Out of all the places I’ve learned to love in Los Angeles through the past two and half years of living here, the place I’ve both frequented the most and feel most at home within is the Little Tokyo area. I am not referring to the trendy hipster pocket near the brewery buildings and SCI-ARC that boast pop up art galleries and overpriced, semi-bland pie shops but the authentic Asian neighborhoods near the Buddhist Temple, industrial fish merchant, Japanese grocery store and plethora of noodle joints that abut Skid Row. When I used to live in the desert, I enjoyed the Hispanic neighborhoods and that is how I feel in Little Tokyo – as if I have entered another culture where I may not always speak the same language but feel comforted in the absence of pretension and overall joie de vivre found in the workaday people living amongst a bevy of great food and traditions. I love walking down the street on a Sunday morning in Fall to see the balconies on all the 1950s style apartment buildings, each decorated individually with plants, prayer flags, flowers or ruddy benches. I love watching the old women dressed in their polyester suits heading to the stores while long lines full of people of all ages start to converge in front of the food shops. It’s a frequent Sunday Funday outing for the Cute Gardener and myself.
Recently, we’ve decided to start a hunt for the best ramen in L.A. We have a simultaneous endeavor begun for udon as well. Ramen, like udon, has been a relatively new venture for me in that I’ve only eaten at a handful of places in my lifetime and they haven’t been good places. Or at least, I didn’t realize they weren’t good places until being introduced to the Los Angeles noodle scene. My sixth taste in L.A. was a recent stop at Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi in Little Tokyo – a place we’d been eyeballing for a year while visiting the neighborhood for other occasions and always seeing a packed house there.
This visit gave me a winner so far for my favorite ramen as well as a bonafide list of what a special bowl of ramen means to me:
Good broth – this one was light brown and belly warming like a good chicken soup without being overpowering with seasoning.
Skinny and firm noodles – these were long and lean but densely textured rather than being flimsy or scrawny and they didn’t wilt or get mushy as they sat in the broth.
Toppings – Gotta have my superfood wakame for the essential dose of sea algae vitamins and a sense of salt but beyond that I discovered I love crunchy pig ears and fried onions that go from crispy and hard to soft and chewy the longer they sit and are fun at every level during this gradient shift of texture. I also love the hard boiled egg halves as well as a poached egg that gels up as it swirls into the hot soup.
Another thing I love about the Asian culture is how strange and funny its obsessions can be. Hot pink colored fish cakes? Okay, not sure why, but they are pretty and they taste good. A million pieces of leftover fishing boat inventory mushed and rolled into fish balls … a little strange but excellent when added to soups and other dishes. Mung beans cooked, smushed and rolled into tiny square moon cakes … what other culture would consider beans to be like a sweet filling or a frosting, but in reality, I am more addicted to them than to chocolate pastries. And the funniest one of all – $2.00 oversized cream puffs. I don’t know where in the heck they came up with the strangely white Santa character Beard Papa for the well-known franchise of cream puff shops but I am glad they did because I can’t get enough. Now it’s customary on our trips to Little Tokyo for me to end it on a bench slurping from a puff. The previous time it was matcha green tea cream from a chocolate puff and this time it was banana cream from an éclair puff. I admit it; I am a total sucker for all things Asian.
Next month I have plans to take the train solo to Little Tokyo for an entire day to hunt for the perfect teapot.