In the big wide world of comfort food, ramen ranks near the top, which may be why the search for, and debate about, the best bowl of Japanese noodles in broth has become such an obsession in both Japan and the Bay Area.
Not immune to the fever, I have slurped down many myself, but I have to say that the new little Ramen Dojo in San Mateo, located in the old Santa Ramen location, has grabbed hold of me and wrestled me to the ground. I am a victim of Dojo’s “bitter pork broth ramen.”
This tonkotsu is my favorite broth of the three offered — a creamy, full-bodied, actually not the least bitter pork broth with deep roasted garlic flavor that caresses all the other stuff in the bowl.
That includes slices of tender, fat-striated, garlic-rubbed roasted pork; a sheaf of bright green Chinese chives cut into exact lengths; wood-ear mushrooms called kikuage cut into strips; threads of red pepper; a pliant quail egg; one big leaf of curly lettuce, a spoonful of “chicken gravy” (which is like a Japanese bolognese made of coarsely ground chicken, shiitakes and ginger); soft, golden brown cloves of roasted garlic; and a small splash of sesame chile oil.
And, of course, noodles. The ramen: thickish, squarish, elastic noodles that are excitingly chewy at first, less so as they continue cooking in the hot, rich broth, which is why I like to wolf the whole bowl down as fast as I can. (Actually everyone wolfs, which makes the no reservations policy in this small dining room work.)
This very combination of ingredients is sensually complete. You can add an extra this or that, but the proportions of the standard Dojo ramen bowl are a work of genius.
There are two other broths. Simple shoyu or soy sauce broth is translucent, cleaner, not as robust, with an underpinning of smokiness that brings all the lovely ingredients in the bowl forward.
Soy bean or miso broth tastes almost winey — miso is, after all a fermented food — thicker in texture and more cloudy than the pork broth, but less garlicky.
When ordering you choose a broth and a level of spiciness. For me, “mild spicy” creates the best balance but still plays homage to the gritty spirit of this place.
“Regular spicy” delivers a noticeable wallop of heat to which a slurper adjusts by the end of the bowl. “Extra spicy” is for macho chile heads.
“Non spicy” — well, why bother?
The kitchen makes a few other dishes which are well worth ordering, especially a little saucer of fresh, fluorescent green seaweed salad ($2.75), dotted with sesame seeds, charmingly sweet and tart, and tender gyoza (2.50), steamed, loosely filled pork dumplings with tender wrappers, served in a bowl and dressed with vinegary soy broth and grated daikon.
If you’ve ever encountered the calorie-rich stews formulated to maintain the weight of gargantuan sumo wrestlers, who live, cook, eat and workout in a dojo, you won’t be surprised by how full you’ll be if you empty your bowl.
Dojo’s ramen are the double whoppers, fries and a shake of Japanese noodles — “stamina ramen” — and Ramen Dojo is the first such place in the Bay Area devoted to them.
If you aren’t planning to join a dojo yourself, plan your stamina ramen eating day accordingly.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 805 South B St., San Mateo
Contact: (650) 401-6568
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Sundays
Price range: $2.75 to $8.95
Recommended dishes: Ramen, seaweed salad, gyoza, fried bean curd with shrimp
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Reservations: Not accepted