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The Tale of Three Bowls

A comparative review of three ramen meals and the circumstances surrounding them

Disclaimer: I am no expert in ramen, though I will dare to speak authoritatively on the subject matter. Also, this piece has no point or catharsis in store for you, but these memories will always be dear to me.

Method and Materials: At each restaurant, I ordered the standard tonkotsu broth, mild spicy if offered, with a flavored egg and firm noodles.

Figures: The first photo in each section was produced by the restaurant, and the second was taken by me at the time of consumption.

Ramen Nagi, Palo Alto

On a very warm Monday, I stood in a line that snaked back and forth along a Palo Alto sidewalk, a line that probably only existed to augment the sense of exclusivity. I was there with two coworkers, and we stood there shading our eyes from the sun, feeling silly for our long-sleeved clothing. While we waited, we obligingly asked and listened about each other’s weekends.

When we had inched close enough to make it inside the restaurant door, we were counted and ushered to the comfy faux leather seats in the waiting area. A young waited held up a colored menu and explained the self-explanatory options to us with the sincerity and seriousness of a skydiving instructor. I was momentarily turned off by the fact that they offer a bacon and basil option, but tried to focus on being as objective as possible.

We were handed half-sheets of paper to order, and I chose the Original King. We had our food within ten minutes, and the three of us greedily slurped down our bowls, some of us using the plastic bibs they offered to protect our work clothing.

The broth was creamy, as it should be, but it lacked flavor — had it not been simmered overnight? The noodles were pleasantly firm. The flavored egg was brought out later in a separate bowl and was slightly undercooked. The real downfall of Ramen Nagi in my book, however, was the pork. When I pulled the first piece out, I realized it had an ever-so-slight green metallic sheen, indicating a lack of freshness. Taking a hesitant bite, I was disappointed by the tough texture and the lack of flavor — this pork was not correctly braised.

Overall, the meal was as lackluster as the experience around it, and as we headed back to the office, we chattered away, unlikely to remember our conversation the next day.

Ippudo, San Francisco

I was in the city for a series of job interviews, and between meetings, I needed to find a hearty meal for both physical and emotional sustenance. I was anxious, unsure of how I had been doing so far and extremely unsure of how the rest of the day was going to go. I saw Ippudo from across the street and could hear the siren call.

I was dining alone, so they seated me at a long table with several parties. In the center of the table was an art piece made out of driftwood, and the restaurant was designed to feel like a beech forest haven.

My shiromaru classic was out within a few minutes, and I set my glasses on the table, took a sip of water, and with great intention took my first perfectly proportioned bite: noodles and broth in my spoon followed quickly with some pork.

The broth was extremely well done, and even discernible from the picture below, the slices of pork were bursting with flavor. Also, any restaurant that offers quail eggs instead of chicken eggs earns instant bonus points.

As I ate in silence, I closed my eyes and tried to savor each bite, listening in on the conversation to the right. Two older women rambled and repeated themselves, and I felt as though they were saying words, but not really communicating. Perhaps as you get older, all you really need in a friend is company, not conversation.

To my left, two women barely older than me fawned over an infant, and when I turned in their direction, the baby smiled momentarily (I’d like to think) at me.

I filled another spoon and thought about what I was doing the city, thought about how I’m interviewing for a new job and sat in the feelings of confusion, self-doubt, excitement, guilt, and anticipation that come with the process.

Nearing the end of my meal, I focused on my food and sought comfort in the crunch of the kikurage mushrooms atop the bowl. Summed simply, the day was complex, and the food soothing.

Ramen Dojo, San Mateo

Last but certainly not least, Ramen Dojo. My brother, Mackhai, and his girlfriend, Alyssa, had been spending the weekend with me and this was our last meal before I dropped them off to catch BART back to Berkeley.

We were eating at an odd hour and we lounged outside, chatting about this and that. They’re both intentional conversationalists, and at this point, I was running out of things to say and to ask. We’ve left few stones unturned at this point, and I wonder what we’ll talk about the next weekend we spend together.

Once seated, I ordered the pork flavor, and the bowls came out pouring garlic-scented perfume. I nudged the whole cloves aside, and readied my first bite. Here, the details are important. A few noodles, one green chive, broth. I followed the spoonful by eating an eighth of the flavored egg and finally, the pork. It melted against my tongue.

The broth was not as creamy as traditional tonkotsu broth is meant to be, though to be fair, I think the restaurant calls it garlic pork for that reason. Otherwise, this was by far my favorite ramen out of the three.

As we eat, I mentioned that my sister and her significant other have already discussed marriage (though briefly), and Mackhai and Alyssa looked at each other slyly. One of them asked why they shouldn’t talk about marriage so early in a relationship, and I realized suddenly, and much too slowly, that they’ve been having the conversation for weeks.

I summoned my wise-older-sister voice and explained that talking about marriage often stirs up images of a picturesque wedding day and that humans are visual creatures. Once we have an idea of what getting married looks like, we won’t be able to shake the image. We work towards that “milestone” of a wedding day, and perhaps even more than we are visual, we are goal-oriented.

But marriage really isn’t about the wedding day, is it? It’s about every day that follows, and the first day is so wholly unreflective of the realities that settle in. And though marriage is wonderful, discussing it too soon is like making a broth and pulling it off the stove before it’s ready. Sure, you’ve technically finished cooking and you can definitely still drink it, but you’ll soon find that it falls short and lacks the depth and breadth it should have.

I wrapped up my point, satisfied that they seemed to understand my reasoning and hoped they would take a break from discussing or referencing marriage for at least another year. We finished eating, and my brother drank the soup left in Alyssa’s bowl. We drove to the station, and I hugged both of them.

I drove home in silence and thought about the richness of the meal, thought about the people I love and how I love being in their presence. Maybe next time my sister is in town, I’ll take her there.