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On Ramen Road, Noodle Dishes Get New Meaning In L.A.

A hot noodle dish from Honey Pig in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

A hot noodle dish from Honey Pig in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

People like chef-entreprenuer David Chang of Momofuku and Lucky Peach fame rave rhapsodically about ramen. These days, ramen is way more than the cheap stuff in a bag that has kept generations of college students alive.

My recent journey on what I call the Ramen Road begins in Gardena, Calif., near my old hometown in the South Bay area of the Los Angeles region. Gardena has a large Japanese community, and the Marukai Japanese market is practically the epicenter. When I lived in the area, I would go to Marukai often, bypassing the food court and heading straight for the Japanese hardware section for items such as barbecue supplies. Then I would hit the tea aisle and the fish counter, which smells like the sea. It turns over tons of fresh fish every day.

Can’t-miss tasty ramen dishes

But when I read a Los Angeles Times article by Jonathan Gold about his favorite ramen dishes, including one from Ramen Iroha in Marukai’s food court, I knew I had to go. Make a right turn as you enter the front door, and Ramen Iroha is there. Gold raves about the black ramen, which gets its color from a combination of soy and black beans. My own preference is for the delicious red ramen, made with a spicy red chili oil.

From Gardena, I went south to Orange County. A few years ago, I made one of the culinary discoveries of my life, almost by accident, when I stumbled upon Diamond Jamboree in Irvine. I was totally unmade by what I found.

Diamond Jamboree is a sprawling center anchored by an HMart, the Korean chain. On this Sunday night, it was teeming with Asians of every ethnicity. Why? You can find nearly all types of Asian foods there, from noodle shops to sushi to dim sum to shabu-shabu. Almost all of it is wonderful. There’s even a great bakery with a long line snaking out the door at 9 at night.

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The statue in front of Ajisen in the Diamond Jamboree complex in Irvine, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

One shopfront that won me over was Ajisen — in part because of the statue in the entryway that looks like a transgendered Bob of Bob’s Big Boy. But Ajisen, a casual chain with outlets in the United States, Japan and several other countries, also has great noodles. It serves about 20 types of ramen, with everything from pork to eel.

Tokyo Table also serves up some decent ramen. The last time I was there I had a spicy chicken ramen that was delicious. But the nod goes to Ajisen, if only for the plethora of choices.

Diamond Jamboree, like Marukai, is now a real destination for me when I travel south from the Los Angeles area. If you don’t live in Southern California, Hotel Terrace Drive in Santa Ana is a convenient place to stay during a visit. The roadway is one long arc of middle-tier hotel chains just off the 55 Freeway at Dyer Road. It’s an easy drive over to Diamond Jamboree, which is on Alton Parkway, just past Von Karman Avenue. Use the parking structure, or you will be cruising the main lot for half an hour.

Ramen by way of Koreatown

On another recent trip to Los Angeles, I had lunch at Honey Belly in Koreatown. The eatery is on Eighth Street near Harvard Boulevard. All the signage is in Korean, so look for a storefront with a big, fat, smiley pig.

Korean noodles aren’t exactly the same as ramen, but they are close enough. The noodles are a bit thinner, but for most people they are indistinguishable from ramen. Honey Belly is a traditional Korean barbecue place, but I’m visiting for the noodles.

The menu is almost entirely in Korean, and it includes only two noodle dishes, one served cold and the other served hot. I went with the hot one. I asked my server to transliterate the name of the dish for me so I would remember. She frowned a little and then wrote down Jang Kook Soo Den.

Marukai market. Credit: W.F. Tierney

Marukai market in Gardena, Calif. Credit: W.F. Tierney

The soup that came out was delicious, chicken broth based with noodles of course. It also included meat (either beef or pork), tofu, jalapeno and enoki mushrooms. There were also small plates of ban shan, spicy pickled bean sprouts and very good kimchi. It all added up to a delicious meal.

So get out there on the Ramen Road and eat your noodles. You will feel better for it.

Main photo: A hot noodle dish from Honey Belly in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. Credit: W.F. Tierney

Zester Daily contributor W.F. Tierney was born in New York but grew up in Los Angeles and has traveled widely in Italy, exploring its regional cuisines. He now makes his home on California’s Central Coast from where he explores and writes about the abundant food specialties of the region. His culinary background also includes Spanish and Korean. He is the author of the forthcoming book "¡Malavida!: Hardcore Cooking for Harder Times."