Slurp. Slurp. There’s nothing quite like the sound of noodle-slurping. In some traditional Asian cultures, slurping noodles is a sign of enjoyment when eating. Slurping is also a practical way to cool down piping hot food in the mouth. For me, slurping is an unfortunate and uncontrollable byproduct of not being able to get ramen noodles into my mouth quickly enough.
Ramen. A logical go-to choice for an inexpensive yet delicious and comforting meal. One of the great kitchen democratizers, it is enjoyed by both starving college students and upper crust food snobs. It probably isn’t the most nutritious thing one could be eating (extremely high in sodium, carbohydrates and saturated fats, and low in vitamins and minerals) but that’s a discussion for another day and another blog (it’s not DubuDowner.com, right?).
Ramen ranges from the instant noodle bricks sold at supermarkets, to the carefully prepared bowls served at ramen houses where rich nuances in broth and noodle texture come into play. As one would surmise, the Little Tokyo area of Downtown Los Angeles is blessed with many of these established ramen houses, the most well-known being Daikokuya, Orochon and recent Little Tokyo newcomer Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen. Orochon is very good, especially for spicy broth lovers, but my personal favorites are Daikokuya and Shin-sen Gumi. In this segment of The Dubu Downlow, we shall see who the emerging victor is between Daikokuya and Shin-sen Gumi in… Little Tokyo: Battle Ramen. Important factors such as convenience, ambiance, price and, of course, taste will be evaluated. Onwards to oodles of noodles!
1. Convenience. Shin-Sen-Gumi: less of a wait, better parking and takes credit cards.
Hours/Wait/Location. Both places stay open pretty late (Shin-Sen-Gumi 11 am-midnight; Daikokuya Mon-Th 11 am-midnight, Fri/Sat 11 am-1 am, Sun 11 am-11 pm) so they lend themselves to some pretty good late night snacking. Neither place accepts reservations unfortunately. Because of the insane popularity of Daikokuya (almost 3000 Yelp reviews to date), there is always a large crowd of people waiting outside, at all hours of the day. The wait is on average about 45 minutes to an hour, which can be excruciating when you’re starving. Plus, there are only about 3-4 chairs inside with a very small waiting area, so the majority of time is spent outside, trying not to inhale some USC student’s secondhand smoke. There are options of putting your name on the list and taking a leisurely hour stroll around Little Tokyo, or getting sloshed at a bar down the street for an hour, but when you’re hungry, these become less attractive options. Shin-Sen-Gumi’s wait is not nearly as long. It’s a place where one can waltz in and grab a table, possibly having to wait 15 minutes during peak times. Added bonus, Shin-Sen-Gumi is right next door to Yogurtland (also open until midnight) so there is always a built-in dessert option. Score.
Parking. Both are located in Little Tokyo about a block from each other, in the main hub of Little Tokyo — an area where parking is notoriously difficult. Shin-Sen-Gumi has a parking lot (in front of Office Depot) where parking is free for an hour ($5 afterwards) with validation, thus catapulting Shin-Sen-Gum to the top of this category. Those going to Daikokuya will surely spend time circling around for a coveted meter spot or be forced to pay at one of the myriad pay lots surrounding it unless they’ve taken public transportation, in which case, bravo.
Check, please! Daikokuya has a strict cash only policy, whereas plastic is fantastic at Shin-Sen-Gumi.
2. Ambiance. Daikokuya: old-school charm and no deafening noise.
Daikokuya looks more like a tiny old-school Japanese diner with 7-8 booths (max fits four people at a time) and a counter where an additional 10 or so people can comfortably fit and slurp down their noodles. Vintage-looking Japanese posters adorn the walls which complement the classic red seating of the booths. Some would say Daikokuya is in desperate need of a makeover, or at the very least an expansion. I would agree with the expansion suggestion but I feel the diner aspect contributes to the charm, so I wouldn’t change that. Shin-Sen-Gumi, with the obvious advantage of being built mere months ago, boasts a modern, well-lit atmosphere with cool lighting. (I am a sucker for cool lighting). There are communal tables where larger groups can sit, as well as bar seating where a few can sit and watch the magic of the cooking action.
Modernity aside, Shin-Sen-Gumi is noisy. And not just “can you repeat that?” noisy, but instead a “I hope you’re good at ALS Sign Language” noisy. Part of the philosophy of Shin-Sen-Gumi (as noted on their website) is “the importance of a proper greeting” which results in a bellowing ”eera-shai-MASE!” whenever anyone comes or leaves the restaurant. Which is a lot. There is also the option to have the entire staff “cheers” you in loud unison when one receives a beverage. Which is also a lot. Yes, the result is a lively, energetic izakaya vibe but it becomes increasingly annoying as the meal goes on. Unless it’s your birthday, I personally don’t need the constant surprise! party vibe when I’m eating.
[Oh yeah, for all you OCD folk, it might be worth noting that Daikokuya received a B letter grade from the LA Department of Public Health, while Shin-Sen-Gumi boasted an A. I saw no discernible difference however.]
3. Price. Daikokuya: Combo meals provide more bang for your buck.
Because of Shin-Sen-Gumi’s customized ramen menu options (see menu section below), a simple ramen with a few add-ons can get pretty expensive. Add a few beers, one or two apps and ramen for two can easily exceed $45. What happened to my go-to relatively inexpensive meal? Enter Daikokuya’s combo meals (see menu section below). Not only do you get a huge bowl of ramen, you also get a heaping rice bowl (I usually go pork belly) as well as a shredded cabbage salad. This is an inordinate amount of (delicious) food – so much so that I end up taking one bite of the pork belly bowl (I can never resist) and then taking the rest to-go for a more than ample lunch the next day. Not bad for $12.
4. And finally…Taste. Daikokuya: the In-n-Out of ramen — a deeply satisfying noodle consistency and rich, flavorful broth every time.
Noodle Texture. Ever since I tried Daikokuya’s noodles, their consistency has set the bar for me so that I now compare all other ramen noodles to Daikokuya’s every time. Their noodles are chewy (but not too chewy!) and are the perfect thickness. True, Shin-Sen-Gumi’s ramen is region specific (from Hakata), which characteristically has thinner, straight noodles, so many might disagree with this deeply subjective category. Even though I ordered my noodles “hard” at Shin-Sen-Gumi I found them lacking in texture. Next time I suppose I will have to go balls out and try their “Extra Hard” noodle option.
Broth. Both places boast tonkatsu broth which is often described as a milky, rich broth flavored by pork bone but it was Daikokuya’s broth that truly seemed milkier and richer. There were also larger servings of chasu pork in the soup.
Appetizer Options. Shin-Sen-Gumi has a better selection of quality appetizers to choose from including fried squid, fried soft shell crab, agedashi tofu, carpaccio, karaage chicken, spam and chicken fried rice.
Ramen Menu Options. Daikokuya’s menu is vastly smaller and more simplified with only three ramen options: (1) classic Daikoku Ramen, (2) their cold noodle Tsukemen Ramen accompanied with a dipping sauce of broth, and (3) their Daikoku Ramen Kotteri style (which is a richer broth with a deeper flavor extracted from the pork back fat). Shin-Sen-Gumi’s menu has a plethora of options ranging from noodle texture (soft, normal, hard, extra hard) to how salty the broth is, to a variety of add-on garnishes including kimchi, corn, cod roe, bamboo shoots, egg and chasu pork (all at an extra charge, of course). For some, this kind of customization might be considered fun and useful. To me however it is unnecessary, as Daikokuya’s Daikoku Ramen is already near-perfection. Why mess around trying to pimp out your ramen? It’s like a classic In-n-Out burger versus a customized burger from The Counter. They will never be equals in my mind…just two burgers side by side.
The Dubu Downlow Little Tokyo Ramen Winner: Daikokuya, you win for serving near perfection in a bowl, every time, all the time. You make me wait forever but your ramen tastes so good when it hits the lips that I keep coming back, no matter how long the wait. A close second out of two (aka last place), Shin-Sen-Gumi you get props, nonetheless, for your convenience, cleanliness, vast appetizer options and close proximity to the sweet nectar that is Yogurtland. I will gladly brave your unending overly enthusiastic greetings should I find myself unable to wait an hour for ramen and in the mood to fork over a few extra bucks.
Finally, for any fellow ramen freaks out there, I stumbled upon this helpful ramen glossary. Happy slurping!