Modern science is barely 500 years old, the US is 246 y/o, the state of California is a wee 171 y/o, and the first sushi restaurant did not open till 1906 in DTLA. So if you did not know that 43770 is “hello,” you probably will also not know the spots that defined ramen in SoCal.
According to the Yokohama Ramen Museum, ramen originated in China and made its way to Japan in 1859. If that did not happen, none of us would be enjoying the Japanese iteration of lamian some 163 years later. Neither of us would also be looking for a ramen shop using either the 23 y/o Google or 17 y/o Yelp.
These are the earliest and best ramen shops in San Diego and Los Angeles that popularized ramen in SoCal over the last three decades. Along with how many new contenders San Diego has in the ramen game.Driving from Orange County to SD is only an hour and a half drive (plus, you get to see the boobs along side the highway aka the now defunct nuclear plant).
Ramen in SoCal from Los Angeles to Orange County from ’02 to ’07
I did not make my grand appearance in Los Angeles till 2004 because I had been living in SF Bay Area since 1991. I should also point out that the SF Bay Area has a large Asian and a modest Japanese American population, but we did not have any notable ramen restaurants. Although, we did have a few soba to udon spots that were aighhhhht. So when I arrived in LA, I was happy to have these ramen ya’s:
- Kohryu / Costa Mesa, late 90’s? My goto spot after a night of drinking back in the day, but they closed their doors in early 2014 and Kitakata Ban Nai took it over. Now with Manpuku and Kitakata in the same plaza, parking trickles on over to the hotel next door (you’ll need a parking placard),
- Foo Foo Tei / Hacienda Heights, 90’s? They have got to have one of the funkiest locations because it is in an industrial area, but the owner, Murakami’san is a cool dude, and he does a popular nanchatte tonkotsu worthy of a trip to the heights. He is also a car dude, and since we were all automotive aftermarket, he would come out and chat.
- Shin Sen Gumi / Gardena, July 1992: Mitsuyasu Shigeta a.k.a “Kyokucho” is the founder/owner of the restaurant group that owns 14 restaurants and a central kitchen. Out of it all, I have never been a fan of their ramen, but I am regular at their yakitori joint.
- Daikokuya / Little Tokyo LA, Feb 2002: Is Daikokuya the ramen spot that put ramen on the map? I think so, especially in LA because of their broth, late hours, Little Tokyo 1st street location (only a few doors down from Far Bar), and vintage interior with their iconic exterior yellow awning. The owner is an American motorcycle riding and Cadillac driving OG.
- Santouka Ramen / Costa Mesa (the first location in the US), 2000’s??? To me, this chain (52 locations worldwide) consistently delivers on so many levels because unlike Daikokuya, Santouka offers four types of flavors (my goto is the shio because of the umeboshi) and two types of chashu.
If you want a complete list of ramen shops in SoCal, you will have to turn to theramendream.com (Keizo Shimamoto, an OG and the current proprietor of the newly opened Ramen Shack in San Juan Capistrano).Plus Keizo can write like somebody with an edgejumacation vs. my quips.
The Ramen OG’s of San Diego
I am not listing every single place that had existed in San Diego, and what I am citing are the popular ramen shops that have been in the ramen game since day ONE.
For chashu, most restaurants use either pork belly or shoulder, but Santouka serves up tontoro aka pork cheek/jowl (guanciale). It is a couple of bucks more, but I always have no budget or budgeting when it comes to some tasty cheeks.(C) denotes chain restaurant of 15 or more restaurants and (MS) multi-store is more than one.
- Izakaya Masa / Mission Hills, ???, This is a legit Izakaya because they were open late, till 1 am back in the day. Now, due to Covid, those hours are no longer (11 pm), but chef-owner Masayoshi Tsuruta has one of the best places to introduce people to ramen because his ramen used to start at $5.50, now $7 for a half order.
- (MS-8) Tajima Ramen / Hillcrest, 2001, When Sam Morikizono took over the spot once occupied by Yakyudori, that was the location I first tried them at, which was also where my girlfriend had worked because she lived down the street. From that time till now, there has been increased Americanized ramen vibes mixed in. Except, taste-wise, I have no complaints, and I like their ramen. So it is no surprise that they have five San Diego locations and another three restaurants in Tijuana Mexico.
- (C-16) Santouka / Kearny Mesa, April 2008, Every Santouka in California is within a Mitsuwa food court, which I think may be a separate entity from Santouka-USA? As for where Santouka stands amongst the other two ramen shops, they both have good and bad qualities, but as a global chain, they reign supreme.
Not Total Ramen Noobs
The previous 3 have at least a decade on the two below (based on Santouka Costa Mesa), so I am keeping them separate to highlight the staying power of the previous three. Along with these two and their decade-long years of success.
- (MS-2) Underbelly / Little Italy, 2011, I had avoided trying them because seeing “UnderBelly is our interpretation of a Japanese ramen-ya” does not make you want to go out of your way for this sort of
shitstuff. Also, they say “paying homage to the ramen gods of Tokyo,” but they do not have a “Tokyo-style ramen.” Ok, but the new North Park venue is very cool and worthy enough for you to go out of your way to try.
- (MS-2) Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen / Mira Mesa, Oct 2012, the last time I was in San Diego, I wanted to try out this spot, but I think they were closed at the time I was there. The dude who started it, is Tokyo-born Junya Watanabe who graduated from UCLA with a Master’s degree in Economics. What that means to me, is that he understands American culture, and is good bridge between Japanese and Americans and maybe the one reason why he’s onto his 4th location (I think Tatsu Ramen in LA/Melrose has a similar background).
The Rest of San Diego’s Ramen Shops and How They Stack Up
Every time I was in San Diego, if I was not hitting up a random restaurant, I would be at either two of San Diego’s ramen ya’s above, or at Yakyudori eating yakitori (the closest thing to where I live to it is Shin Sen Gumi).
11 new ramen restaurants/brands in the last 5-6 years (6 shops in approximately 3.5+ years).
- (C-700) Ajisen Ramen / Kearny Mesa April 2016, a large Japanese based chain with a very basic Kumamoto style ramen ranging in price from $8.95 to $11.25.
- (MS-2) BeSHOCK Ramen / East Village, 2016, Japanese American, but Americanized ramen with salad greens in ramen which comes from the influence of amateur cooks and vegan/vegetarian influencers have had on this restaurant. Also, like most Americanized restaurants, they do sushi too.
- (MS-8) HiroNori Craft Ramen / Hillcrest, Feb 2019, straight out of Irvine, they opened right down the street from where I lived, so I was able to interview one of the owners prior to the massive success they have had.
- Isshido Ramen / Mira Mesa, Feb 2019, I have never been because they are new, but they do gyoza right, their ramen looks legit, and any place that also does oden is visit-worthy. My only fear is that they have such a massive menu with 13(?) ramen offerings and bento boxes, so how good can they be?
- Karami Ramen / Kearny Mesa, 2018, “Believe it or not, we are the first ever ramen restaurant in New Zealand (daikoku.co.nz) opened in 1992.” In 2018, we made the decision to open a new ramen restaurant in beautiful San Diego! At this location, we specialize in spicy tori paitan ramen as our name suggests.
- (MS-5) Marufuku Ramen / Del Mar Heights, July 2021, Founded recently in San Francisco in 2017, which is touted as specializing in Hakata style ramen. Except the most impressive part is their massive growth, along with what looks like big money backing this venture. The co-founder may be Eicchi Mochizuki and Koji Kikura, but there is no information on the franchise owner for San Diego (in Irvine, it is German Fabregas (aka Ramen Social, LLC), a fellow Newport Beach resident who chose a good/great location.
- (MS-3) Menya Ultra / Kerny Mesa, Feb 2017, Takeshi Endo, the founder first opened in Odate, Akita, Japan in 1994 which is in the Tohoku region. Within 3 years, a 2nd location opened, and in the next 2-4 years, Endo’san had won several awards. In the next 9 years, he opened up in Taiwan, and the US with numerous awards and accolades later.
- Nishiki Ramen / Kearny Mesa, Sept 2015, “Nishiki Ramen was opened at Kearny Mesa, San Diego in September 2015. Our concept of the restaurant is to provide local customers in San Diego with Japanese Authentic Ramen in “Tokyo Style”. We make our own Ramen Noodles and Soups in house everyday. The customers are welcome to watch us making the noodle inside the restaurant. The soups are made from varieties of vegetables, natural chicken and pork. Our Ramen is Fresh, Healthy and Delicious!”
- Nozaru Ramen Bar / April 2017, “From soul to bowl” is their motto, along with their chimp logo integrated with the Imperial Japanese military flag which ought to go over well with older Chinese, Korean, to Filipino diners. Although, I don’t think the owner, Hiroshi Toukairin who is Tokyo-born in homogeneous country is aware of the U.S.’s Asian diversity.
- (MS-4) Ramen Ryoma / Kearny Mesa, August 2018, a PNW contender with two locations in SD, but the original location in Kearny Mesa already closed down at the beginning of 2021. The Sapporo-style ramen ya does have another two locations to burn through.
- (C-32) Silverlake Ramen / Fashion Valley 2021, an Asian American spot that has a solid broth, and they are the franchise queens of ramen. I like the their broth, it is on par with Daikokoya, but that is the extent of their similarities and the details beyond that are just aiggghhhhht.
BTW, Menya Ultra KILLS it with their ramen, but also with their marketing/communication, which is why I suggest you utilize their “news page.” The page is well maintained, along with their social media (Instagram) to Yelp pages claimed and managed, wow (most Japanese ramen-ya’s struggle to do even a website).
San Diego’s Local Media is Well Worth the Read (an Additional 5-8 Minutes of Your Life)
Depending on what part of the country you are in, relying on Thrillest, the local media outlets, to Eater can vary greatly depending on the caliber of millennial you have been dealt (cuz you have to be a millennial to do anything social media is how most of management thinks). Well, San Diego has some quality content compared to the 4-5 other regions I have covered for ramen, and these resources below have done a decent to very good job at aggregating useful information.
- All three of these people: Tiffany Tse, Mary Beth Abate, and Darlene Horn did a very good job for Thrillist, and I usually cringe at the vast majority of content produced by the outlet, not this time.
- The other resource is by Troy Johnson and San Diego Magazine “The Best Ramen in San Diego.” Troy says he spent a “monthlong spiritual quest for the top ramen in the city,” and the content is worth the read although I have to give it up to the Thrillist article out of the two.
Happy New Year, 1/26/22, 147