Ramen Yamadaya's tonkotsu ramen is the closest thing to melting a whole pig into a bowl. The broth is so thick and so rich the viscosity is closer to 10W-30 motor oil than soup. Nothing in the ramen-rich kingdom of Costa Mesa quite prepares you for the potage the most recent import from LA pours—not Daikokuya's comparatively lightweight bowls, not Kohryu's scorched scallion-flecked beauties, not even Santouka's venerable but always-too-salty brews. Compared to Yamadaya's broth, all other tonkotsu-style soups seem as filling as Gatorade. On the one-page menu, Ramen Yamadaya's hog concentrate is advertised as being cooked for 20 hours. Believe it. After the lengthy simmer unlocks the collagen and extracts all of the essence and every molecule of flavor from pig bones, the result is a soup so weighty that if the noodles, egg and slices of roasted pork were taken away, the liquid alone would still constitute a heavy meal.
It's wise to tuck a napkin over your shirt before slurping, as splatter from this caramel-hued, milky broth will leave oil stains. Even the standard bowl of tonkotsu is imbued with the unmistakable shimmer of melted pig blubber: just a spoonful's sip contains the salty richness of a bacon slice and coats the tongue like a shot of straight cream—umami overload. And if you get the kotteri, which should only be attempted after your physician issues you a clean bill of health, you'll see a floating, glimmering stratum of fat purposefully ladled on top as if it were liquid frosting. The kakuni ramen—the porkiest one of all—comes with a deli's case of falling-apart, stewed belly as thick a 2-by-4 spanning the entire diameter of the bowl. By comparison, the paigu ramen seems sane. That one has its pork served on a separate plate, this time as a crispy, battered, deep-fried pork chop that actually refreshes your palate after the ultra-dense slurps of soup.
Yamadaya also offers a soy sauce or spicy version of the broth. The latter has a dollop of chili oil deposited into the bowl; when you mix it in (since it's so thick), the dish looks like a doppelganger for Malaysian laksa. It's safe to go at least two degrees hotter than you think you can handle, especially if you've tried the first level at Little Tokyo's Orochon Ramen and thought it wasn't hot enough. The sheer richness of this broth seems to blunt the blow of spice.
If you're not into the thin egg noodles that are the de facto starch for such soup bowls, you can ask for a thicker noodle. The thinner strands don't have the playfulness of Santouka's chewier stock or the permed crinkle of Shinsengumi's noodles. And at times, the young kitchen has a tendency to overcook them. But the ramen is really about the soup. To fully appreciate the noodles, eat them by themselves in a dish called tsukemen. Here, Yamadaya's thickest and chewiest are served cold and naked, ready to be dipped in an intensely reduced pork-and-fish broth before slurping. The tsukemen is perhaps the lightest meal to be had here—one of a few dishes that doesn't leave you feeling as though you drank the equivalent of three Grand Slam Breakfasts' worth of pork.
Those who aren't ramen- or pork-inclined can find refuge in bento boxes that offer a decent but slightly greasy chicken karaage, a passable mabo tofu, or even curry. Regardless of your meal choice, you need to order the gzoyas. They're luscious things, with the noodle wrapping so moist and pliant it tastes homemade. One evening, the blackboard advertised a greaseless potato croquette, and off the permanent menu, the takoyaki has the requisite crispy crust and palate-scalding custard center, despite being deep-fried from presumably pre-prepared frozen orbs.
But let no other dish distract you from the ramen bowl. You'll want to eat this soup quickly while it scalds at the temperature of lava. Let it cool even slightly, and a protein film will form. After you've Hoovered noodles and gobbled up the soft-boiled egg, its yolk beautifully set just shy of solid, you discover the piggy perfume has clung onto your clothes and the hair inside your snout and pork-possessed your soul.
This review appeared in print as “Oink Noodle: Ramen Yamadaya's first OC restaurant simmers the piggiest soup in Costa Mesa.”
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.