The story: New ramen spots are highly anticipated in the Bay Area, but Marufuku opened under the radar earlier this year. Still, word-of-mouth has created a lot of buzz for the Japantown ramen spot (opened in a former ramen restaurant on the second floor of the Japan Center Mall) and the lines are often long for the no-reservations eatery.
Why I went: After exploring San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon, I decided to go for an early dinner. I thought the restaurant opened at 5:30 p.m. and when I arrived a few minutes before then, the restaurant was already filled with diners (it opens at 5 p.m. on weekends) and there were already several people on the waiting list. I added my name and waited for about an hour.
The vibe: Despite the crowds outside, inside there’s a serene and zen-like feel. The contemporary wooden design with exposed lighting gave it a modern, young feel. You don’t feel packed or rushed, although the kitchen is pretty quick about bringing out the food to turn the tables.
The booze: A limited menu offering the basics in Japanese beer, sake and sochu. I ended up just ordering hot tea, and the menu is pretty basic (my server didn’t even know what kind of tea it was other than it was black).
The menu: Also pretty limited, the emphasis is the Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, which is the rich pork-bone broth that’s popular these days. Marufuku emphasizes that everything, including the thin ramen noodles, are hand-made. The broth is supposedly 20 hours in the making. Marufuku also offers chicken paitan broth, which is similar to tonkotsu but made with chicken. Only 15 servings of the chicken paitan are available each day.
Other than the ramen, I felt the sides and starters were pretty basic. There are a few rice bowls, salad, and several fried items like karaage chicken (fried chicken), takoyaki (octopus balls) and fried squid legs. I tried the buta kakuni ($7), which is braised pork belly that’s available as a ramen selection (but the ramen I ordered had regular cha shu so I wanted to try the braised pork belly). It was tasty with a soy-glaze, but not necessarily fork tender.
For my ramen, I ordered the Hakata tonkotsu ($11.99) and added extra corn ($1). This standard tonkotsu bowl includes a soft boiled egg, simmered pork belly slices (the chashu), green onions, kikurage mushrooms and bean sprouts. You can choose a spice level from mild to ultra spicy, and I tried medium.
The tonkotsu broth was milky and light, not as fatty as other places, which I appreciated. But it didn’t have a very strong flavor, almost bland. The spice level isn’t from spices but instead it tasted like it came from chopped jalapeno peppers because you don’t see the heat but can feel it in the back end. The soft boiled egg was nicely cooked but lacked flavor (it wasn’t marinated like how a lot of new spots are doing it these days).
The ramen noodles were nicely cooked and the thin noodles pair well with tonkotsu broth. But I wished it was a bit more al dente (and really made me miss how the new Ippudo allows you to determine the cooking level of the noodles).
The table next to me ordered one of the limited chicken paitan ramen, and you can always tell when someone orders this because when you get the deluxe version (marked DX on the menu), you get a whole chicken leg on a sizzling platter served on the side with your ramen bowl.
The last bite: Marufuku has people slurping like crazy, which says a lot opening up in Japantown that has several ramen restaurants. While the service is efficient and the decor modern and pleasant, I found the limited menu not having a lot for me to choose from, and the ramen, while authentic, tasting a bit regular and similar to many other ramen spots around town. I’m surprised people are willing to wait more than an hour for the ramen when there are similar options elsewhere.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Marufuku Ramen, 1581 Webster St., Ste. 235 (Second floor of Japan Center Mall), San Francisco. PH: 415.872.9786. Open daily for lunch and dinner (except Mondays). No reservations. Mastercard and Visa only (no American Express). www.marufukuramen.com
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