At Ramen Underground's new izakaya in Japantown, midway through a bowl of soup, my dining companion and I wondered why we felt, well, high.
"Perhaps it's a pinch of Ecstasy," my companion mused. "No. The onset is too fast. Ecstasy takes longer to hit."
Those who already go to Ramen Underground's noodle bar in the Financial District, where lunchtime lines are an everyday occurrence, will be familiar with the ramen's level of quality.
The ramen bowls feature an ultra-savory, nongreasy, medium-bodied broth. The noodles aren't gluey in the slightest, but a perfect al dente, to which the broth clings heavily. They give off a faint seaweed perfume. I like to add a marinated hard-boiled egg and a little extra char siu pork to the bowl.
The tonkotsu, full of pork essence down to the creamy bones, with a grace-note of toasted garlic, has so much going for it, one could easily be satisfied with that alone, despite all the other temptations of the menu.
What Underground lovers perhaps won't be familiar with is the Italian twist to its other offerings. Ramen Underground's chef spent seven years cooking Italian food in Japan before he came to the United States, and a number of items show this.
The omochi gnocchi, thick batons of mochi bathed in a Parmesan-cream sauce, is utter comfort. The deep-fried cheese gyoza are akin to fried ravioli. They're filled with a creamy ricotta, the dumpling skin giving a slightly crackerlike texture around the edges. The marinara sauce for dipping has juicy chunks of tomato, sweet and spicy, with plenty of tongue-prickling heat.
Also delicious is the grilled shiitake mushroom risotto — the rice crispy at the bottom from its stone plate. The texture of the rice is a nod to Japan's taste for grains that are equal parts sticky and supple.
Everything with the word spicy in its name really is, so those intolerant of heat should beware. The habañero ramen approaches TNT levels of volatility, the edge taken off by a touch of sweetness in the broth — painful, yet still pleasurable.
Each small plate was a small world of flavor, spiked if not impregnated with umami. The pork belly, braised in shoyu and rice wine vinegar, was tender, the meat falling apart easily in my mouth with a push of the tongue.
The sunomono, which had shaved daikon that night in place of the usual cucumber, had a pleasantly bitter note from the daikon; bonito flakes gave it a subtle fragrance that rounded out its flavor profile.
On another night, the grilled mackerel was sweet and smoky, giving off its intense odor, although the flesh itself was sweet and smoky, brushed with ashy grill marks.
The avocado fry's slices of unbattered, fried avocado, with a pinch of salt, were still creamy, but had a savory, toasted note from outside caramelization — decadent and worth trying.
The servers knew the menu back to front and deftly commandeered my meals, presenting a series of small joys on the two occasions I made the effort to come to the eastern side of Japantown, notable to me mainly for its dollar stores and not much else.
But I wouldn't be surprised if the place becomes as packed as its noodle bar. It's currently easy to get a table, but I would gladly wait.
Location: 22 Peace Plaza, Suite 530 (Post Street, between Buchanan and Webster streets), S.F.
Contact: (415) 999-2509
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays and Thursdays; noon to 4 p.m. and 5 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; closed Wednesdays
Price range: $4 to $14
Recommended dishes: tonkotsu ramen ($11.95), omochi gnocchi ($8.95), braised pork belly ($5.95), grilled shiitake risotto ($9.50), grilled mackerel ($11.95), avocado fry ($5.95)
Credit cards: Cash only