A Brief History of Ramen, California Edition

Ten years ago, Hiroko and I moved to California, spending our first six years here living in the Asian food hotspots of Silicon Valley and the Peninsula (we lived in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Burlingame). There are so many great hole-in-the-wall Japanese places in that area. One of our favorite sushi places, for example, was Kitsho—not a particularly inviting place, sitting as it does next to a strip mall and behind a gas station near Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. But the sushi there was amazing. When we moved north to Burlingame, we discovered Sushi Sam’s in San Mateo. Like Kitsho, you don’t go to Sam’s for the ambiance. But when you taste his seared toro with sea salt and yuzu at the end of the omakase, you may have a transcendental experience. I did, on multiple occasions.

  Sam's seared toro.   Photo Credit: http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/sushi-sams-edomata-san-mateo#MJunWl-lTpqR4QpH0HtuKQ

Sam's seared toro.  Photo Credit: http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/sushi-sams-edomata-san-mateo#MJunWl-lTpqR4QpH0HtuKQ

When we lived on that side of the Bay, we had routine access to ramen. Some of it was really good, some not so much. But we could get it when we wanted it. There were a couple of decent places in Mountain View at the time, but San Mateo was a real mecca. Santa Ramen was always heralded as the gold standard around there, although I found it a bit salty for my taste (fortunately, by that time I’d grown more cautious about guzzling the soup) and a bit too crowded.

Our favorite was Himawari. Not because the ramen there outclassed a lot of the other ramen places in town, but because Himawari made an effort to be a better overall customer experience. It wasn’t dumpy like so many of its competitors’ spaces were. The décor was tasteful and modern, the lighting intimate, and there was always great music (usually jazz). The lines were rarely long, and we could usually sit at a comfortable table and enjoy a quick meal. It was a go-to comfort food restaurant for us. Like I said, that’s because Himawari combined quality ramen with a great holistic customer experience.

  Himawari.   Photo Credit: http://www.schubysnack.blogspot.com

Himawari.  Photo Credit: http://www.schubysnack.blogspot.com

Three years ago, we moved to the East Bay. While there is some excellent Japanese food on our new side of the Bay, in Oakland or in Berkeley, the fact is that the Japanese food scene from San Jose through San Francisco simply outclasses the East Bay, in terms of both quantity and quality. When it comes to ramen, there isn’t a whole lot. There are a couple of fancier ramen places, but they are pretty expensive and the lines are long. But we view ramen as comfort food: food that you can eat when you want at relatively low cost. We enjoy ramen the most when the barrier to eating it is low.

 

As Hiroko tells it, ramen is viewed as fast food in Japan. Not “fast food” in our typical American vernacular, usually referring to lower quality, mass produced food. Rather, fast food in the most basic sense—food that is fast to get, and fast to eat. Calling it fast food in this sense renders no judgment about the quality of the food or the way it’s produced. It simply connotes the investment of time the consumer must make to enjoy the meal. It goes without saying that the meal can still be high-quality and delicious. For us, it just shouldn’t involve making a reservation or waiting in a long line, followed by a hefty bill at the end of the meal.

  Fast Food: American Vernacular.

Fast Food: American Vernacular.

  Fast Food:  Food That Is Fast.   Photo Credit: http://www.ippudo.com/products/menu.html

Fast Food:  Food That Is Fast.  Photo Credit: http://www.ippudo.com/products/menu.html

Does that make sense?  Over the next couple of posts, I’ll explain how these observations led to the idea for Shiba Ramen.