One fine Saturday morning, as we discussed our plans for the weekend, my wife suddenly declared that “today’s ramen day! You’re going to eat nothing but ramen today!” Wait, what? Did I win the lotto? Am I dreaming? I guess all my recent whining about wanting to try some new ramen shops paid off. Of course, my wife’s support of my ramen habit doesn’t stop her from looking over my shoulder as I write and making fun of me. “Dear Diary,” she narrates, “Today I met some cute ramen shops. They’re so dreamy, but they don’t know I exist. How do I get them to notice me?” (insert screeching sound of needle being pulled off of a record here.)…
Ramen Mottainai, a little ramen shop hidden (there isn’t even a kanban (store sign) yet) in the back corner of a Marukai plaza in Gardena, opened in July, and was immediately descended upon by prominent foodies. Encouraged by all the positive reviews, we bravely left the Orange Curtain and ventured into scary, mysterious L.A. county.
“Mottainai” means “what a waste/shame,” and Ramen Mottainai’s menu has a full story about Mount Mottainai, neighboring Mount Zeitaku (“luxury mountain”), fruits and trash, and…well…frankly, the story gave me the impression that I’d be eating leftovers or something, which is not true at all. But then I should be sticking to ramen reviews, not story critiques. Onwards!
After a short wait outside, we were seated at the bar. Mottainai offers 3 different ramen: Tokyo Props (shoyu), Yokohama Freaker (tonkotsu/shoyu), and Sapporo Lover (miso). While I’ve heard great things about their Sapporo Lover, the Yokohama Freaker also sounded tempting. Which to choose…which to choose? To our delight, Mottainai offers tastings of their ramen broths! Not wanting to take too much advantage of their very busy waitstaff, we asked for tastings of the tonkotsu/shoyu and miso, leaving the shoyu for next time. After deciding that the tonkotsu/shoyu was a bit lacking in depth, we opted for a bowl of Sapporo Lover ramen, and a white “magic bomb.” I really wanted to try either their gyoza or their hanjuku egg, and was shut out of both. “Sold out” (only 20 servings a day?!?) and “for dinner only.” Argh.
What the heck is a “magic bomb”? Mottainai offers 2 “magic bombs,” which are basically small ice cream-shaped scoops of flavoring that you can add to your ramen. There’s the “red bomb,” a spicy chili paste, and the awesome-sounding “white bomb”: “pork back fat with garlic.”
The piping hot miso ramen, which takes a while to prepare (more on this later), comes with basic toppings: menma, moyashi, some small chunks of chashu, minced pork, and lots of green onions. The thickly sliced menma are crunchy and tasty, and the chashu chunks are hit-or-miss. A few chunks were more fatty and flavorful, but most were on the lean side. The chashu was tasty, but not stellar. The noodles were just a tad thicker than your run-of-the-mill generic ramen noodles, and very slippery and chewy. They had a great texture, but had trouble gripping the soup. My wife noted that the noodles reminded her of Chinese “oil noodles.”
The real star of the Sapporo Lover was the soup. Each bowl of miso is individually charred. If you watch the chef, you’ll occasionally see flames leaping from his wok as he prepares this dish. That charred miso gave the soup an incredibly complex depth and flavor. Think charred sauteed onions, the interplay between bitter and caramelized flavors. For someone like me who usually puts miso ramen below shoyu, tonkotsu, and shio, it was a revelation.
When I got the white bomb, I bit off a small chunk before putting it in my soup. It was likely eating a chunk of lard with garlic mixed in. Dissolving a third of the white bomb in the soup (make sure you do it while your soup is still hot) gave it an even richer, porkier flavor, but it distracted from the flavorful miso. Dissolving another third resulted in a still tasty soup, but I preferred the purer miso pre-bombing. Perhaps the red bomb would’ve been more appropriate. Then again, I finished every drop of the soup.
Ramen Mottainai is a welcome addition to the L.A. ramen scene. They’re reportedly in the process of making their own noodles, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of effect that’ll have on an already good ramen. Mottainai’s Sapporo Lover gets a 7.5 out of 10.
Mon, Wed-Sun: 11am-3pm
Mon, Wed-Sun: 5:30pm-10:30pm