Thursday, September 15, 2011

Asian Invasion - Ikemen Dip Noodle and Soy Sauce Roll and Bowl

I'm all a-twitter and a-flutter. I love Little Tokyo, to the point that I actually look forward to jury duty because it means I'll get to eat my fill of ramen at Daikokuya and donburi at T.O.T.  Between rounds of public service, I make pilgrimages downtown, just to get out of the culinary wasteland that is central Hollywood and into some good Japanese food.

The options for a quick meal in walking distance of my house have been pretty grim: the big chains and awful pizza joints on Hollywood Boulevard; fair to middlin' Thai food; strip mall Hawaiian BBQ; El Pollo Loco. It's telling that even this Food Crazy, on those nights when my Better Palate is at an exercise class or whatever and I can indulge in take-out for one, usually settles for solid but unexceptional Singapore style Chinese from Le Mandarette.

But all that has suddenly changed, with the opening in the last two weeks of two genuine, delicious, Japanese  holes-in-the-wall that would be worthy of Little Tokyo, right here in Hollywood. Did I mention I'm a-flutter?

Soy Sauce Roll & Bowl
7131B W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 876-7000
Yelp Info

I know, I know, it's an awful name for excellent and authentic Japanese lunch counter food. LA. Eater noted its opening with understandable lack of enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago. But then I received a menu in my mailbox, and I was mightily intrigued by the photos. Nearly half of the menu is a variety of donburi bowls (protein and vegetables over rice): spicy scallop, baked lobster, eel/avocado, spicy seared albacore, chicken katsu, Japanese curry. There are also izakaya-style skewers, miniscule but delicious tastes of things like grilled pork belly, baby octopus, and quail egg at miniscule prices ($1.95 for three bites of pork belly). True, there are also the ubiquitous "special rolls" with names like "Super Crunch" and "Japanese Burrito." Bot don't let the questionable nomenclature fool you. This is real Japanese/Asian Fusion food, made and served by Japanese people. And the quality of what I've ordered has been excellent. 

The Spicy Scallop bowl ($7.50) comes not with the generic American broccoli and carrots pictured on the menu but a delightful salad of fresh greens; the bay scallops are plentiful and indeed very spicy, and made sans mayonnaise, with just a chili oil sauce. The bright red pickled ginger adds snap and color to the bowl. 

Rainbow Bowl
The Chirashi ($8.50) features generous portions of fresh, tender fish -- yellowtail, salmon (raw, thank you!), tuna, albacore, and shrimp. The "Bake Lobster" ($7.50),  is the dish that brings the mayo. If it's lobster, they're they're tiniest tails I've ever seen (think crawfish), but the creamy bake is rich and satisfying. One or two caveats: the "crab" in the Crab Bowl and Rainbow Bowls (pictured above... a chirashi with avocado and crab salad added) is actually Krab. And the fried "popcorn" scallops, by the time they're delivered to our door, are a bit rubbery.

But wait -- they deliver?! Oh, yes, my friends, they freakin' deliver. Promptly and courteously. When one of my orders arrives missing a baked lobster bowl, Brian (the chef? owner?) returns almost immediately with the AWOL bowl, but also three miso soups, a giant order of edamame, and a voucher for another lobster bowl next time I order. That will, I assure you, be very, very soon. Note that the "dining room" of the place is tiny, although clean and stylish in modern Japanese lunch counter style: three small tables and counter space for maybe a dozen. The staff is almost impossibly friendly and enthusiastic. I have yet to work through the menu to decide if the food is better than the comparable T.O.T on 2nd Street in Little Tokyo; but that I even am considering such a question, regarding a place in what we call "the Pollo Loco mall" makes it a great day in Hollywood.

And then, just a long stone's throw away, there's:

Ikemen Dip Noodle
1655 N La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 800-7669
Yelp Info

In the same parking-challenged strip mall that houses our go-to takeout pizza (Raffallo's) and aforesaid go-to Chinese takeout, Ikemen quietly appeared in a soft opening a couple of weeks ago. The space formerly occupied by Casablanca (which was once our go-to Mexican but has for years been sad and inedible) is now home to a tiny, ultra-hip noodle counter serving black-belt ramen from a genuine celebrity Ramen Master. This little bit of Tampopo three blocks from Hooters and the Hard Rock is so wonderful and unlikely. This place couldn't be more Japanese-cool, from the "Urban Youth Smoking" art to the Louis IVX chandelier to the black painted tile to the chef and wait-staff wearing red or pink straw pork-pie hats. And the ramen might be the best I've had in L.A.

The "dip ramen" ($9.00) consists of thick, gloriously chewy noodles served cold, soba-style, with either chashupork tonkotsu (pictured below ) or grilled chicken on top and a bowl of richly seasoned hot broth, into which you dip the noodles bite by bite.

Zebra Dip with Chashu Pork and Onsen Tamago
The broth comes in four styles, from the garlicky "Zebra" to the heavily fish-powdered "Ikemen." My waiter recommends adding a "topping" of "Onsen Tamago," ($1.00) a perfectly poached egg, to my Zebra noodles. He's right... stirring the egg yolk into the noodles gives it a carbonara-like flavor and texture. This could be my new favorite dish within a three mile radius of my house.

The "Genuine Ramen," ($8.00) a manageable list of four varieties, is a classic thin rice noodle soup which I ordered with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes, to be exact, which were farmers market fresh and flavorful ). This is the real deal.

Genuine Tomato Ramen
The broth (a light chicken broth, not the heavy miso or salty soy sauce versions of ramen I'm most familiar with) is subtle and flavorful. The noodles are divine, and no wonder; Ikemen's "Ramen Master" (yep, that's what his business card says) is Sean Nakamura, who is currently in New York opening a Ramen Lab, teaching other chefs his mad noodling skillz. You can read about the rather baroque relationship between owner, chef and general manager, and their Japanese-cum-Torrance-cum-Beverly Hills foodie cred in an LA Weekly piece here. Again, I have yet to work my way through their menu, which promises other delights like grilled chicken and teriyaki pork sliders. But the lunch (or late night!) counter landscape is suddenly, and I hope permanently, altered in my 'hood.


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