I’d first heard about Ippudo in Manhattan, where its reputation for delicious Japanese ramen noodles translated into long waits of more than 1.5 hours. Its popularity spawned a Westside location, but lines are still supposedly long for the hakata tonkotsu broth.
I didn’t realize that Ippudo was a major chain from Japan (specifically Fukuoka), and has locations all around the world but only in New York in the United States. Until this summer, when Ippudo opened its first highly anticipated West Coast restaurant in late July in downtown Berkeley.
No surprise, long waits occur during peak times, mostly weekends, when visiting the new Berkeley restaurant. I waited awhile to let the frenzy cool a bit, and finally stopped in for a weeknight dinner recently with my friend David.
The restaurant has the whole queuing situation locked down with its sidewalk velvet rope setup. David was first in line when he arrived for an early dinner at 5:15 p.m. on a Thursday night. When I caught up a few minutes later, we only had to wait another 15 minutes before a host came out to invite us into the restaurant.
The contemporary space with wood furnishings and open kitchen behind glass has the typical communal dining experience. The servers are professional and courteous, although they still seemed to be finding their way (we had some confusion with dishes we didn’t order coming to our table).
The menu has just three types of ramen: “shiromaru” (the classic tonkotsu broth), “akamaru” (a modern spin on the tonkotsu broth with a secret miso blend), or “karaka” (spicy version). For each type, you can order plain with pork belly chashu slices, bean sprouts, kikurage mushrooms and scallions, or add a seasoned soft boiled egg, or go with the special, which adds more pork belly chashu and nori seaweed.
David ordered the shiromaru ($14) while I got the akamaru with egg ($17). I’ll note that David hasn’t had a lot of experience with eating ramen, other than what he’s had (and enjoyed) at Oakland’s Ramen Shop. He felt his bowl of ramen was underwhelming and a bit plain. Maybe he needed the akamaru, because I felt the red blob of Ippudo’s secret “umami dama” or miso paste really added to my bowl of ramen, making my bowl quite balanced and authentic in flavors.
What’s unique about dining at Ippudo is that while there is only one type of ramen noodles, you get to specify the firmness of your noodles, which goes from a range of soft to firm with the categories “yawa,” “futsu,” “kata” and “bari kata.” I really liked this touch because nothing spoils ramen for me than when it comes out overcooked or too soft. I like “kata” and my ramen had that right amount of bite and chew that made the overall ramen enjoyable.
Ippudo has a few starter items like fried chicken and chicken wings, along with steamed buns and a couple of “salads.” David and I both found the starters to be a stark contrast to the ramen, which felt authentic and of high quality. The appetizers, on the other hand, felt a bit formulaic, like the chicken steamed buns ($9) that came out with a dark sweet soy glaze. I felt the buns were also a bit large in proportion to the chicken slices, and David was totally turned off when he realized there was a mayonnaise spread inside (he really hates mayonnaise).
We also tried the “Goma Q” ($8) or seasoned cucumbers that came out looking like a caterpillar. While the cucumbers were crunchy, it lacked much flavor even though it sat in a sesame oil sauce.
Ippudo is partly owned by the same conglomerate that owns Panda Express, which explains the funding it has for its major push to expand in the United States. The appetizers really made me feel like I was eating chain food where it felt the kitchen was almost creating paint-by-number dishes.
Side note: Ippudo puts such an emphasis on the “quality” of its food that the menu states that it will not provide any “to-go” boxes because it wants you to eat the food right out of the kitchen.
The last bite
I really enjoyed Ippudo’s ramen, especially the akamaru with its cooked-to-your-taste noodles and tender chashu. But the non-ramen plates are underwhelming and almost formulaic, failing in their role of supporting stars. I would definitely go back to Ippudo for the ramen, but its single focus menu makes me willing to only wait a half an hour, max.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Ippudo, 2015 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Calif. PH: 510.666.8807. Open daily from 11 a.m. for lunch and dinner. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. Website
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