Tacos will always hold a special place in our hearts, but there’s no denying that Los Angeles has found itself in a steamy love affair with ramen. LA’s monopoly on the Japanese soup continues to expand, with game-changing chefs all over the city offering their own interpretations. A few wintery nights and some much-appreciated rain have officially ushered in ramen season, but the truth is, there are hungry crowds clustered outside of ramen shops even in 90 degree weather. We’re addicted, and not just because a good bowl of ramen is a comforting, soul-warming, nap-inducing rollercoaster of satisfying flavor, but because it straddles the line between traditional and experimental, appealing to the foodies who fall on either side. Daikokuya vs Ramen Hood
The LA food scene has a soft spot for artisanal anything, and there’s an unspoken appreciation for the years of expertise and ritual poured into each bowl of traditional ramen. But has also proved enticing for the other half of the food movement: the chefs that thrive on creative experimentation and play with classic recipes in order to breathe new life into them. Within a few blocks in DTLA, you can find mind-blowing ramen at an ancient hole in the wall right next to an intriguing new restaurant paying homage to the rules of ramen while throwing out the rulebook entirely. There is something to be said for the beauty of remaining untouchably traditional in an age of arbitrary experimentation. But there is also something to be said about the importance of continued innovation. With food, as with everything in life, it is important to refresh, to update, to let ideas run freely and wild.
Our relationship with ramen is forging a new food frontier, with Grand Central Market’s vegan hot spot Ramen Hood and Little Tokyo’s crowd-pleaser Daikokuya emerging as key players. Each represents a side of the movement, and each is serving up a damn good bowl of ramen, in their own way.
Daikokuya, a tiny cash-only lunch counter on the main drag of Little Tokyo, has been the classic choice for ramen for over a decade, and has gained a well-deserved cult following to show for it. Day or night, rain or shine, people loiter outside the white-curtained doorway, waiting to be seated at the long metal counter or in one of the few diner booths lining the left side. Inside, it’s warm and lively, with people of all ages talking loudly over the sound of clanging metal pots and old Japanese pop music from the 60’s. Daikokuya is open every weekday until midnight, and until 1 AM on weekends, and it’s packed to the brim even at 10:30 PM on a Sunday. There are faded vintage posters covering the walls, and the ambiance is blissfully unpretentious, unconcerned with trendiness.
People are not here because it’s cute. They are not here to Instagram. They are here to eat. It feels the way a secret spot should, uncomplicated and caught in time, the kind of place you can slip into and hide out from the world for a couple hours. The waiters are quick and friendly, experts in the art of the graceful hustle. They serve cheap Japanese beers on tap, which I highly recommend: there’s nothing that offsets ramen like an Asahi in a frosted mug (or pitcher, if it’s that kind of night). The no frills menu offers an impressive variety of appetizers including gyoza, fried rice bowls, and sushi, but that’s not what you are here for. You come to Daikukoya for the ramen. They offer two varieties: Daikoku and Spicy Miso, and both are almost flawlessly good, but the ramen that made them famous is the Daikoku.
It’s a pork-based Tonkotsu broth with a mountain of egg noodles, thick slices of chashu pork, piles of bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, a sprinkle of green onions, and a soft-boiled egg blanketed in soy sauce floating on top. And it does not disappoint. In fact, it’s love at first sip. The steaming broth is rich and buttery, the chewy noodles saturated with meaty flavor. The pork slices melt in your mouth, so tender that they fall apart when you poke them with your chopsticks.
It goes without saying that you stop talking when the ramen arrives, instead focusing entirely on slurping and swallowing. It goes without saying that you will finish the bowl and drink the rest of the broth too, and then probably have to unbutton your pants. It’s worth it. You can feel the years of history that went into this ramen. You can feel each ingredient playing its part, seamlessly merging to create the complex flavor. You feel, for a moment, hunched over the thick, steaming broth, like you are lost in time, lost in the simple, ageless satisfaction of comfort food.
Location: 327 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA
Hours of Operation: Monday – Thursday 11 AM – Midnight
Friday – Saturday: 11 AM – 1 AM
Sunday: 11 AM – 11 PM
Ramen Hood is an all-vegan ramen counter tucked into the middle of the mouthwatering food mecca that is DTLA’s Grand Central Market. It’s been open for a little over a year, yet continues to generate rave reviews and celebrity levels of buzz from vegans and non-vegans alike. This is largely due to how good their ramen is, but also the creativity of their menu and their willingness to get weird in order to match the look and taste pork-based ramen with an appealing animal-free counterpart.
The typically crowded ramen stall is a riff on a traditional ramen counter, with touches of upgraded style: the chefs are young guys wearing denim aprons and wielding blowtorches, the background music is rap, and almost everyone is taking a picture of their soup before eating it (myself included). The vibe is friendly and relaxed, and everyone behind the counter is more than happy to wax poetic about everything from fresh ingredients to carbon emissions. There is also an undeniable ripple of experimentation among both parties: customers are giddy to put the vegan ramen to the test, and when one of the guys behind the counter mentions a new sauce he created while messing around with leftover noodles, his coworkers enthusiastically tell him to put it on the menu. Ramen Hood seems to see vegan ramen as a stepping stone towards a new age of vegan acceptance, and they’re open and willing to explore all possibilities.
There are quite a few intriguing all-vegan appetizers on the menu, such as the Banh Mi Poutine, which was cheesy (bless Daiya cheese) and decadent, with a satisfying kick of spice. But we are here to talk about the ramen – the OG Ramen to be exact, although there is a spicy variety available as well. To tell you the truth, I was skeptical about vegan ramen going into this experiment. I just wasn’t sure it would be able to stack up to the taste and comfort of my beloved pork-based ramen. But I can honestly say that as I was eating it, I had to keep reminding myself that it was vegan. It was that authentic and that distractingly delicious. It may not pack the meaty powerhouse punch of the Daikoku, but the flavor is so complex and interesting (not to mention tasty), that I didn’t miss the meat at all.
The broth, which is made from the umami of kelp and mushrooms mixed with the meat of sunflower seeds, is earthy and nutty, yet light and creamy. My vegetarian roommate loved it from the first bite, and I must admit it grew on me over the course of the bowl, even though it wasn’t as thick as I wanted it to be. The noodles are curly and chewy, almost al dente, and a generous helping of nori, scallions, and chili threads helps maximize the flavor. They use silver-doller-sized circles of seared mushroom in the place of the slices of pork chashu, and although I appreciated the visual similarities, there is just no way to make a mushroom melt in your mouth the way pork does. That being said, they are a nice addition to the bowl. The real star is the egg, which is shockingly realistic. It is a flawlessly constructed creation made from seasoned soy milk, nutritional yeast, B vitamins, and beta-carotene that perfectly replicates the floating half-egg found in ramen. The unusual ingredients make it way more fun to eat than your normal egg, as you try to figure out, bite by bite, how they recreated it. And that is part of the appeal of Ramen Hood: breaking down the flavors, playing detective, figuring out the ways in which they both mimic and move away from the traditional ramen recipe.
In our changing world, where it is impossible not to recognize both our impact on the planet and the benefits of going vegan, Ramen Hood’s unique spin on Tonkotsu ramen is a deliciously convincing argument. It shows us that we can enjoy vegan versions of our favorite foods without sacrificing the flavor or breaking the bank. You may not need to unbutton your pants afterward, but I guarantee you will leave feeling satisfied.
Location: 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA
Hours of Operation: Monday – Wednesday & Sunday: 11 AM – 3:30 PM
Thursday – Saturday 11 AM – 3:30 PM, 6 PM – 10 PM