I’ve been intrigued by Gardena Ramen ever since I read rameniac’s promise of “the finest shoyu ramen in L.A.” Since I tend to favor the classic shoyu ramen over any other new-fangled choices, I couldn’t wait to try it. When I finally had some time to head up to Torrance (yes, it’s Gardena Ramen, but in Torrance), I was as giddy as a school girl on a first date (Ok, maybe more like a school boy, but school boys don’t get giddy…do they?).
The non-descript strip mall that held the path to ramen nirvana was anchored by a 99-cent Store and had an almost empty parking lot. I looked at my watch: 12:30pm, peak lunch time…hmm…not a good sign.
As my wife and I entered the spartan ramen house, my wife pointed out the coffee-shop chairs. “Cute,” she commented. And that, and the U2 song playing in the background is about it as far as ambience. As we were seated, we looked around and saw the hand-written menu taped to the wall in various places. In English and Japanese, “shoyu ramen,” “miso ramen,” and “gyoza” were our choices.
When the ramen arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the scarcity of toppings: green onions, shinachiku, two slices of pork, and half a hard-boiled egg. For a ramen purist like me, that’s all you need. I immediately took a sip of the soup, being careful not to accidently sip any onion pieces. A silky warmth lingered on my tongue and rolled down my throat. “Wow,” I whispered, “that’s nice and rich.” I took in a mouthful of the skinny yellow noodles. The noodles were just the right al dente texture, but weren’t particularly memorable. Slurping (and yes, this is the kind of good ramen you must slurp) a spoonful of the noodles with green onions and soup brought back vivid memories of any number of ramenyas in Japan. I slowly savored more of the soup, letting the complex and well balanced flavors dance on my tongue. Unlike many of the shoyu pretenders out there, Nakamura-san’s creation has very distinct “meaty” components to his broth; the soup is more than just shoyu and MSG…the chicken and pork stock mix with the shoyu and other ingredients to result in something more like a richer version of tonkotsu broth. With or without ramen, I could drink the soup for days.
Lest I end up only praising the soup, the toppings were only adequate. The hard boiled egg is just that, and the shinachiku doesn’t quite have the slight crunchiness I like. The chashu is decent, with a hint of fattiness. But the chasu here simply can’t compete with the top-grade melt-in-your-mouth Kurobuta pork used by some of the competing ramen houses. The gyoza was decent, with slightly thicker skin than usual and just enough garlic and flavor to satisfy, but they seem more like an afterthought compared to the ramen.
I’ve said before that Ebisu Mendokoro has the best shoyu ramen in Orange County. Gardena Ramen now wears that crown. While Ebisu’s noodles are still better than Gardena Ramen’s (at least in Ebisu’s golden days…Ebisu seems to have gone downhill lately…but that’s for another story), Gardena’s soup has a definite edge.
As we happily enjoyed the ramen, the place gradually filled up with mostly Japanese businessmen, quietly reading a newspaper or magazine or slurping away. This is not the place to go if you want trendy ambience. But if you’re a ramen lover, or you simply want to know what an authentically good bowl of shoyu ramen tastes like, you can’t go wrong. Look past the bare decor, the strip mall setting, the hand-written signs that make you think the restaurant was only opened 2 days ago, and might only be around for another 2 days. Grab some cash, “because Nakamura-san doesn’t take Visa, or MasterCard, or American Express,” and run, don’t walk to Gardena Ramen.
I have nothing but respect for Nakamura-san, toiling away in the kitchen, constantly improving his soup and simmering it for days. Gardena Ramen gets an 8.5 (8 for the ramen, .5 for being the local “one-man-show” of ramenyas)