By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Winter is for ramen. Particularly tonkotsu-style ramen, which translates to a strikingly unctuous broth laced warmly with the marrow, collagen and fat of pork bones.
The craze for this creamy Japanese soup is best enjoyed at any of five locations bearing the name Tajima, which sprung onto the scene 16 years ago in Kearny Mesa before noodling through Hillcrest, the East Village, a second Kearny Mesa outlet, and most recently, North Park.
At all locations on these shivery nights, expect to wait at least 10 minutes for a table. And here along this vibrant section of Adams Avenue, which draws substantial crowds by other hopping establishments such as Polite Provisions, Soda & Swine, and Beerfish — parking is a royal pain in the glutes.
But the payoffs are appeasing.
In our lead-up to the main event, we crunched into an appetizer of karaage, Japan’s version of fried chicken that’s marinated first in soy sauce and ginger, and then dusted in either rice or potato flour before hitting the deep fryers. Served in boneless chunks, it’s familiar-tasting enough to please any Southerner amendable to the bonus of spicy mayo on the side.
A generous row of soft, frilly gyoza stuffed with ground pork was more captivating than the loosely constructed spicy tuna roll we tried, which I found too fishy. But the caramelized flavor of kakuni (pork belly) tucked inside a steamed bun with mixed greens and radish sprouts effectively reengaged my palate.
Three of the five ramen choices on the menu are tonkotsu-style. The others are “creamy chicken” made with poultry bones and a splash of cream, plus a vegan version that uses soy-based broth and spinach noodles.
My companion chose the “original tonkotsu” ramen stocked with kakuni, chicken chashu, fried garlic, been sprouts, seaweed, and a halved soft-boiled egg.
He opted for the “fat” noodles and upgraded the medley with the addition of tender corn.
It was the first time he experienced ramen thickened to this spoon-coating degree from the extended boiling of pork bones. Indeed, some tonkotsu virgins might find it too fatty. For him, it was luxurious.
As was my spicy sesame ramen — equally opulent in consistency but tinted red from the paste, powder and oil of chilies. Though fear not, it isn’t as devilishly spicy as you might think. Chef-owner Sam Morikizono rates the heat level “somewhere between three and five” on a scale of 10. On this visit, I gave it a solid three.
With the exception of copious sesame seeds and pork chashu instead of chicken, the bowl contained the same mélange of comforting ingredients as my companion’s.
I chose thin noodles, however, because I felt the fatter ones would exude too much starchiness into the broth that isn’t needed. Gluten-free noodles are yet another option.
When the tongue becomes invariably over-shellacked by this rich ramen, the ironic sandblaster is calpico, a thin and fermented milk-based drink that’s slightly sweetened and offers an elusive, fruity finish.
I drank it with gusto as my companion went straight for the sake instead.
A variety of poke rice bowls containing salmon, tuna or chashu are also available, although we opted for kimchi fried rice, which wasn’t as piquant as expected.
Strewn also with egg and green onions, it was perhaps the tangle of seaweed on top with its aggressive oceanic flavor that overwhelmed the tanginess of the kimchi.
Needless to say, we over-ordered.
Ramen of this magnitude constitutes as a full meal without the support of appetizers and rice, although it continued delighting when re-heated during a cold, rainy afternoon the following day, tasting even better when consumed in the quieter comfort of home.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.