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March 18, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, March 18, 2005

Noodling around Noodling around (March 18, 2005)

Ryowa dishes up original ramen recipes

By Aimee M. Male

I entered Ryowa on a Monday night just before 6 p.m., and the restaurant was empty. Little did I know that this brief moment of peace was the calm before the noodle storm.

Within minutes the place was packed. Couples filed in, chatting animatedly, as if they were showing up at a friend's house. A family of four grabbed seats at one of the U-shaped counters and without even looking at the menu, ordered their favorites and sat back to wait, each with a Japanese manga comic book in hand. Soon a line had formed out the door -- and it was just 6:15 p.m.

After eight years on Villa Street in downtown Mountain View, it's hardly a secret that Ryowa dishes up some of the best ramen in the area -- just take a look at the hungry crowd outside this modest restaurant on any given evening. For the ramen purist, Ryowa is the real deal.

While there isn't an exhaustive list of items to choose from, it's a guarantee that any choice will be a good one. Traditional bowls of ramen are the mainstay, with a few donburi options, or bowls of steamed rice and either meat or tofu. Service is brisk and friendly, and eating is taken seriously -- once the noodles arrive, idle chatter dissipates while diners bend as if in prayer over steaming bowls and slurp away.

The father-and-son team of Nobe and Tomita Nishimura are the backbone of Ryowa. Tomita was apprenticed at 17 to learn the art of ramen at their Mountain View restaurant, where his father sought to recreate the experience of noodle shops back in Japan.

"My dad wanted to start a noodle shop because there weren't any good ones" in town, Tomita Nishimura, 25, said. He also manages and cooks at Ryowa's second location in Berkeley.

Regional food is highly valued in Japan. Every city has its own version of specialties such as ramen, or okonomiyaki (fried egg pancakes), for example. Nishimura compares his ramen to Kobe ramen, a style he described as highlighting "simple, light flavors" that aren't "too oily." Yet he stressed that Ryowa ramen is really in a class of its own.

The family wanted to create an experience that was wholly unique, Nishimura said. After some experimenting, "they came up with the original flavor," which became Ryowa's "original" ramen ($6.50).

The secret to the "original" recipe draws on flavors not only from Japanese cuisine but also from spice mixtures that are native to Chinese cooking. It is an explosively savory bowl of soup, with rich smoky pork and a broth that uses sesame as one of its main ingredients. The egg noodles are fresh, perfectly cooked and tender but with a good bite. A handful of bean sprouts and thin slices of pork top the noodles with more than enough soup to keep everything floating happily.

The ramen egg noodles, which are thin and slightly crooked, are made fresh and especially for the restaurant. "You're not going to find these noodles anywhere else," Nishimura said. If you like a thicker noodle, order a bowl of ramen with the "special noodle," which adds an extra dollar to the original price of the soup.

It's a fine art to wrestle long noodles, but while at Ryowa, don't be too shy to slurp. The best way to eat ramen noodles is to pretend you're a vacuum: grab a good bunch with your chopsticks and stuff them half in your mouth, sucking the rest up until you've got no room left. The more noise the better.

There's a general do-it-yourself attitude at the restaurant. Ryowa sets out tubs of spicy kim chee, pickled cabbage with chili paste, for customers to serve themselves while waiting. A pitcher of mugi-cha, a chilled Japanese barley tea, sits on strategic spots on the two counters. The wait staff starts you off with a free glass and you serve yourself as needed. Manga comic books, mostly in Japanese, are available for perusal; a TV set in the corner quietly flashes scenes from a Japanese travel show.

Even during the most hectic, frenzied moments, the wait staff is always cool and collected -- at times, almost shy. Noodles and appetizers arrive quickly, and even at the height of the dinner or lunch rush, the wait time doesn't usually exceed 15 minutes. Yet Ryowa is not a good spot for a group dinner, as seating options are limited to counters or to couples at the restaurant's two tables.

Once you've tried the original ramen, be sure to explore other noodle options. Soy sauce ramen ($6.50) is a mellow brew, with a clear broth that combines the flavors of pungent soy sauce and grilled pork. Boiled pieces of pork and some spinach for color topped the soup. A bowl of Ryowa's won ton ramen ($6.50) includes at least six boiled pork won tons and a forest of tender seaweed. The broth is somewhat thin and clear, which allows the rich flavor of the won tons to stand out.

Although it may be difficult to contemplate eating anything but noodles at a noodle shop, there are a few other excellent options at Ryowa.

During one visit, I opted for the pork donburi ($7). Huge mounds of shredded egg pancake, briny seaweed and bright Japanese pickles buries tender and smoky pieces of pork over steamed rice and sauce. A small bowl of egg drop soup and green onions comes with the dish but seemed excessive, considering I had enough food in my bowl for dinner and also lunch the next day.

A must-try is the steamed shrimp gyoza ($6.50), dumplings stuffed with a mixture of shrimp and pork and sprinkled with fresh green onions and sesame seeds. The dumpling wrappers are delicate and fresh.

An order of the special fried chicken ($7) offers thin strips of white and dark meat chicken that are deep fried but aren't at all greasy and has skin that is wonderfully crunchy. Dip them into Japanese-style mayo or my preference, the spicy sesame-based dipping sauce that delivers a subtle chili kick. The same sauce also comes with the gyoza and is equally delicious with both.

Nishimura said his family is considering expanding the Mountain View location, or even opening up a third shop. As a second-generation restaurateur, he said that while he doesn't think that much about the future, his dream is to see Ryowa succeed beyond his influence.

"I want it to be passed on for a long time," Nishimura said. "It's a family business."

And this family knows how to make a mean bowl of ramen.
Dining Notes

Ramen House Ryowa 859 Villa Street, Mountain View 965-8829 Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Reservations: no Credit cards: yes Parking: street, lot Alcohol: beer available Takeout: no Highchairs: no Catering: no Outdoor seating: no Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: passable

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