In recent years, the Los Angeles ramen scene has been dominated by rich pork broth. And while the wonders of Sawtelle mainstay Tsujita are undeniable, there’s a large amount of less impressive tonkotsu all over the city.
“It’s just so oversaturated with tonkotsu,” said Sandy Han, who runs the new Saikai Ramen Bar in Koreatown with her husband, Jimin Kim.
"I believe this is the time to put some new essence in the ramen industry,” echoed chef Hiro Masato of Iki Ramen, also in Koreatown.
So Iki and Saikai are battling the tyranny of tonkotsu specialists and celebrating the glories of being ramen generalists. In doing this, the two restaurants are showing their city what the future of ramen can and should be. And it's in Koreatown.
Both Iki and Saikai serve housemade tonkotsu broth, but they also do so much more. Iki makes yuzu shio ramen with a lighter chicken broth, tai snapper ramen, and wagyu ramen. The restaurant recently added Impossible ramen and has served tofu-laden vegan ramen that Masato might put back on the menu soon.
At Saikai, “We try to make the broth unique to us, so we can stand out,” Han said. “We have a broth for each category: vegan, chicken, pork, and beef. What we want to do is execute each broth to our style, to what we really love. For instance, our chicken ramen is in between a paitan and a chintan. It’s not exactly super creamy and thick, but it’s almost there.”
Han and Kim are Korean-Angelenos, and their beef ramen is a multicultural revelation. It’s a riff on gyukotsu, a beef-bone ramen from Japan’s Tottori prefecture. Koreatown residents have noticed that the bone-marrow broth also has a lot in common with seolleongtang, a Korean beef-bone soup. And the short-rib meat atop the ramen is seasoned like bulgogi. A toasted chile de arbol, which you can break apart for a pleasant jolt of heat and smokiness, is another surprising element.
Make no mistake: Saikai is creating ramen that requires the same kind of time and care as what you’ll find in the best Japanese-owned ramen shops. Saikai’s gyukotsu broth takes 30 hours, and the short-rib meat that comes with it is cooked sous-vide for 72 hours. The broth for Saikai’s shoyu tonkotsu ramen takes 24 hours. The chicken broth takes 16 hours.
Saikai also serves mazemen, which is a brothless ramen. An appetizer of corn fritters at Saikai is inspired by how Han “grew up eating corn off the street” in L.A. The fritters with cotija, crema, jalapeños, onions, and cilantro have the flavors of street-stand elotes, but they’re also a nod to the Indonesian corn fritters that Han’s Indonesian sister-in-law makes for her family.
You'll also find potato croquettes that would pass muster at popular Cuban bakery Porto’s, but these croquettes come with katsu sauce on the side. Crab has been in season recently, so Saikai is also putting crab into croquettes.
Iki also deftly expands on the idea of what a ramen restaurant can be. “I’m Japanese, but this restaurant was definitely born in L.A.,” Masato said.
The most Japanese thing about Iki might be its desire to experiment with different ramens.
“I came from the sushi industry, and sushi is more strict,” Masato said. “But ramen-wise, in Japan, it’s like freestyle there. They do whatever they want. Personally, I need to be loose in some way to do something.”
Iki was co-founded by Masato and three Indonesian partners: Jeffry Undiarto (the general manager and wine director at kaiseki destination n/naka), Sabastian Karyadi (who owns Ramen Nagomi in New Jersey), and Andy Juliady (who is a seafood supplier). Iki serves mazemen topped with uni. It has izakaya food that’s perfect for pairing with beer, wine, or sake. You can order gyoza, hand rolls, rice bowls, and a dish that combines fresh burrata with salmon. (Yes, it’s fine to mix cheese and seafood.) Housemade shio koji ice cream is a great dessert option. Iki even offers a $70 tasting menu that has included dishes like Hokkaido scallops with uni, shiitake mushrooms, and a truffle-butter dashi sauce.
The crowd at Iki on a recent Wednesday evening made us wonder if we were at a sneaker drop on Fairfax Avenue instead of a strip mall in Koreatown. Given all the streetwear and scenester-chic jewelry in the room, the diverse guests might as well have been Post Malone’s entourage alongside the cast of Insecure. There was a table of four stylish guests who all ordered hand rolls and ramen before discussing whether they should blow off their 10 p.m. reservation at the Chateau Marmont patio. There were the kind of food-loving Koreatown cool kids who fondly remember when Tacos 1986 had a street stand in the neighborhood. Any restaurant in Silver Lake or Venice would love to have the energy that was at Iki on this random Wednesday.
Han and Kim, who previously ran The Ramen Joint in Westchester near the LAX airport, also have a following that spans a wide swath of L.A. But one thing that’s been especially fun in Koreatown is seeing locals at Saikai discover that there’s something Korean about what they’re eating.
“The people who realize that we’re swapping out something or changing techniques are Korean,” Han said. “They’ll be like, ‘There’s gochugaru in this.’ It’s something familiar for them. They’ll ask if the chef is Korean after they eat. Swapping out a Japanese ingredient with a Korean ingredient is something Jimin wanted to do. It’s really personal. It’s about his palate.”
It’s also about having the freedom to play around when you’re cooking something from scratch.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of tonkotsu at other L.A. ramen shops that’s made with a concentrated soup base. (Han has even noticed restaurants putting fillers like soy milk or milk into broth to make it look more rich.) It’s no surprise that a lot of tonkotsu tastes the same. Saikai and Iki, which has a popular burnt garlic tonkotsu ramen with a 12-hour broth, are clearly all about serving ramen that tastes different.
“I think it’s a good time to rearrange the ramen industry,” Masato said. “Like I said, it’s freestyle. Whatever you want to combine, you can combine. When people look at me, they go, ‘Oh, you’re Japanese.’ But for me, I’m just one of the guys in L.A. At Iki Ramen, we want to show what L.A. can do.”
Saikai Ramen Bar, 209 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles, 323-378-6518
Iki Ramen, 740 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, 424-335-7749