Ken Ken Ramen started off as a pop-up in the Mission and it stayed in the neighborhood when it finally opened its permanent home late last year.
Finding good ramen in the Mission – and in the entire city of San Francisco, as a matter of fact – is a challenge. But I’m always willing to eat my way into a good bowl, which is why I visited Ken Ken Ramen when it was a pop-up about two years ago, and again last week at its restaurant on 18th near Mission Street.
Joining me was my friend V, which stands for vegetarian because she is exactly that. V asked me what I thought about Ken Ken when I went to it as a pop-up, and I told her that I liked it but didn’t love it, and still would travel down the Peninsula for good ramen.
She wondered why I would return to Ken Ken, and I figured the chef and owners would have perfected their bowl of noodles during their pop-up days, considering that we live in an age of instant feedback.
The restaurant is large with a bar up front and long counter, nicely furnished with that modern Japanese esthetic. The menu is limited but I give Ken Ken Ramen credit for creativity. For example, with spring warm weather in mind, Chef Takahiro Hori added a couple of cold noodle dishes to the menu.
V actually went with the Vegetarian Hiyashi Chukka ($11), cold ramen noodles (sans broth) with grilled pumpkin, cucumber, slow-cooked egg, ginger, pickles and assorted vegetables. There was a distinct sesame oil aroma wafting from her bowl, and while she enjoyed it, V wasn’t impressed.
The main ramen served up is called the Japanese Ramen ($11), which comes with two slices of cha-shu (braised pork), nori, soft-boiled egg, and assorted vegetables. You can choose from three broth styles (miso, shoyu and shio). I was disappointed that Ken Ken Ramen only makes the tonkotsu broth (milky pork broth) on Wednesday nights.
Again a reflection of the season, Ken Ken Ramen offered up a yuzu shio broth as a choice, and I decided to give it a try. The yuzu provided a refreshing citrus perfume to the light broth, which was what I was looking for when eating ramen during the warm seasons.
But while I enjoyed the light broth, I didn’t feel the same about the home-made ramen. I recall that the ramen in the pop-up days were thin and light, and it looks like it hasn’t changed much. It was still thin, which meant after eating a whole bowl I didn’t feel full.
Side note: Both V and I did enjoy our starter of seaweed salad ($5), which was a generous portion with a perfect, traditional tasting dressing.
Ken Ken Ramen still feels like it’s in the pop-up stage, despite the fancy digs. The ramen feels like it’s lacking something surprising or satisfying, and the service still seems a bit scattered and rushed. Everything is good, but nothing to rush over to get.
Rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
Ken Ken Ramen, 3378 18th St., San Francisco. PH: 415.967.2636. Open Wednesday through Saturdays. No reservations. eatkenkenramen.com
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