The story: Chef Kyle Itani brought his Japanese twist to food at the Oakland restaurant Hopscotch, where he would explore his love for ramen with ramen nights. Last year he decided to make the ramen offerings a full-time thing with a new ramen eatery nearby, and after months of construction delays and anticipation (including several popular experimental ramen pop-ups), Itani Ramen opened in May across the street from the Fox Theater in the city’s booming Uptown district.
Why I went: I work nearby so Itani Ramen is a convenient spot to hit for an early dinner before heading home, which I did a couple of times recently.
The vibe: The large, casual restaurant has a contemporary feel with a touch of Tokyo Pop or Rock happening with the music and photos of Tokyo and a vending machine dispensing Japanese desserts like Pocky and tai yaki. With the ambient lighting, it actually reminds me more of a bar than a ramen shop. The early evening starts off with an older crowd that makes way for the young hipsters who have been moving into Uptown with the tech boom.
The booze: There are Japanese and American beer on draft and by the bottle, along with a selection of sake and shochu. On one visit I tried for the first time an Asahi Black Lager ($8), which I enjoyed for its almost chocolate-like taste and texture.
The menu: Of course, early buzz has been focused on some of the small appetizer plates that are deep-fried, such as the crispy pig ears ($6) or “sloppy stickers” (pot stickers that are fried and covered with kewpie mayo and bonito flakes). I passed, of course, since I’m not a fan of deep-fried foods and tried the regular pork gyoza (sold as $7 for five or $12 for 10), which were nicely done with a thin skin that were perfectly pan-fried. As part of the humor of the restaurant, every table has a “gyoza guide” showing you in cartoon fashion the correct way to eating gyoza (including how to mix the accompanying soy-vinegar sauce).
There are also mini donburi (rice bowls), including the unique “Egg 3 Way” ($13), which is rice topped with ikura (fish roe), hard-boiled jidori chicken egg, and sea urchin or uni. While I’m an uni fan, I found the briny (and often slimy) nature of the ikura and uni together a bit over the top. It was only the creaminess of the egg yolk that helped settle my stomach as I continued to eat this mini donburi, with rice dressed with a bit of soy for even more savoriness.
As for the ramen, Chef Itani opened the restaurant with the idea of showcasing the regional nature of Japanese ramen, so every season he’ll use the techniques of a particular prefecture. For example, to open he started with Akita ramen from the northern Japanese island of Honshu. I forgot what the restaurant’s website said was the distinguishing factor of Akita-style ramen, but doesn’t matter now because they’ve already shifted to the summer ramen focus of Kyoto prefecture.
When ordering, the prefecture musings aren’t evident as you choose between shoyu (soy chicken broth), shio (salt pork broth), miso and a veggie broth option. With summer, there are also cold ramen noodle salads, which shouldn’t be confused with tsukemen, which is the popular cold ramen noodles served with dipping sauce. At Itani Ramen, the noodle salads are exactly like they sound, like the “shivering noodle salad” ($10.50) that came topped pile high with slender strips of poached chicken, tossed with vegetables like tomatoes and summer corn, and served with a dashi soy dressing. The flavors were nice but I felt the ramen noodles were more chewy, making it a bit of work to eat.
The noodles were also an issue in the shio ramen ($12) – I ordered with added bean sprouts for 50 cents – where I found the noodles almost bland in flavor and simple in form and appearance. And that’s probably the takeaway from the ramen here, the dishes are presented nicely and service is fast (you order and get a number as you find your own table), but the ramen and broth aren’t memorable.
The last bite: As a casual space, Itani Ramen knocked it out of the park to create an eatery that’s inviting and fun, matching clearly with the hip neighborhood. But the food, especially ramen, isn’t necessarily something to make a special trip for. It’s solid for a quick bite if you’re in the area, but with all the ramen options opening around the Bay Area, it may just be another stop along the ramen train.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Itani Ramen, 1736 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.788.7489. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (till 12:30 a.m. on Friday/Saturday). No reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.itaniramen.com
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