When you first sip the rich, milky chicken broth at Kashiwa Ramen, you might think to yourself that the chef must have tasted the pork-based tonkotsu broth prevalent at all the other ramen shops in town and bet himself he could do the same thing with chicken. But the truth is there has always been this style of soup. It’s called toripaitan, and in Japan—where the tonkotsu craze has leveled off—it’s this chicken soup that has now bubbled to the top.
Paitan is simply a white broth, and here it’s made from boiling the chicken bones vigorously at high temperatures until all of its gelatin, fats and goodness surrender into the soup. But at Kashiwa, the word soup seems an inadequate description. The viscosity is closer to hand lotion. Notice how it coats the spoon, how it doesn’t so much pour as flow like hot candle wax. And as it sits exposed to cold air, you can see the surface start to congeal into film. You would be correct in guessing that if you refrigerate the leftovers, it will harden into a solid block.
Kashiwa’s soup is so nourishing it should be classified as another food group. When you sip it lava-hot, all of its flavor molecules hit every taste receptor in your mouth as if it were a pinball machine. The umami levels are off the charts. More than anything, the soup has a concentrated chicken-ness. Slurping it is equivalent to chugging an undiluted red-and-white can of Campbell’s chicken noodle. In fact, if you took a bowl of it and added an equal portion of boiling water, you will have created two bowls of a still very tasty soup.
If grandma’s chicken soup is a cure-all, Kashiwa’s is prescription strength. In fact, it may be too much for some people. At times, it can feel as though you’re drinking straight turkey gravy. Though not overly salty, you need a glass of water a quarter of your way into it—if only to the reset your mouth for the rest.
In Costa Mesa, a town that has more ramen shops than any other in the county, Kashiwa is diametrically opposed to Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai, which favors the light and clear style of broth called chintan. Whether someone will like one over the other is purely subjective. After all, even if you love pie, you will have your own opinions on which is better, apple or banana cream? The difference between the ramen styles is just as disparate.
But if you do favor these kinds of rich broths, ordering any add-ons to the soup at Kashiwa is unnecessary and a waste of money. The yolk of the soy sauce egg—here done properly such that it hovers at the oozy state between liquid and solid—is just about the last thing you’ll need. As with slathering bacon with butter, it’s overkill.
You could, by the way, opt for pork belly chashu as a topping, but the chicken chashu, which is merely slow-cooked chicken breast, is more apropos. Similar to how Chinese cooks prepare steamed chicken, Kashiwa’s chicken tastes as the bird should—it’s very poultry-forward, with nothing hidden behind breading or 11 herbs and spices.
When you order the ramen, about the only thing you are required to decide is whether you want the curly or the straight noodle. You’re also asked to choose the texture level at which it’s cooked. The curly noodle is indeed curly, but also tinted yellow. The straight noodle is somewhere between spaghetti and angel hair. Both are equally good, but you should always ask for the “medium” chewiness. At this stage, they’re soft but still firm enough to spring back elastically when you bite into it.
These noodles, however, are secondary to Kashiwa’s soup, of which there are actually three variants. There’s a spicy one, a black garlic and a spicy black garlic. None of them is as good as the unadulterated original. The addition of black garlic merely masks the chicken flavor with a bitterness that doesn’t cut down the richness. And if you want your soup spicy, you could just dribble the chile oil that’s provided at the table for free.
The other table condiments, especially the vinegar, will come in handy for the gyoza, which are constructed into flat, rectangular parcels the size of a stick of Wrigley’s gum. The shape allows these chicken and pork potstickers to be crisped on both sides in the pan. And if there’s anything that can be improved on a gyoza, it’s always the crispiness.
Another appetizer of crunchy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside chicken karaage is also excellent. It comes out in a tiny fry basket with two squirt bottle of sauces they don’t need. It also serves as confirmation that when it comes to chicken, the kitchen staff at Kashiwa—one of whom you see continuously stirring a huge pot—are alchemists.
Kashiwa Ramen, 1420 Baker St., Ste. C, Costa Mesa, (657) 232-0223; thekashiwaramen.com. Ramen, $10.50-$13.50; appetizers, $3-$5. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.