The Classic with chashu (barbequed pork)
On Sunday, there was nothing but brown paper and a sign in the window saying that Hanoi Cafe was moving down the street. On Tuesday, the paper was off, and serious work on a new restaurant interior was underway. On Saturday, I looked inside and saw shiny, dark wood tables and fifteen or so new staff people in crisp white uniforms having a meeting.
I was going to stalk this place nightly until the doors opened, no doubt about it. I didn’t know when that would be, but I knew I would be there. I’d never been to the opening night of a restaurant before! Other people count the days until opening day at Dodger Stadium or the opening day of the next Batman movie. But not me!
Opening night was not Saturday, like I’d hoped and anticipated, and it wasn’t exactly Sunday, either. On Sunday, the restaurant opened with a preview menu consisting of three items, as I remember it: pork gyoza, “the classic,” which was a basic bowl of broth and ramen noodles, and the classic with chashu (barbecued pork). My friend and I snagged seats at the eight seater bar since the twelve or so tables were all full. The service was lethargic--it took a long time just to get our menus! There were a few groups of insider well-wishers, and bouquets of flowers with good luck cards attached. I was willing to forgive the slowness since it was their very first night and the kitchen staff didn’t seem to have gotten soup ladling down to a perfectly timed rhythm yet.
Opening on a Sunday and with a very abbreviated menu may have less impact, but it is smart--it gives the staff a chance to get used to each other and their roles with a smaller menu on a slower night (though Sunday nights on Sawtelle are generally quite busy). And calling it a preview tends to make critical patrons like myself more forgiving of any mistakes.
I ordered--and I surprised even myself with this--the classic with chashu. Why? I guess I thought it would be a richer experience (I usually won't eat pork). Now here’s my disclaimer--I’ve never had real ramen before. I have no idea what I’m comparing this food to--my only measuring stick is my inherent (and rather well-developed, I hope) sense of what is and is not good. Future visits to Ramenya and Asahi are in the works to round out my experience a bit.
As for my dish, the three slices of pork on top were not what I expected barbequed pork to be like--I was expecting something more along the lines of the charbroiled meat you get at Vietnamese restaurants. I was also expecting leaner meat--this meat was lined with slivers of fat that I found really unappetizing (that inconsistent consistency was the original reason I quit eating meat regularly). The noodles were just slightly overcooked, which made them kind of mushy by the time I was halfway though my soup.
The broth was very flavorful, but also very salty--too salty for me. On the plus side, the salty broth lent a nice flavor to the noodles, which you pull out and eat with chopsticks--maybe the broth isn't meant to be sipped alone, though they did give me a spoon. Overall, I thought the soup tasted like pretzels. My friend ordered the classic, and liked her food, though she is admittedly less picky than I. She also agreed with the pretzel description. I thought my soup would have been better washed down with a beer, which I didn’t order--I would save that experiment for a fresh bowl on my next visit. Though I didn’t love my food, Chabuya seemed to have potential. I really liked the atmosphere and the prices, and was curious about what the full menu would offer.
I learned that the real opening night was Friday night, so I decided to go to see how smoothly things were running, how much fanfare there would be, what would be on the full menu, and if I'd like the ramen any better this time.
The interior is sleek, but the dress code is casual
The atmosphere is impressive by Los Angeles standards, where most restaurants are ridiculously noisy (“hip”) or nothing more than floor, tables, and chairs. Chabuya has a sleekness that you generally only find at larger restaurants, and it has a definite din, but the sounds of the other patrons talking somehow retreat far enough into the background that you can still hear the people at your own table quite easily. It’s perfect, really--the background clanking and murmurring is conducive to private conversation, even at the bar.
On my second visit, I got what is probably the most private table in the house, off to the side. The tables in the middle of the room are pushed so close together as to leave you dining with two strangers at your table if you come in a party of two. The booth seating along one wall is probably okay, though I haven't sat there yet. There is no outdoor seating, but there are plenty of chairs to sit in while you wait for a table, and a stack of LA Weeklys to read.
Chicken rice bowl
On this visit, I decided not to order ramen and just eat some of my friend's, and to instead try several other dishes. I got a mini chicken rice bowl, which I really liked--the rice was perfectly cooked. The chicken had a nice flavor, but like the pork on my previous visit, wasn't lean enough for my liking. There's really nothing to this dish--just chicken and rice, and a few toasted sesame seeds that added a lot of flavor. You can dress it up with soy sauce, chili sesame oil, and rice vinegar, all in bottles on the table.
Again, I went against my usual tendency to avoid pork like I avoid dirty homeless men and ordered the pork shumai. After all, I had no choice--the other shumai option was shrimp. Not ordering some type of dumpling was not an option, you see--I just love dumplings. These were so good that they actually changed my mind about pork. The filling was juicy and flavorful--I could have eaten these all night. $3 for 3 dumplings is a lot more than the frozen ones I usually eat, but I think these were fresh. The lettuce leaves used for presentation looked pretty, though I might have chosen something else, since the heat of the dumplings caused it to wilt after a little while (by then, you should have polished off your shumai, though!).
House salad--doesn’t taste as pretty as it looks
The house dressing looked like it contained something besides oil, but all it tasted like was oil. Maybe I should have stirred it more before pouring it on my salad. It was too late for that solution though, so I decided to add the rice vinegar that was on the table and dress my salad like a Spaniard, but with a Japanese twist--sesame oil and rice vinegar instead of olive oil and balsamic. The mixed greens, the two cherry tomatoes, and the cucumber were all fresh and wonderful, but the oily, flavorless dressing really killed the mood. How about a soy sesame ginger vinagrette? Maybe that's what they were going for. . . .
My friend, also a newbie to ramen, ordered the tori soba, which was ramen with chicken, garnished with scallions and toasted sesame seeds. According to him, "the chicken in the chicken soup also looked unappetizing, with bits of gristly fat on it, but it didn’t taste bad. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste especially amazing, either. The noodles were cooked perfectly, but the soup did nothing to wow me. Perhaps ramen just isn’t all that impressive of a dish. Still, the price is right and the portions are generous."
The service was noticably better this time in terms of speed, but still indifferent. Our water was refilled regularly, and the dishes all arrived separately and in no logical order. We still had to flag someone down to get the bill. That's sort of odd when there's a crowd outside waiting for a table, but on the other hand, at least the staff wasn't racing to turn tables.
The menu also has a few noodle dishes (both cold and hot) and some sandwiches. I'd like to try both of these on my next visit. From looking at other tables, the sandwiches look like they come in a do-it-yourself format with a fun presentation.
As we left, we walked through a crowd of about 25 people waiting for a table. I was glad we had gotten there just a little after 6:00, when our wait was only a few minutes. It will be interesting to see if Chabuya continues with the success it saw on opening night.
Soups, $6.95-$8.95; sides, $1.00-3.00, other entrees, $3.00-8.95
Total cost of a meal for two and a shared beer, including tax and tip: $17.54
Tokyo Noodle Bar
2002 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90025
Hours: 11:00am-2:30pm, 4:30pm-midnight, daily! I love these hours!
The History of Sawtelle
Restaurant’s own description:
“Straight from Tokyo, Chabuya is the urban ramen bar that revolutionized a favorite Japanese pastime. Its menu was conceived under the meticulous eye of Master Chef Yasujik Morizumi, renowned for his peak season ingredients and uncanny talent for arousing the senses.
Taste Chabuya ramen and two things strike you immediately. The first is an instant appreciation for the fresh, organic ingredients cooked to mouth-watering perfection. The second is an overwhelming urge to take another bite.
Already wildly successful in Japan, Chabuya has arrived to Los Angeles, ready to introduce Americans to a totally fresh ramen experience."