By Maxwell Baldi
Max, a lifelong Angeleno, is a new contributor to The Editorialist LA. He spends his days in the real estate industry and any free time on an unending hunt for great food and secondhand books.
On one of the few genuinely cold nights to hit LA (windchill below 40°) we found ourselves in a long line in Old Pasadena, stretched out the door of a little storefront down its length, and around the corner into an alley. The wait is for the first American outpost of Ramen Tatsunoya, a well-regarded, 14-location Japanese ramen house.
The space is small, warm, and inviting, if not particularly innovative. Exposed brick walls and celling beams create a minimalist, neo-industrial feel, common to so many new LA-area restaurants. The faux-tree stretching through the communal table is certainly a unique element, though we would hesitate to say a fitting one.
After nearly an hour in the cold, we were more than ready for a steaming bowl of ramen. As would be expected from a chain hailing from the birthplace of tonkotsu (an unctuous, pork-based broth), Tatsunoya’s menu centers on three variations on tonkotsu: a rich koku, a slightly tamed jun, and a spicy miso. The menu will also feature a number of appetizers, but they weren’t available on the night we visited. The service was – despite a few kinks to be expected in a restaurant’s first week – unfailing friendly and personal, and within a few minutes our waitress set before us a picture-perfect bowl of ramen.
The signature koku ramen is a rich, creamy brew. While not as overwhelming as Ramen Champ’s tonkotsu, it’s more laden with delicious, delicious pork fat than a bowl of kotteri-style daikoku from Daikokuya. Garlic underscores the porcine goodness, while the chili-infused miso paste adds not so much heat as depth. Unlike most tonkotsu stock, Tatsunoya boils pigs heads instead of ordinary bones. They claim it yields a more delicate flavor. The broth is copacetic, but not revelatory: it doesn’t challenge the best LA ramen has to offer.
Where Tatsunoya excels is with the chasu. A standard bowl comes with three slices; we did ourselves a favor and doubled that for an extra three dollars. The slices of pork belly are braised then lightly grilled: they arrive perfectly cooked and melt-in-the-mouth tender. They have a slight sweet note, and a hint of smoke where they’ve been licked by fire. We want another bite before we’ve finished swallowing the first.
The thin noodles are made in house. They’re springy and cooked a perfect al dente. Finally, for a reprieve from the pork, the ramen is topped with green onions, bean sprouts, and wood ear mushrooms. (Soft-boiled eggs and nori are available as additional toppings).
Taken together, the koku ramen is a delicious bowl. The elements work well together; it doesn’t have a weak link; it’s rich and soul satisfying. Pasadena can’t boast of a better ramen, and Old Pasadena has few better options at this price point. Ramen Tatsunoya may not be quite good enough to travel for, but if you’re in the area, it’s surely worth a stop.