As a Korean child, ramen quickly becomes one of your favorite things to eat. Spending a few years in Japan as a child makes it even more so. It’s an “anytime treat” and even as a grown-up, hearing the question, “Do you want a ramen?” almost instantly makes me happy, even if I just finished an enormous dinner. Watching television and sharing an instant ramen out of large pot w/ someone you care about is….well, the Asian version of the spaghetti scene of “Lady and the Tramp”. One day, I’ll actually do a post about how to make the PERFECT bowl of Korean ramen with the PERFECTLY COOKED egg.
Right about now, I’d give kudos to the Japanese for creating ramen.
Except, it was actually created by the Chinese. (Shocking, I know — because I just did a quick search to see if I could find the name of the genius who created it, and alas, my entire world has gone off-kilter.)
What the Japanese did create and then perfect was the “instant ramen” concept, which has since taken over the whole literal world. (Clearly, just my opinion here.)
So as it turns out, ramen noodles in pork broth was a Chinese invention.
Taking this and creating a massive food revolution — that was all Japanese.
In Tokyo, as you walk around, you walk by TONS of ramen joints. When I lived there back in 1980-ish, I don’t recall this to be the case but modern day Japan is chock full of delectable ramen-eating opportunities. I remember one ramen place where I walked in, not speaking a lick of Japanese, and the nice server pointed towards a vending machine. I looked at it, and there were drawings of bowls that looked like ramen with different toppings, with Japanese writing on it — and you actually press what you want to order, pay at the machine, print out the receipt and give it to the server who relays it to the kitchen. A few minutes later, a piping hot bowl of goodness is brought to your table. (Talk about efficiency…if you could read Japanese. Incidentally, I still don’t know what I ordered that day.) You feel like you’re in a round of Diner Dash, no joke, but it works!
In Los Angeles, especially in the “Little Tokyo” district, ramen has become more prevalent. In the Bay Area, our choices were somewhat more limited until the last 6-8 years, I believe, with the last few years showing a massive boom in ramen joints across the whole Bay Area.
My first time here was a couple of years ago. We’d ordered many small plates at Izakaya Mai a few doors down, but opted to try this ramen place as the end of our meal. Being all about spicy things, I ordered the Tan Tan Men, shown below.
Back then, I was far less than impressed with this dish. The spice wasn’t actual heat but a lot of chile oil….which makes for an incredibly oily meal. I like fat as much as the next person, but I’m not big on chile oil, never mind floating in such large amounts on top of my soup. This is further exacerbated by the fact that I don’t much like chile oil; it’s all oil and heat, and you can’t discern the real flavors of fresh peppers once it’s doused in this much oil. This dish was in a pork broth – and neither the soup nor the noodles were memorable to me at that time.
So much so, that a year plus later when I returned, I didn’t make the connection that I had been there before until much later. I was craving ramen at 9 PM, and a quick search for “ramen” showed me that a place called “Himawari-Tei” in San Mateo was actually open and serving. We rushed over and ordered ramen like people gone mad. I was ready for full-blown hypoglycemic shock at this point.
But this time, my experience was vastly different. I’ve been back many, many times since that day.
First, I didn’t get the “Tan Tan Deluxe”. I ordered a shio-based ramen (salt-based…usually in chicken stock, with or without pork). Of those, I chose “Butter Corn Ramen” — which is sort of exactly as the name suggests: a salt-based soup, ramen noodles, butter and corn! I find that for me, ordering a salt-based chicken broth allows your palate to truly taste the noodles. For this reason, on most of my first visits to any ramen shop, I will always opt for shio-based soup over soy sauce, or pork-based soups.
I like corn and I like butter, so butter and corn in ramen, which I also like, sounded good to me. As I usually do, I requested an additional order of chashu and egg (which meant one whole egg instead of half an egg).
What made this dish quite awesome was the clear, clean broth combined with the butter and sweetness of corn. Topped with chashu, thin slices of slow-cooked pork, this ramen hits a home-run on all fronts when you’re wanting a comforting and delicious bowl of hot soup and noodles.
The amount of corn they put in here borders on ridiculous…and during last night’s meal, the amount of butter was also shocking.
The chunk of butter they put in begins melting while it’s brought to the table, and a quick swirl later, it’s blended into the soup. Delicious – you bet. Healthy? Not so much but everything in moderation is okay by me.
Except last night, I did remove the butter soon after it arrived. A lot had melted already but you can see from the chunk below–there was still a coronary and a half to go.
Once I turn the ramen over in the bowl, it looks like this:
Then, there’s the Tonkotsu Ramen, shown below. There’s tonkatsu (deep-fried and battered pork) that is popular, and then there’s tonkotsu, which is a pork bone soup. Usually, it’s a denser soup, full of collagen, fat and all kinds of other flavorful goodness. As a soup base, it’s truly the ultimate in savory–and heavy. At Himawari-Tei, the tonkotsu was on the milder side of things and while still retaining flavor, it didn’t overpower like some ramen joints tend to do. It was also missing the brown colors that usually accompany pork-based ramen soup. They did, however, include a few good chunks of heavily braised pork belly meat that simply melted in your mouth. (Why is it anytime someone gives me good pork belly, I start craving a bowl of rice?) Considering flavor alone, this is probably always a better choice for ramen soup base. My personal taste factors in when I say I prefer the chicken or chicken-pork soup bases because I don’t eat ramen when I want the “weighed down, OMG I over-ate” feeling; for that, I’d go for a burger or a steak. With ramen, I’m looking for a quick and comforting bowl of soup and noodles with a bit of proteins.
Overall, for ramen, I’m pleased with Himawari-Tei. If I have an issue, it’s with the noodles.
The noodles are good — don’t get me wrong — but they aren’t really great “ramen noodles”. Places like Ramen Dojo, Ryowa, and Suzu in the city offer what I consider to be authentic and typical ramen noodles. The good noodles are clearly glutenous with a bit of resistance when you bite down, and a pleasant chewiness and stickiness while you chew because when it’s perfectly cooked, it should be slightly under-cooked. The noodles themselves would also have a distinct, for lack of a better word, “ramen-y” flavor of saltiness. Ramen noodles are quite distinctive.
Texture-wise, the noodles at Himawari-Tei lack that typical “ramen-like” consistency and lean more towards what I expect from a Chinese or Singaporean noodle dish. They separate easier, and lack a chewiness, and the flavor is a bit bland compared to what I consider great ramen noodles. This is not a bad thing as they taste fine — my point is merely that it’s not what I consider to be outstanding ramen noodles.
The broth, however, hits home.
I can hardly review a restaurant without at least tasting some other offerings on the menu. Over the last year, I’ve tried a lot of the dishes at Himawari-Tei. They offer some sushi rolls (which I won’t be doing again) and they also have a good array of appetizers to share before your meal. The salads were ordinary but the chicken karaage might be one of the best I’ve had outside of homemade ones.
They are dipped in a medium-weight batter and deep-fried to a deep golden brown, and however it is they do this, the inside is moist and juicy each time. Served with a “Japanese-esque” mayo dipping sauce and some lemon, this dish begs for a bowl of rice. It’s to the point that each time, I consider cancelling my ramen and ordering one more of this with some rice.
One of my favorites at Himawari-Tei is the crab fried rice. I seem to order this at least once at any restaurant that offers it, and there are some good ones in the Bay Area (like PPQ…or Ben Tre). This order here is different from those in that the crab flavor markedly stronger and fiercer on the palate but the dish is freshly fried and nicely seasoned. It’s unfortunate that they shred the snow crab leg meat to a pulp. While this does spread the flavor and bits of crab meat into every bite — it’s not as sexy as chunks of crab meat, and the bits of meat do often taste a bit “grainy”. That said, the fried rice is definitely one to share between 2-4 people before eating ramen.
Also really good is the agedashi tofu.
Each time, the tofu is fried PERFECTLY. The broth it sits in tends to be on the slighly saltier side of things. You take some of the katsuoboshi and dip in the broth, lay gently on the tofu and then devour the whole thing. Whether this is actually good for you or not (tofu vs. deep-fried tofu?), it becomes irrelevant really quickly.
I do want to mention the cold sake offerings at Himawari. They carry a limited selection of very reliably good brands. Kurosawa (my favorite!) along with all others are offered at equal pricing of $6.50 per glass, or bottle pricing. To me, ramen is not really “oh, this makes me want to drink” kind of food. (It’s actually more of a “Good God, I wish didn’t drink last night!” kind of food, no?) But for dinner, a glass of cold sake works nicely with their entire menu. They also offer shochu, beer and a small selection of wines.
Most evenings, there’s a line out the door on this street at Izakaya Mai and Himawari-Tei. The line tends to move relatively fast as ramen is not a two-hour meal, but if folks are drinking — it could be a long wait. When you arrive, make sure to sign in on the waiting list, located INSIDE the restaurant. I noticed they really do make an effort to serve in the order of arrival (i.e., if a party of eight arrived before your party of two, they will make every effort to allow four two-tops to go empty for quite awhile in order to seat the large party since they arrived first).
Service has been hit or miss at Himawari-Tei. A couple have been very pleasant despite being busy; some have really tested my patience during dinner w/ either their rudeness or ineptness. Overall, it’s basic service that usually gets your needs met. You don’t come here wanting white-glove service anyway.
Himawari-Tei is located at 202 2nd Avenue in San Mateo, CA. They are open every day of the week for lunch and dinner, and on weekdays, they serve food until 10:30 PM, with weekend closing times extending to 11:30PM, making it an ideal selection for Peninsula late-night dining.
Addictive Factor: 8.5/10
Overall Rating: 8/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.