Oh ramen… It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles for college did I finally discover that ラーメン is so much more than Cup ‘O Noodles or Nong Shim shin cups. There was shio (salt) ramen, shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, and of course our favorite – tonkotsu (pork-based) ramen. With a rich broth enriched by the fat and collagen in pork bones, there’s nothing quite like a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen on a cold rainy day (or even on a hot summer’s day) to really make my insides feel warm and fuzzy. Martin and I have been known to stand on the sidewalk of 1st Street in hour-long waits for Daikokuya, but this time, we were in the mood for something a bit different. Cue, Shin-Sen-Gumi.
Hakata ramen is traditionally a pork-based broth served with thin, pale white noodles, chashu (roasted pork slices), negi (green onions), and benishoga (red pickled ginger). Two relatively unique concepts make Shin-Sen-Gumi stand out among the other ramen shops — 1) you use an order form where you can check off your desired broth strength, noodle texture, and amount of oil, and 2) you can purchase any variety of the 30 available regular and special toppings to really customize your bowl. Add in the fact that Shin-Sen-Gumi offers kaedama (that is, the purchase of extra noodles) and we have a winning combination!
It will be difficult, but definitely narrow down your toppings to just a few or the price of a standard sized bowl will quickly add up. Luckily, most toppings hover between $1-2 and since they come in separate little dishes, you can always share.
We were practically drooling at the counter watching the guys set up bowl after bowl of noodles and broth with a deft swiftness. The energy was great as they enthusiastically called out each new order and simultaneously welcomed new customers with a loud いっらしゃい (irrashai!).
At each table sat this cute little rack of additional toppings so you could further customize your broth (customization is the theme of this meal). I saw many others using a combination of the goma (sesame seeds), white pepper, chili oil, vinegar, and shoyu, but we left ours as-is.
We were very happy when the toppings arrived; it was a sign that our bowls of ramen would be coming soon! One of the orders of bamboo, along with the egg and chashu, were for Martin’s bowl, while I was excited to add the bamboo, wood ear mushroom, thick cut chashu, and crispy pig ear to my bowl. As you can see, we don’t share well when it comes to delicious noms.
Martin and I each ordered a bowl of Hakata Ramen. He went “normal” across the board for noodle firmness, oil, and broth strength but omitted the benishoga. Mine (the one pictured above) was normal noodle firmness, light oil, and normal broth strength. The broth was hearty, rich, and totally hits the spot. Though not quite as fatty as the kotteri ramen at Daikokuya, I very much appreciated that the broth here was not awkwardly cloying on my lips and tongue like it can be at other tonkotsu ramen places.
After what felt like an eternity trying to keep my hands steady enough to take these photographs, I finally grabbed the cute little dishes of toppings and tossed them into my bowl. All except for the crispy pig ear. I decided to reserve those bits of crispy pig ear and add them throughout the meal so they stay crunchy.
The noodles here were much thinner than at other ramen places. I was ambivalent, although I generally prefer thicker noodles. Also, I was swimming in pork as I had not realized that the regular bowl of hakata ramen comes with a few chashu slices by default. I’m definitely not complaining though! Martin and I were focused — we ate in stunned silence, save for the occasional slurp.
Hands down the crispy pig ear was my favorite topping and probably the best $1.50 I’ve ever spent. A generous pile of golden brown crunchy bits, they reminded me of the pork rinds served with Vietnamese steamed rice cakes (bánh bèo). Some went into my bowl to soak up a bit of broth, but admittedly, many of the pieces just went straight into my mouth. Don’t miss out on this topping!
In retrospect, I realized I spent almost as much in toppings as the price of the ramen itself, but I have no regrets. The wood ear mushroom and bamboo added great textures to complement the noodles, and the thick cut chashu was so moist and tender that it practically melted in my mouth. It was definitely a satisfying lunch and well worth the journey out to Downtown LA’s Little Tokyo.
Check out Hakata Ramen Shin-Sen-Gumi: shinsengumigroup.com
132 S Central Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90013
See their Yelp reviews here!