Ajisen Ramen started out in the late 1960′s as a ramenya in Kumamoto, Japan, serving “Kumamoto Tonkotsu” ramen, a tonkotsu ramen served with a garlic and onion brown sauce. Since their humble beginnings, they’ve expanded to more than 300 stores worldwide and their Chinese joint venture even trades as a public company on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
I have to admit I’m biased against Ajisen Ramen…they’re a franchise chain, and my years-ago first experience with Ajisen Ramen in Shanghai didn’t exactly make me jump for joy. Ok, I actually thought it was horrible. On the plus side, though, I found their decor to be elegant, and I was charmed by the winking mascot (who also has a cartoon series and is apparently fond of throwing cleavers). Of course, nice decor and cute mascots can’t make up for subpar ramen. When I heard that Ajisen’s Irvine branch finally opened this week, I approached the news with something akin to morbid curiosity.
Ajisen’s most popular dish seems to be their Paiku Ramen (“Tender Pork Ribs” ramen), but I decided to start my day off with the namesake Ajisen Ramen. One thing I noticed while seated at the counter: all the servers scurried about at a “gotta get to where I’m going” pace. If you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, where even the elevators and escalators are sped up, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, the servers were all extremely friendly and professional. But I felt just a bit compelled to order, eat my ramen, and leave as quickly as possible.
When I got my ramen, I was a bit dismayed: the chashu slices looked like miniature versions of what I saw pictured on the menu. With so many strikes so far, I was still determined to keep an open mind, and I took my first sip of the soup…it was good! Now, it wasn’t mindblowingly good, but still, it was good. The Ajisen web site claims that the tonkotsu soup is cooked for over 10 hours to give it a rich and deep taste. Well…not quite. The soup was a bit on the light side, but the mild garlic flavor and creaminess blended well.
The noodles were a bit thicker than the thin noodles I typically associate with tonkotsu ramen, and also not as hard. While Kumamoto ramen is supposed to have slightly softer noodles, I couldn’t help but wish they were a bit more chewy. The softer noodles did contrast well with the crunchy cabbage and the result tones down the overall flavor even more. A variety of other toppings… negi, wakame seaweed, half a hard boiled egg, and chashu round out the ramen. The hard boiled egg was disappointingly hard boiled, and it tasted like the marinade consisted of one ingredient: soy sauce. I’d heard good things about the chashu, but was slightly disappointed to find that it wasn’t particularly fatty. The chashu had browned edges, and was slightly sweet and carmelized. It reminded me more of the kind of chashu you’d find in Chinese cooking (which does tend to have a harder texture and a sweeter taste) than in Japanese ramen.
Overall, I found Ajisen Ramen to be “good enough.” If you’re a hardcore ramen fanatic, looking for that genuine Japanese Ramen, you might want to keep looking. But if you’re new to ramenyas, or you want to try a lighter tasting ramen, you should give Ajisen a try. Ajisen rates a 6 out of 10 in my book.
Bonus: Ajisen commercials
2700 Alton Pkwy, suite 145
Irvine, CA 92606
Sun-Thurs: 11am to 10pm
Fri & Sat: 11am to 11pm