It’s hard to imagine ramen to be more popular than it already is in the San Francisco Bay Area, but after dining at the new white hot Mensho Tokyo in the Tenderloin neighborhood last night, you’d think ramen has finally arrived in San Francisco.
This may be a reflection of the fact that many ramen lovers complain about how there’s no good bowl of ramen in San Francisco, and often opine on how the only satisfying bowls of this popular Japanese soup noodle dish are from ramen spots in San Mateo and the South Bay.
Mensho Tokyo is a popular ramen chain from Japan, whose owner/chef Tomoharu Shono has developed a reputation for creating interesting broths such as foie gras tsukemen or for Valentines in one location a chocolate broth. In San Francisco, Mensho’s first U.S. outpost has only been open for a week, and on Saturday night there were people lining up an hour before its 5 p.m. opening (I was among the first in line) and the line was a block long through the night as ramen lovers waited to see what Mensho ramen was all about.
Since they’re just starting out, the Mensho menu is limited during these first few opening weeks. For now, there’s the tori paitan broth (a rich, creamy chicken broth), organic shoyu (a mix of clear chicken and pork broth), shio (clear chicken and pork broth with shio dare), and a vegan tantanmen.
The vegan option was perfect for my friend Kim, a pescaterian who lives in the neighborhood and whom I recruited to help me check out the new spot. I tried a bit of the broth and it was a rich broth but with a brightness to it that was very interesting. If I weren’t such a pork lover, I may choose the vegan option in the future. The vegan tantanmen ($18) came with mushrooms, Japanese soy cream, seven types of nuts, sesame, cilantro, chili oil, green onion, menma (a type of fermented bamboo shoots) and kale sprouts.
I went with the tori paitan ramen ($16), which is served with pork chashu, duck chashu, menma, kale, burdock, and katsuobushi sauce. The broth is definitely rich, and a bit like the popular pork tonkotsu broth which is all the rave at ramen places. The pork chashu was nicely tender (the duck chashu, however, was so thin I gobbled them without really getting much out of it). But I really felt the star was the house-made noodles, which is thicker than any of the ramen served up anywhere in the states.
Side note: Shono is trying to figure out how he can make his tonkotsu broth in the states. His process involves letting the broth age 8 to 10 hours in room temperature, but health regulations prohibits that here. He’s reportedly looking for a process that allows the aging to occur in the refrigerator.
The only other item on the menu is an appetizer dish of oysters in shoyu dare oil ($5), which was like dried oysters that had been rehydrated with soy sauce. It was a nice bite but the intense taste of oysters might be an acquired taste for some.
My friend Kim enjoyed her vegan ramen, but she was less impressed by the service, which is probably still trying to find its rhythm. For example, our server was in such as rush when Kim ordered a vegan ramen, she automatically thought I was getting one too. And because of the tight quarters in the communal tables, the server has to pass the bowls of ramen to people instead of going around to delivery it from behind.
The last bite
Still, Mensho Tokyo holds a lot of promise, and the thick noodles (which I’m a fan) make it automatically stand apart from the crowds. The promise of inventive broth in the future (a sign listed broths such as ebi miso, a shrimp based miso) makes me curious enough to return. Mensho Tokyo’s ramen may not be ground-breaking, but I always remind friends that ramen is not supposed to elevate you to new heights. It’s an everyday dish that satisfies and comforts, and if a bowl of noodles accomplishes that, then it has done its job.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Mensho Tokyo, 672 Geary St. (between Leavenworth and Jones), San Francisco. PH: 415.800.8345. Open daily from 5 to 11:30 p.m. (or until broth runs out) except Mondays. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. mensho.tokyo
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