Umami. It is the fifth taste, most easily translated from Japanese as savoriness, which, in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, make a complete palate and total dining experience. The characters that were combined to form this word in Japanese literally mean "delicious taste" and this is the word that sprang to mind when dining at Shalala, Mountain View's newest ramen house.
When you enter Shalala, the decor is modern, to match the fast-paced experience. You are never rushed, but you can eat quickly and be on your way thanks to their prompt and friendly servers. The glass windows are frosted and the kitchen, which fills the center of the restaurant, has high counters, which is both practical and adds to the drama of the dining experience. But the frosted glass and pale wood chairs are also a nod to shoji, traditional wood and paper doors in Japan. With the view obscured, all of this serves to focus the diners' attention on the equally ancient art of ramen, which starts with the broth.
Shalala's website, all in Japanese, notes that they simmer their broth for more than 16 hours to promote "wholesomeness." On their menu, they note their "tonkotsu broth base is made by boiling pork bones, chicken bones, and fresh vegetables at very high heat." Each bowl comes with the requisite noodles (made by a local Japanese noodle company), plus scallions, cloud ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and a Seussian, vertigo-swirled fishcake that soaks up the flavor of the broth.
Now here is where their genius comes in: with all of their ramen flavors (except vegetarian) you get two slices of pork belly included. No wondering if you want to add it as an extra when you know you do, no having to swap out dried out roast pork for the far superior pork belly: you get it included in every bowl, and it is wonderful. Not too fatty, not too lean. It's perfect.
To all of this, you must choose your broth flavor: shio, a salty broth with a creamy appearance; shoyu, a soy flavor with bonito flakes, sea salt, and sake; miso, a reddish broth developed in Hokkaido, or a spicy miso. There are three sizes of each, ranging from $6.50 for a small to $10.50 for a large, depending on the flavor and size. Portions are generous. I had an appetizer and a small ramen and still had enough left over for lunch the next day.
I sampled each of the broths. Shio reminded me vaguely of the sea and was pleasant and not overpoweringly salty. Shoyu was a savory umami dish redolent of soy sauce flavor. But my far and away favorite was the miso.
There was some definite slurping going on while I attacked my red soup, and I added an egg to my ramen, which came soft boiled. I lanced it with my chopsticks and the yolk oozed out in a thick stream into my broth. I felt hedonistic. I had just asked the waitress why they had named the restaurant Shalala, and she said, "It's like humming, or singing. It's fun." I found that the yummy sounds I made as I savored my rich, fragrant miso broth with a hint of spice, the definition of umami, had evolved into humming without my notice. And I wasn't the only one.
According to co-owner Heita Ueshima, the spicy miso ramen is a signature dish and Heita's favorite. "Our miso paste is prepared in house by blending five different types of miso, including a Korean style of spicy miso, "Kochijyan," and traditional Japanese "Haccho miso." Then, finally the spicy miso is completed with adding our special spices. You can enjoy variety of tastes each time you bring the soup to your mouth."
Despite the obvious care with which they prepare their food, a sense of playfulness pervades Shalala, from the name, to the friendly waitstaff, to the executive chef and co-owner Nobuyori Iwahashi, who wears a scarf around his head like a pirate while he cooks, and then comes out from the kitchen to smile and talk with the children at the tables. Formerly of Kahoo Ramen in San Jose and originally from Osaka, Japan, Nobu says Osaka is where the younger crowd enjoys "the cloudy broths that are the new thing among ramen houses in Japan, unlike the more traditional shoyu broths."
We also loved several of the appetizers, such as the panko fried vegetable skewers. Lotus root, potato, onion, mushroom, and okra appeared on skewers, like lollipops, waiting to be dipped into a sweet and tangy hoisin-like barbecue sauce ($5). This is definitely a good way to get kids to eat their vegetables. Their gyoza with ponzu sauce ($4) were just the right mix of rich meat and crisp outer wrapping, and their karaage ($5), boneless marinated fried chicken, had a hint of citrus among the garlic that I found appealing. The rice bowls may be the best deal around. A small cup of rice with a poached egg and scallions is only $3.50. They have a similar bowl of rice and roast pork belly, but none that combines the egg and pork, which I think would be a hit.
There were a few wrong notes in the performance. I did find the cabbage in the shio ramen a bit limp for my taste. The oolong tea comes canned and all the drinks are served in brandy glasses, even the orange juice. But these are minor considerations and it seems that Shalala is having a promising debut in downtown Mountain View.
698 W Dana St
Mountain View, CA 94041
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. -2 p.m., Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.