, and they are not all that.
The days of word of mouth was also a time when I learned who I could trust because I had one friend who simply judged restaurants solely on the quantity of food. If you want to know, he is no longer part of my (Greg) circle of trust.
Japanese Chains vs. the Rise of “Instant Ramen” Bandwagon Restaurants
You can not find, and I highly doubt the vast majority of chefs out there could ever replicate Daikokuya (slightly easier) or Santouka’s ramen (the harder one of the two). I say that because I have looked in both English and Japanese, and there are no readily available “copycat recipes” out there. That should not come as a surprise because a lot of restaurant owners heavily guard their recipes, and Japanese ramen is not like a recipe for pasta puttanesca, pho, to your gam gams secret apple pie recipe which isn’t all that much of a secret (it’s lard).
In Japan, many people learn from working for others through apprenticing until they’re able to open a place on their own which can take decades to do.
Although, if you know the U.S., it’s all about shortcuts and making that almighty dollar, so all the poke shops bandwagoners are now moving on to ramen which is only made possible because many of the food distributors are now producing “instant ramen kits (just add water).” These kits include the soup stock, chashu, and everything else you would need to produce a basic ramen more on par with cheap instant ramen, than Japanese restaurant ramen.
I have categorized the ramen chains as either:
There are a number of great shops with only one location, but I have decided to only focus on multi-store shops otherwise the list would go on for days.
- Japanese Based: multi-store chains that started/based in Japan.
- American Based: multi-store businesses that started in the U.S., but the staff/owner are from or have trained in Japan.
With over 8,000+ Yelp reviews, Daikokuya was the spot that helped blow up ramen in the U.S., and it was also one of the best go to spots after or when bar hopping in DTLA (Far Bar is a couple shops down to Wolf & Crane down the street).
Back in 2004, when I first moved down to LA, there were a lot of average ramen spots in Los Angeles. One of the only spots worth going out of your way for was Daikokuya in Little Tokyo, which also had a location inside of the Costa Mesa Marukai (now Tokyo Central), but it suuuucked and closed down a while back. So back in the day, it was worth the drive because the broth was the only one at that time that was like something you would find in Japan. The only weak aspect is their toppings such as the chashu, which could use some help, and they go hard on the greens onions, I like that tho.
Number of locations: 4 (El Monte, Sunset, Sawtelle, and Little Tokyo)
About (in their words): there is no “about” page for Daikokuya, and all I have heard through friends that at one point they were trying to open 10 restaurants via the Bishamon Group which does not consist of all ramen ya’s. I should also mention that Takaaki Kohyama (this dude is fockn cool), the man behind Daikokuya also opened Hachioji (where he’s from).
Japanese/Machida City Based
I have never been to EAK, but I have been to Jidaiya which is iekei or Yokohama style ramen, and my mind is blown how this style is not more popular then it is. Although like most Japanese restaurants, I attribute their perceived lack of growth due to the Japanese mentality/approach which is to not market or engage the market. I could be totally wrong because I do not know the management or the owners, but if this were in the hands of an American, I think they would have much more notoriety like Jidaiya does because it is owned and operated by Torihei (they’ve been around).
Number of locations: 1 (Los Angeles/Melrose) and 3 (West Village NY, and Hell’s Kitchen NY).
About (in their words): “E.A.K. Ramen aka Machida Shoten in Japan, started back in 2008 in Machida City, Japan. This was our first shop to fulfill our goal to spread the IEKEI style of ramen to the world.”
American, Los Angeles Based
Hiro Igarashi and Nori Akasaka are both OG’s in the food and restaurant industry, and if you want to read more about them I actually met with Igarashi’san and had a small interview with him. That happened in 2017 when they first started in Irvine, and now they are up to 6 shops with 1 of them in Santa Clara (the Bay Area), congrats homies.
Number of locations: 6 in under 3 years (Irvine, Long Beach, Pasadena, Santa Clara, Santa Fe Springs, and San Diego).
About (in their words): “Hiro and Nori met in 2011 in Los Angeles. In 2017, they founded HiroNori Craft Ramen to create an unmatched ramen taste and experience that expresses their passion, knowledge, and craft.”
Going in the first couple of times, I would run into some of the staff from Oki Doki’s other restaurants, specifically San Shi Go. That made for a very welcoming environment because if it is your first time, the ordering form can be quite overwhelming. It is like most Hakata style ramen ya’s like Ichiran where there is an extensive amount of options. Options from taste, noodle hardness, amount of green onions, to what toppings you want – the true meaning of “have it your way,” what’s up Burger King.
Number of locations: 4 (Costa Mesa, Torrance, Little Tokyo LA, and Lake Forest).
About: “Kousuke Yoshimura was born in June 1976 in Fukuoka city.
His father was a sushi-chef and his mother ran a Japanese-style bar. Naturally he got interested in cooking in childhood. Aside from his regular work, he had built up his experience in a gyoza restaurant for two years. He came back to his mother’s bar and he devoted himself to cooking. Though those experiences, he completed his original tonkotsu ramen by himself and opened.”
Japanese based, Managed by the Panda Restaurant Group
Never been since the only location was in Santa Monica, and that I never went out of my way to try it. I wasn’t interested because I did not have high expectations for the Panda Restaurant Group. Not like that they are not capable, but because trying to take on and to produce Japanese ramen at the level that is required to be competitive (it’s not a Pieology pizza), that is a tough challenge. On top that, you also have to find and keep the right employees to produce consistency (is “consistency” a 7 habit of being effective?). My predictions backs those challenges up on Yelp with a 3.5 for Santa Monica and a 3.5 for San Francisco.
Number of locations: 2 in Los Angeles (Santa Monica, West Hollywood), 3 in the Bay Area (San Francisco, Berkeley, Cupertino) 3 in New York (East Village NY, Midtown NY, and 5th Ave NY).
About (in their words): “Shigemi Kawahara is the founder of Ippudo was born in Fukuoka prefecture in 1952. After opening “HAKATA IPPUDO” in ’85, Shigemi Kawahara established CHIKARANOMOTO (lit. “The Source of Power”) GROUP in ’86. It was through Shigemi Kawahara opening a ramen shop in the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in ’94 that tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen gained popularity throughout all of Japan.”
I am not a fan of Jinya’s ramen/food, and out of all the chains, this is the only one in particular where I think they are more about the franchising. That is not a bad thing because I see this chain potentially dominating in the Midwest and rural areas, but just not LA. I say that because most of the SoCal locations I have come across have gone out of business. The first being in Costa Mesa where I just happened to know a couple of their staff to the Mission Beach location in San Diego, all closed. I attribute them struggling due to their haphazard ramen that could use some work on taste although probably the biggest issue is their initial start-up investment/cost? I assume that because they have some crazy build-outs that I really like because they utilized the architectural firm Ikedo Design out of Solana Beach that I have been following for several years now, and one of their current projects near to me is opening near Denver’s iconic Union Station (across the street) 1720 Wynkoop Street Suite B-2, Denver, Colorado 80202.
Number of locations: 4 currently open (Burbank, DTLA, Santa Monica, Studio City), and 2 (Encino and Tustin) coming soon.
About (in their words): “The son of a successful restaurateur in Japan, Tomonori knew what it would take to build a great restaurant. His father had owned an Izakaya-style restaurant named Jinya, where he focused on three values: Delicious food at reasonable prices that’s accessible to all.
Wanting to revive his father’s dream, Tomonori opened his first JINYA in Tokyo in 2000. Named for a Samurai soldier that was close to the community and owned a small property, JINYA was an appropriate name that embodied the ideals of Tomonori’s new restaurant. When he saw the need for authentic ramen in the United States, he decided to set up shop in California and continue his family’s legacy. JINYA Ramen Bar was born.”
If it were not for the girl I had been dating in the valley, I probably would not have ever come across Kai Ramen. I also did not have high expectations for ramen in the valley, and typically I would go eat birria instead (Birrieria Mexico in Van Nuys is one of the BEST in LA). Luckily I put off eating goat that day and chose to try out Kai ramen because it is now one of my tops 5’s in LA.
Number of locations: 3 open with 3 coming soon (Alhambra, Sherman Oaks, West Hollywood, KTown, Arcadia, and Santa Monica).
About (in their words): ” American born Japanese Chef (Tomo) Nishimura managed his first Ramen restaurant in Mountain View, CA in 1997. Following over 20 years of success, Chef Nishimura decided to move to Los Angeles and open his own restaurant. Today, a fast growing and highly acclaimed Ramen restaurant chain, Kai Ramen operates in three locations in California – Alhambra, Sherman Oaks, and West Hollywood.”
Kitakata Ban Nai
Japanese/Kitakata, Japan, Mensyoku U.S.A. Inc.
On any given day, you will see a line out front of the Kitakata Costa Mesa location because it might be a small location, but it is also a very popular ramen ya that has a very devout following due to the lighter pork broth. If that is not enough of a draw, try the gyoza here with the little dab of yuzu kosho that they serve here with their gyoza.
Number of locations: 6 (Costa Mesa, Buena Park, Irvine Fountain Valley, Hoffman Estates in IL, Upper West Side NY).
About (in their words): “in 1958, the original Ban Nai Shokudo (eatery) was opened in Kitakata city by Shingo and Hisa Ban Nai, a married Kitakata local, and was operating as local favorites.” Currently, there are 57 locations of Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai throughout Japan.
I absolutely LOVE Santouka, and I could eat it weekly, and my go to favorite is the shio ramen with the ume (pickled plum) and the “special pork” (tontoro/pork jowl). If that sounds good to you, I suggest that you read my post about Santouka titled “Bow Down to a Ramen Chain That is Greater than You, Hokkaido Ramen, Santouka.“
Number of locations: 5 (Santa Monica, Torrance, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Brea), 1 (San Diego), 1 in the Bay Area (San Jose), and 8 elsewhere (Chicago, New Jersey, Honolulu, Seattle Bellevue, Boston Harvard Square, Boston Back Bay, Dallas Plano, Waikiki, Seattle University Village).
About (in their words): It was in the 1980s that Santouka took its first steps toward dominating the world and began to draw attention with its shio ramen served with a small, pickled plum in a unique round bowl. Santouka started its history when founder Hitoshi Hatanaka said to his family. “I’m going to make delicious ramen.”
Shin Sen Gumi Ramen
American based, Shin Sen Gumi Group
I have tried SSG’s ramen a number of times, but it’s just not my favorite place although I love their yakitori which was a weekly routine. I think SSG knows that their ramen is on the weak side, so they have reduced themselves to how many additional toppings can you add to your ramen. If that is their thing, it just might be why there’s always a line for the Fountain Valley location… just go to the appropriate door because there is one for ramen, and the other is for yakitori.
Number of locations: 5, plus 1 togo location (Fountain Valley, Gardena, Rosemead, Little Tokyo Los Angeles, and West LA).
About (in their words): Mitsuyasu Shigeta a.k.a “Kyokucho” the founder/owner opened shop up on July 1992. The group itself owns 14 restaurants along with a central kitchen. I also have to add their own About Us because it’s GOOD: “At one time in the Los Angeles, the Japanese community it was thought taboo to own more than one store. There was a belief that such an endeavor could not succeed. Shin-Sen-Gumi owner and “Kyokucho” (Chief Boss) Mitsuyasu Shigeta broke that taboo when he opened his highly successful 2nd and 3rd stores at the same time, to the surprise of those around him. Additionally, when he decided to open the first Hakata ramen shop in Los Angeles, the employees of the Shin-Sen-Gumi group were unanimous in their opposition. The conventional thinking at the time was that Tonkotsu (pork bone) soup was something that only people from Kyushu ate, let alone the fact that many Americans did not eat pork for religious reasons. However, Mr. Shigeta followed his own beliefs and succeeded in turning this way of thinking on its head. Indeed, the greater the resistance the deeper the feeling of joy when one can overcome such thinking. If one can expand the possibilities of dreams and desires a new joy can be found and that, in the end, is what helps people grow.”
The stock and tare (flavoring) are the focus of the bowl, kind of like Daikokuya although the competitive edge goes to Silverlake ramen when it comes to being competitive because they are probably more in tune with the culture of LA. I say that because the experience of going to a Silverlake ramen is a reflection of them, the toppings, their wait staff, to the clientele feels like Murica… not to mention, they started in Silverlake (which btw I highly recommend El Cochinito in Silverlake, if you like or haven’t had Cuban food before).
Number of locations: 8 (eventually 16: Sunset, San Monica, Silverlake 2GO, DTLA, Concord, LBX, Concord Mills, Oxnard, Koreatown, Santa Clara, Bella Terra, Irvine Spectrum, Plaza 14, Kirkland, WA, Charlotte, NC, Midtown, and Atlanta, GA).
About (in their words): “Born and bred in the city of angels. Silverlake Ramen was created with a combined passion and experience for creating ramen that embodies delicious quality, and traditional ingredients. We stand true to our ramen, and believe it’s the best we’ve ever had…A ramen our neighbors can brag about!
Silverlake embodies the free spirit and casual vibe of Los Angeles. Cooked up by two chefs who drove their love for noodles and ramen, they dreamed up a brand that would be unpretentious, and original in it’s way of thinking. Similar to the environment in which ramen was invented. We are now taking that vibe and serving up bowls of it in locations across the nation.
We believe in serving good vibes only! Our mission is to serve you affordable food that is made and made with love. We are obsessed with ramen, and we are excited to share our passion with you…straight from our kitchen to your bowl!”
Japanese/Fukuoka, Japan based
Unfortunately, I never got a chance to go, and I am dying to try them out. So, I do not have much to say other than, damn, what’s up with them choosing Pasadena? It’s about time somebody opened up there because there’s not much in the area for notable Japanese food.
How many locations: 2 (Pasadena and Silverlake)
About: Ramen Tatsunoya was born on May 14th, 1999.
The Kamitsu branch, which is the very first store, is in Kurume City, Fukuoka, where founder, Ryuta Kajiwara, was born and raised. Today, there are nine Ramen Tatsunoya shops, and five more under a different label, “Ramen Ibuki” in Japan.
Japanese/Tokyo, Japan Based
I would have to put Tsujita in my top 3 in Los Angeles and not just with ramen, but also sushi. Tsujita’san’s game is so strong that I think he’s made a positive impact on Sawtelle Japantown because he owns four restaurants on Sawtelle blvd. Not only does it attract more people into the community, but it also pulls in other businesses like Toridolls Marugame Udon. So the way I see it, Tsujita is not only helping Japantown, but the Japanese and Japanese-American communities presence in Los Angeles.
How many locations: 4 (Sawtelle Little Tokyo, Fairfax LA, and Glendale)
About: Takehiro Tsujita is da man/owner/chef, and Tsujita’san dominates Sawtelle with his killer noodles from ramen, tantanmen, tsukemen, to even sushi. That should be no surprise because the man is straight outta Tokyo where he lives, owns, and operates a number of successful ramen restaurants in and around Asia.
This is one of the shops that got in early when ramen started to gain in popularity. I would frequent this average location over trying to battle it out for a parking space at Santouka/Mitsuwa. Also on a big tangent, this is the spot I met one of the hottest girls I have ever met. Our eyes seriously met right when I walked through the door (never happens) because she was eating at the bar in front of the entrance by herself. Luckily for me, before I knew it, I got sat right next her, what luck. The more amazing thing, is that she initiated a conversation with me (that never happens, especially since she was Nihonjin). I was like this is too good to be true which it was because after ten minutes of chatting she says she’s there to meet up with her boyfriend who worked there. Well doesn’t that suck, but it was nice to meet Ai.
How many locations: 3 in SoCal (Costa Mesa, Torrance, Culver City), 1 in the Bay Area (San Francisco).
About: Jin Yamada started way back in I think 2010? The original location is in Torrance location, and if you want to learn more about Yamada’san, you can read the article how he sourced a ramen chef from Kyushu in this article by the LA Weekly.
I know I said Los Angeles, but I had to include these two spots.
Japanese/Kyushu, Japan based
I have been to the location in Fukuoka, which I thought was a solid product, but in New York, they are charging twice as much. Yea, there is no way I would pay that much, and I do not know how they will survive. Even in New York, that has got to be some steep pricing by even New York standards.
Number of locations: 3 (Brooklyn, Midtown, and Times Square).
About (in their words): “ICHIRAN’s story began in Hakata, the epicenter of the tonkotsu ramen movement. We are on a mission to provide our guests with the best tonkotsu ramen, using only the finest ingredients and the most advanced techniques developed by our master artisans.”
San Francisco Bay Area
Mensho Tokyo SF
Japanese/Tokyo, Japan based
I would say Mensho is the biggest standout of all the ramen restaurants on the West Coast and probably the country. Tomoharu Shono’san is the man behind it all, and he founded Menya Shono in 2005. Presently, Shono’san owns and operates 7 shops in Japan and his location in San Francisco (Lower Nob Hill).
Number of locations: 7 shops in Japan (Menya Shono/tonkotsu gyokai ramen, Gachi/tori paitan ramen, Gotsubo/vegetable ramen, Aburasoba Gachi/soupless ramen, Mensho Tokyo/lamb ramen, Mensho/farm to bowl ramen, Hashi to Renge/spice ramen).
About (in their words): “2005 was the year we first founded Menya Shono. At the time we were putting our hearts and souls into expanding the business, focusing on making each and every person who walked through our doors happy by serving up delicious ramen, one bowl at a time. “
How I Size Up the Ramen Chains
The OG’s of Los Angeles
The clear winner is Santouka because they are extremely consistent and on point with their toppings, taste, and pricing.
- Shin Sen Gumi
Out of the 4 restaurants listed, I have only been to Ichiran in Fukuoka, Japan and Ikkousha in Costa Mesa. Out of the two, I definitely prefer Ikkousha.
The Franchise Queens
Real Japanese ramen is hard to do, so a franchise makes a lot of sense.
- Silverlake Ramen
If you want to see who is defining and pushing the boundaries of ramen, there’s only one in the U.S.
- Menya Tokyo SF
My Top 5 Picks (in alphabetical order)
My mouth salivates at the thought of any these places.
- Kai Ramen