By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Fans of Nishiki Ramen in Kearny Mesa can now elude the lines for scoring a bowl of Tokyo-style soup by instead visiting Nishiki’s sister restaurant in the heart of the gayborhood.
Manten Ramen is the latest tenant in the HUB Hillcrest Market, and perhaps the neighborhood’s umpteenth ramen house. But compared to others, she offers some of the most exciting flavor-forward broths I’ve had in a while.
Chef-owner Hajime “Jimmy” Kitayama is a grand master of ramen. A native of Tokyo, he slow-cooks the broths daily using chicken, pork and seasonal vegetables, makes the noodles in-house, and boils and then torches to perfection any added meats known as chashu.
Since opening Nishiki four years ago, he has attracted a wild following that makes it difficult to land a fast table in his Kearny Mesa restaurant. Though here in Hillcrest, on a recent Saturday afternoon, hubby and I waited less than a minute to place our order at the counter, which greets you just inside the doors. And in no time at all, we seized a table amid many seating options that were up for grabs along the window ledges and on the roomy patio.
Such casual service, however, didn’t match in quality what we were about eat.
The young floor staffers running plates from the semi-open kitchen to the tables function as quasi servers. But they were too aloof to qualify as such and couldn’t answer basic questions about the food.
One employee didn’t know what goes into the Japanese-style ranch dressing zigzagged over a plate of chicken wings we ordered. I suspect sake or miso was hiding in it. Another couldn’t confirm whether the ramen noodles are house-made. They are. And when I asked at the order counter why the traditional inclusion of a “slow egg” in the ramen costs extra, followed by a request that our appetizers be served first — I was given a blank stare.
No surprise that all of our food came out at once. But my complaints ended there.
The wings were crispy and abundant, all “flats” and no “drums.” Even better was the hefty portion of chicken katsu served with so-so French fries. The panko-coated breast meat, cut into accordion slices, is Japan’s version of Southern fried chicken. Each piece offered crunchy edges and tender interiors. In an American twist, it came with ramekins of Buffalo hot sauce and more of that mysterious ranch dressing.
Proceeding to the most luxurious part of our lunch, hubby ordered the menu’s crown jewel, a pork-broth ramen called BFE.
The acronym stands for “beast from East.” It’s loaded with a pound of ultra-tender pork rib meat as well a generous scoop of pulled pork that closely resembled carnitas. The broth was fantastic, offering smooth flavors of bone marrow, green onions, garlic and cabbage. It lacked nothing.
The “red blow” ramen is as dangerously sexy as it sounds. Also pork-based, the broth is discernibly laced with a house-made red chili sauce in addition to garlic and miso. Strewn throughout are bean sprouts, green onions, diced pork, and of course a bounty of comforting noodles cut into thin-medium width — just how I like them.
Floating on top was a plop of ground pork steeped in a less-diluted version of the chili sauce. When the meat started collapsing into the broth, it climbed from level 4 to level 7 in spiciness. With my lips aflame, I savored every drop. If ever a trusty hangover cure is needed, this will be it.
There are 13 ramen choices in all. They include a vegetarian variant of the red blow; a meatless yellow curry ramen in soy broth; the chicken-based “dooodle dooo” with chicken meatballs and bok choy; a pork-seafood ramen with pork chashu and a fish cake; and the classic pork-broth tonkotsu with minced pork and toasted sesame seeds.
The menu mimics the one at Nishiki Ramen, but omits a few things such as tuna poke and beef bowls and the cult-favorite “gyoza caprese” with lemon sauce and crispy noodles.
Manten Ramen’s small six-seat bar is rigged with 24 taps featuring both Japanese and local craft beers. Wine, sake and imported Japanese sodas are also available for refreshing the palate between courses and sips of chef Kitayama’s sharp creations.
— 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.