Tsujita LA / Artisan Noodles on Sawtelle in West LA is two restaurants in one. At lunch, it serves tsukemen and ramen; at dinner, it serves traditional Japanese cuisine, sushi, and sashimi. The restaurant hails from Japan, with four locations in Tokyo, one in Bangkok, and the one on Sawtelle, which opened July 30, 2011. A second location will open soon across the street in the former gr/eats space.
We visited Artisan Noodles on a Sunday afternoon around 1:00. Like all the new restaurants on Sawtelle, the interior is impossibly tiny. The limited tables and high demand mean waits are inevitable, but the restaurant has an efficient system for shortening the time you spend standing on the sidewalk, jealous of the patrons seated on the umbrella-shaded patio who are already slurping noodles. There's a sign-in sheet, and once you've signed in, the hostess will take your order ahead of time when she knows a table will be opening up soon. There are plenty of menus available for browsing, but don't sign in until you know what you want to order.
The menu can be confusing to the uninitiated; it's short and the English isn't perfect. I thought I was at just another ramen joint--I hadn't researched the restaurant in advance, just popped in on a whim because I love noodles. The restaurant does serve the wavy noodles in broth that we're all familiar with, and you can specify whether you want them cooked firm, medium, or soft (the restaurant recommends firm). However, the real draw are the tsukemen, or dipping noodles.
For the char siu tsukemen that we both ordered, the long, chewy noodles are served cold in one bowl, topped with a sheet of nori (seaweed); several slices of tender, fatty char siu (barbecued pork); and a petite lime wedge. Served in a separate bowl is an unctuous broth made from pork and chicken bones, vegetables, bonito, and dried sardines slowly simmered for 12 hours. In the broth are smaller pieces of pork, a seasoned soft-boiled egg called ajitama, scallions, and dark brown bamboo shoots called men-ma. A set of somewhat helpful, somewhat irritating instructions on the back of the menu instructs diners in the proper way to eat tsukemen.
You can add a squeeze of lime to the noodles whenever you like, but the limes were so small that they were only worth about one squeeze each. The small limes aren't a big deal, but they do seem like an oversight in an otherwise meticulously prepared dish, and if the servers don't come by to check on you (ours didn't), you can't ask for extra limes unless you manage to flag someone down.
There are also several condiments on the table that you can add to your dish: strands of neon red pickled ginger, mustard greens marinated in chili paste (not for the faint of tongue), sesame seeds, tonkatsu sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, and a mild chili powder with black sesame seeds. Extra limes are free; for $1 each you can order an extra egg, seaweed, or bamboo shoots.
We sat on the patio, which was cold and windy and a bit of a rushed, intimidating experience since you're in such close proximity to the throngs who are hungering for your table. The interior is beautiful; I'll sit there next time, even if it means elbowing up to a stranger at the bar since there are few tables and they mostly seem sized for parties of four. One strange oversight in this otherwise polished space was the bathroom faucet, which is loose, dirty, and in desperate need of replacement. (I hate bathroom sinks where I feel less clean after using them than before.)
While the servings look small and $14 seems steep for what is essentially a bowl of soup, it's incredibly filling and satisfying. I ate less than half of mine (probably a good thing given what I'm sure is an astronomical amount of salt and fat in that incredible broth). The nice thing about tsukemen is that unlike ramen, you can pack it up and take it home without the noodles getting ruined since they're separate from the broth. Plus, with so many amazing eateries in the area, you'll probably want to save room for a coffee, boba tea, or some shaved ice around the corner or down the block.
Make sure to hit the ATM on your way to the restaurant; it's cash only.
Tsujita LA / Artisan Noodles
2057 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Lunch: daily, open at 11, last order at 2
Dinner: 6:00pm - 12:00am, Sun - Thur.; 6:00pm - 2:00am, Fri. and Sat.