Thick ramen broth a trademark of Tenkaippin
|Photo gallery: Ramen in Kapahulu|
By Lesa Griffith
Special to The Advertiser
By Lesa Griffith
The steaming bowls of saimin of yore at joints such as Sekiya's seem generic compared to the new generation of ramen houses, which inevitably are offshoots of some "famous" spot in Tokyo. And each one has a schtick — makes their own noodles, serves the noodles separately from the broth, makes their own char siu.
At Tenkaippin, the Honolulu branch of a Japan chain, the trademark is kotteri ramen, eggy yellow noodles (from Sun Noodle in Kalihi) in a broth that's thick enough to pour over hamburger steak.
Tenkaippin has been around for eight years, but owner Scott Suzui recently moved the small eatery from Waikiki to Kapahulu, where it's being discovered by a whole new cadre of noodle slurpers.
You may have seen Suzui on the new OC 16 program "Ultimate Japan." The enthusiastic host takes viewers on tours of spots like Tsukiji Market or reveals the lifestyles of Japanese women.
Like any franchise, Tenkaippin's food comes from headquarters (in this case Kyoto) and is assembled according to formula. The trademark broth, made from boiling chicken bones for 14 hours, according to one of the Chinese servers, arrives from Japan in vacuum-packed bags. The thickness is from the collagen that results from all that boiling.
It's hard to believe that the broth is that dense without any kind of thickener, such as potato flour, but that's what Tenkaippin claims. It's also hard to believe that there's so little chicken flavor — the broth is reminiscent of gravy that's made when the dripping from a roasted bird isn't as abundant as hoped, and a lot of flour and water are added.
Maybe that's why the countertop is littered with bottles of condiments — the signature chopped garlic mixture, chile oil, vinegar, shoyu, kotteri sauce, pepper, red pepper, sesame oil. Customize your ramen to your liking (it really is good with garlic) and the dish is ideal comfort food — like other thick soups such as leek and potato. Apparently it can be habit forming.
"I couldn't eat it the first time," Suzui admits, but he says give it one more try and you'll be hooked. One Advertiser staffer is a recent convert. "The best noodles I have ever had — it's the crack of noodle shops," he says.
Purists might not be so convinced. But there are other options. For example, the paitan ramen broth is more resonant with chicken flavor (as well as pork). It comes topped with crisp garlic slivers, chopped green onion.
The side dishes, such as the "famous fried rice" and fried gyo-za are bypassable. The Japanese-style char siu is better at Yotteko-ya, the noodles are better at Taishoken, and the cold noodle salad is better at Rai Rai Ramen up the street, but no one else serves collagen-thickened broth.
Tenkaippin is a modest establishment, with a beaded curtain separating the kitchen from the small room with buttercup-yellow walls. In the middle is an island counter, flanked by tables and chairs on either side. On two visits, the TV entertained the room with a Gwen Stefani concert.
The kotteri ramen's collagen ostensibly will return elasticity to your sagging skin (and if that was true, La Prairie would be in the soup business) — but you don't eat ramen as a beauty treatment do you? You eat it because sometimes when you're driving around and your companion says, "What do you want to eat?" the word "ramen" is the only thing that comes out of your mouth.
Lesa Griffith reviews restaurants for TGIF once a month.