Asian Food Festivals Provide L.A.’s Best Ramen

If mass Asian food events
excite you, then this is an exciting time to be in Los Angeles. Last year, a
few savvy entrepreneurs started 626 Night Market—an event meant to emulate the
traditional Asian-style food night markets that grace China and Southeast Asia—and the Ramen Yokocho festival. The events are meant to take a lot of money from the significant
number of people who worship noodles bathed in pork broth. 

The first 626 Night
Market was so successful that it ended up being a logistical nightmare, with
massive lines and food stalls running out of food long before closing time. The
experience was similar at Ramen Yokocho 2014, which was situated at the
Torrance Cultural Art Center and attracted 20,000 people over two days, which
I’m told was too much for the center. 

Since then, both 626 Night
Market and Ramen Yokocho have opted to move to Santa Anita Park with slightly
less disastrous results, even with an increase in attendance to around 30,000 at Ramen Yokocho 2014, which took place March 29-30. The lines were
predictably long, but the ramen was also predictably very good. 

If this were a music festival, Ramen Yokocho 2014’s lineup would rival Coachella’s. Almost
all of the members of LA’s ramen elite were present, including Tsujita (a
Tokyo import widely regarded as the best ramen on the West Coast), Men Oh
Tokushima, Jidaiya, Daikokuya, Fujin, Hayatemaru, and Shin-Sen-Gumi. 

Some of
LA’s best ramen versions, including those served at Santouka, Yamadaya, and JINYA
Ramen, were noticeably absent, but the event made up for it by bringing in
several foreign imports, including two from Las Vegas, one from San Jose (Shalala, for those from the Bay Area), one from San Diego (Tajima), and three
all the way from Japan (four including the imported Tsujita).

Ramen Yokocho served up
various versions of the dish, including Jidaiya’s questionable tomato-based
Mexican-Japanese fusion bowl. All the bowls I tried were delicious. (My stomach stopped cooperating around four bowls in.) 

Tsujita in particular
serves an extraordinary bowl of noodle soup, and what makes that even more
remarkable is that at the restaurant, ramen is secondary to “tsukemen,” a novelty dish where ramen noodles are served not in
broth but alongside a dipping sauce. (Note: Tsujita only serves ramen and tsukemen during lunch, and you will
almost certainly need to wait a while before being seated.)

After Tsujita, the
hierarchy of LA’s ramen offerings is a bit murky. Personally, I also enjoy
Santouka’s version—which was not available at the festival—and Daikokuya’s
traditional bowl.

The fact that this kind of
event—a bunch of restaurants serving a single dish—can result in such a crazy turnout is fairly remarkable. On one hand, ramen tastes good and it’s
not particularly surprising that it has developed a fanatical following. On the
other hand, the dish’s modern status as a Japanese culinary symbol is particularly interesting, considering that a decade ago the United States was more
concerned with “soba” noodles than

Created by Chinese immigrants about a century ago, ramen is relatively new to Japanese culture. Indeed, the dish was first referred to as “Shina soba,” or “China noodles,” before
eventually becoming known as “ramen” after the chicken-flavored instant version
became popularized in the ’60s. 

Since then, ramen has come to dominate the
Japanese noodle scene. While the amount of ramen eaten per capita is highest in
Japan and South Korea, it’s enormously popular globally, with around 95
billion servings of instant ramen eaten worldwide in 2010.

As an aside, it’s
important to eat and judge ramen correctly, or else you will be at risk of
looking painfully childish in the company of a ramen connoisseur, which practically everyone in LA is.

First, a bowl of pork ramen is called “tonkotsu” ramen, not “tonkatsu,” which instead refers to fried pork cutlet (like the
“katsu chicken” served at many Japanese restaurants). A bowl of ramen is judged based on its individual components: broth, pork (“chashu”),
boiled egg, and noodles. The broth should be flavorful (salt, soy, and smoked
pork evident), the pork should not be dry, the boiled egg should have a creamy
center, and the noodles should be appropriately chewy. 

While eating, the
noodles should be picked up with chopsticks and held up by a spoon. The noodles
and broth should then be emphatically slurped, which will theoretically cool
down the broth to an appropriate temperature. The chashu, egg, and other components can be eaten individually with a

If you want more Asian
food festivals, the Ktown Night Market will be held April 18-19 at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in LA. Alternatively, if you just like food festivals,
there will also be Taco Madness at Grand Park this Saturday, April 5.

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