During the recession, the idea of opening a successful restaurant changed.
Instead of raising seven figure capital from investors, passionate cooks with a dish or two they loved to make figured out new ways to get them to the public–pop ups, restaurant sharing, food stands at farmers’ markets, food trucks, community kitchens. They invoked the principles of the childhood lemonade stand: set up a table on the corner but use Meyer lemons from the backyard tree and honey from neighborhood bees. Social networking got the word out and Kickstarter supplied start up cash.
Ken Ken Ramen, which opened recently on a decidedly untrendy block of 18th Street between Mission and South Van Ness embraced the do-it- yourself vibe. Started as a pop up a couple of years ago, Ken Ken quickly gathered a following. I first got an inkling of them at La Cocina’s night market last fall during its monster street food festival. At their stall Ken Ken put out takowasa, bowls of slimy, chewy, raw octopus in nasal-cavity- clearing wasabi and hot mustard sauce, a dish so authentically izakaya, that practically no one knew what hit them. Ken Ken’s was the real thing–addictive.
The brick and mortar Ken Ken Ramen is built on chef Takahiro Hori’s fresh noodles and broth, a preparation so desired, you have to get there by 6 p.m. when the place opens to avoid a wait. The chilly space is no more than a barely converted warehouse with concrete floors and an open camp kitchen on one side, and a sake and beer bar in the front. Wood slat tables and chairs, plus a bench and tables along one wall, provide ample seating. Hot tub-sized pots of broth bubble in the kitchen and vats of boiling water for the noodles send up clouds of steam. Lithe cooks with cotton print cloths tied around their heads call out ebullient hellos and goodbyes in Japanese to every single customer, allowing patrons to feel warmly if briefly embraced. The next batch of noodle eaters await their turn.
Direct contact with their community ranks high on Ken Ken’s priorities,
but nothing is more important to them than their ramen ($11), thin, curly, springy yellow noodles made from flour imported from Hokkaido, Japan. (Sapporo, Hokkaido’s biggest city is a ramen capital.) The noodles keep their bite and chew all the way to the end, especially if you slurp them down quickly like a professional ramen eater.
Every bowl of ramen comes with cha-shu, slices of buttery braised pork, nori (a thin sheet of dried seaweed), an onsen egg (slowly and barely soft cooked in soy broth to develop thick, creamy yolks and tender brown tinted whites), and assorted Asian vegetables (baby bok choy, pea sprouts, bamboo shoots).
You choose your broth. The miso, red and brown mixed, with pork and chicken stock, is rich, milky and satisfying. Look for spicy miso, if available, medium hot with well integrated chili. Cut up rather than sliced pork lends a meatier flavor to its broth. Shoyu based broth is clear but still has deep, meaty flavor without being salty. It picks up the flavor of its vegetables–pea sprouts. Vegetarians and vegans get their own broths and preparations, but meat lovers have the Wednesday-only boiled pork bone based tonkotsu broth to look forward to.
To make a bowl of ramen more than a fast food dinner, share a big, juicy seaweed salad ($5) in sweet dressing, and the daily special appetizer such as the lively, texturally varied, jellyfish salad served one Friday night, tossed with cucumber, toasted sesame seeds, and sheer, sesame-scented vinaigrette. The kitchen also produces exceptionally moist, deep fried chicken nuggets, kara-age ($4.50), coated with well seasoned batter, a thousand island dipping sauce on the side.
Draft Asahi Premium ($6) is the perfect ramen beer. I drink chilled Okunomotsu sake ($7 cup, $17 a carafe) a clean, medium bodied, junmai from Hokkaido–ramen country.
Ken Ken caters to my first rule of dining out, never pass up ice cream. They offer frozen custard, a milk based ice cream ($4), not too sweet and just creamy enough to satisfy. I can vouch for the coffee and the vanilla. The flan comes in the little glass jar in which it was baked, lined with syrupy caramel at the bottom ($5).
Currently, you can only get Ken Ken ramen four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, from 6 to 10 p.m. but there are plans afloat to open on Tuesdays for tonkotsu. Though they could fill their dining room every day and night, the source of their success is the freshness, integrity and artisanal quality of every bowl of noodles. That must be a lot of work.
3378 18th Street, San Francisco 415 967-2636 Wednesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.