The classic tonkotsu (pork belly, bean sprouts, bok choy, mushrooms, seaweed, noodles, egg) is a signature at Noka Ramen. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
If you scan ramen threads on Reddit or Twitter, you’ll find the occasional hater who claims that the Bay Area’s ramen “sucks” or is “overrated" (particularly when compared to LA's offerings). I don’t completely disagree with those statements. Many times I’ve been told about a top ramen joint in NorCal only to be underwhelmed by spaghetti-like noodles or an odd ratio of toppings that overpower the actual ramen.
Occasionally, though, I’ll find a spot here that reminds me of the top-tier ramen I experienced during a trip to Tokyo, where each brothy spoonful delivered a soulful warmth that transcended any language barrier.
That’s exactly the kind of good vibe I found at Noka Ramen in Oakland’s Jack London Square. You may recall the restaurant going viral last fall, when its staff stopped a man from assaulting a woman inside the dining room — while dressed up as Power Rangers. As the story made the rounds on social media, it also brought attention to the eatery’s flamboyant staff and quirky decor. The establishment’s most essential element — its actual ramen — was given a well-deserved signal boost, too. They haven’t held back any punches since then.
Since it opened in the summer of 2022, Noka has been serving up some of the tastiest (and spiciest) ramen in the East Bay. The colorful shop has mastered the art of flavorful presentation, with its stylish Power Ranger–themed tiki drinks, anime playing in the background and over-the-top menu items like the Ikari Steak Ramen, which features slow–cooked beef rib confit, creamy spicy miso and a splash of 151 rum that’s been lit on fire ($36).
But for me, it’s the simpler ramen dishes that keep me coming back for more. The spicy miso ramen, in particular, is one of the fiercest broths I’ve found in the Bay and packs more than enough heat (hack: order the shishito pepper appetizer and mix some of its spicy sauce into your bowl for an extra kick).
What helps Noka stand out from the competition is the vision of Pop-Kasem Saengsawang, the creative owner of a local Thai restaurant mini-empire that includes Farmhouse Kitchen, Son & Garden and Daughter Thai Kitchen. With the help of Kenichi Ota, the consultant and teacher behind the Los Angeles-based Ramen School USA, Saengsawang is now adding his own spin to the ramen circuit.
Here’s what the two collaborators and friends had to say about serving noodles on the docks of the Frisco Bay.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ALAN CHAZARO: You both grew up in Asia before immigrating to California. What brought you here, and what has been your experience with the U.S. food industry?
POP-KASEM SAENGSAWANG: I’m originally from Thailand. I moved to the States with the hope of becoming Bill Gates (laughs). I was a computer scientist and moved here to continue my studies. During college, I had to start working and learn how to live on my own. I worked in a kitchen and served as a manager for six years and fell in love with food. I opened my first restaurant back then, but only nine months later it closed down (laughs). I was 26 years old. It was a Japanese sushi restaurant. My chef taught me a lot about raw fish, sauces and to care about the traditions. It was all new to me. One day my chef didn’t show up, and I realized that I didn’t understand it well enough, that I needed to learn more. Eventually I opened Farmhouse Kitchen. It was fun. My wife [Ing Kumo] and I enjoyed that, because it was totally us.
KENICHI OTA: I came 18 years ago and started working at a Japanese grocery shop in San Jose. I eventually opened a ramen shop of my own, but I had some issues at the time and had to return to Japan, so I closed it down. Five years ago, after I returned, I wanted to enter the ramen market, but nobody was making the sort of ramen that I wanted to make. I decided that I could help others who wanted to learn how to make ramen. I thought, let’s try to support the restaurants who have a passion for Japanese food and products and who want to learn to make it. That’s when I started to do consulting and teaching.
Why did you decide to open Noka? Why ramen?
SAENGSAWANG: After the pandemic, I learned a lot about comfort food and what people wanted. I was always dreaming about a noodle bar for so long. I grew up in Thailand, [where] the two key ingredients are rice and noodles. I had time to learn and study during [the pandemic]. I went to different noodle shops, tried to get a feel, talked to the chefs. But I didn’t have the answers until I found Ken. The way he taught me is to jump in and make it your own experience. I feel like it’s something that I really enjoyed and could adapt and turn into my own recipes. With his knowledge and help, we created a beautiful broth and chewy noodles. I didn’t want my ramen shop to feel like traditional ramen, so I added lobster, short ribs, those kinds of things to the menu. I didn’t want to mix with Thai or anything else, though. I wanted it to be Japanese ramen. Over many months, Ken returned to check the recipe and make it better. I’m super grateful for him.
OTA: For Japanese people, ramen is an important part of food. I started making ramen about 14 years ago. I was working at the grocery store and making ramen there. I was working with ramen chefs to make it and started going to outside events and pop-ups as well. People think ramen is just general. But it’s a whole process with many varieties and styles. It’s about details and careful directions, but the whole process is enjoyable. It’s not stressful for me. Making ramen is simply fun.
Where did the whole Power Rangers concept come from?
SAENGSAWANG: The Power Rangers idea is about having fun, first of all. It’s also a good look. I grew up with Japanese cosplay, so I really enjoy the Power Rangers. The Power Rangers don’t have just one guy or person — it’s a team. That was our goal. Then my wife, Ing Kumo, created the Power Ranger cocktail. When we bring it out, the server might do the Power Ranger move (chops the air). We might as well wear it and have fun. For our shyest servers, they become different people when they wear it. Customers can’t see you. It changed the way they walked from when they would dress regularly. It just brings a unique experience to everyone — customers and workers. At first everyone laughed and didn’t want to wear it. But now they love to pick their colors each week: pink, black, green, white.
Noka Ramen went viral last year after an incident involving staff members dressed as Power Rangers — when your employees helped to end a physical altercation in public. How did you all deal with that and in what ways did it affect the community?
SAENGSAWANG: The first couple of days I told everyone I don’t want to say that we were heroes. I don’t want to twist it since we weren’t really sure what was going on with the gentleman and lady who were fighting in our restaurant. Our goal is to protect our customers, always. The cosplay heroes were the story that day by coincidence. My manager pushed the guy out of the restaurant. It’s difficult because we don’t expect our staff to fight like that. It’s dangerous. There is one instance in San Francisco where a worker was stabbed because they ran after a customer who didn’t pay. I told everyone that we didn’t want to celebrate or share what happened because it’s a tricky situation. When the media came, I didn’t want to put my workers in the spotlight. What if the man came back and tried to attack my workers? So we focused on what we serve, how we value the customers.
We went to court as witnesses, and we had to make sure the woman who was attacked got the support she needed. We hired a lawyer to make sure that one of our employees wasn’t involved [with any charges]. We were just trying to protect ourselves and everyone. That guy who attacked went to other locations nearby; he was also at Plank, and the police were involved there and arrested him. We don’t want our employees to be in those situations, but we appreciate the community that keeps supporting us because they feel like it was a heroic thing. It turned out positive. In Oakland, we have many people who are protecting the community and making sure no one gets hurt here in this city.
That incident brought a lot of positive attention to Noka and put it on many people’s radars as a ramen destination. What are your thoughts on the ramen scene in the Bay Area, and what is Noka doing differently, besides dressing up as Power Rangers, to stand out?
OTA: There is high-quality ramen in San Francisco, and there is a huge market in the Bay Area. It’s competitive for the United States. Noka is joining that market later, so Pop and I talked about concepts. We don’t need to only follow the exact authentic recipes. It’s not our goal. Our goal is to have ramen lovers come back; maybe they’re new to ramen. We focused on the mix of American people here and what we could do to make them like Noka. That’s how we approached it.
SAENGSAWANG: To my understanding, when people experience something and they enjoy it, they want to return because they liked it, whether it’s traditional or non-traditional. Some people grew up with ramen being cooked at home by mom. Noka Ramen can’t recreate that. Noka Ramen is about bringing a fun new experience. Ramen is about joy and we try our best to represent that feeling. Of course, we can’t replicate the most traditional. It can’t ever be exactly like home-cooked ramen. There are too many factors. So we focus on providing a good experience with noodles with love and joy. That’s the concept.
We don’t like to compare ourselves with others. Every ramen [shop] has their own unique story of making ramen. Some restaurants here are owned by Koreans, so they add kimchi. Some are Chinese-owned and have catfish or ingredients mixed from Chinese culture. That’s great. The generations that grew up with mixed cultures can adapt and adventure easier. But I told Ken that I wanted Noka to be Japanese without any Thai [influence].
What’s the secret to making good ramen?
OTA: My teaching program is about making everything from scratch and using premium ingredients. Everything from scratch, including appetizers and other dishes. Lots of people use [pre-made] concentrated stuff, and the broth isn’t as good. Or [they use] cheap ingredients. We use so many steps to make our ramen that it’s almost too much to follow (laughs).
SAENGSAWANG: We probably use about 40 pounds of bones or more in each batch of our broth, and it takes about six hours just to make the broth. Ken brought his technique to Noka, which is the high-pressure machine. We use that, too. Ken imported that from Japan. Traditional style uses an open-faced pot, but this high-pressure pot pushes all the ingredients into water and makes it super creamy. That makes it different and isn’t a common technique here. Ken’s [noodle] recipe is really unique. It’s high-end flour imported from Japan. I also purchased a noodle machine from Japan. Everything is written in Japanese and I can’t read it (laughs). Google Translate didn’t help. Ken came in and showed us the steps and how to operate it.
I thought you could just buy noodles and put it in a broth (laughs). Not at all. It’s all worth it though. I want our customers to eat with love. That’s our goal.
Besides Noka, where is your favorite place to get ramen in the Bay Area?
SAENGSAWANG: My spot to go for ramen is Nagi Ramen in San Mateo.
OTA: Yes, Nagi is good. Very unique ramen. They come from Japan. I enjoy it. But also I have to say: Go Noka!
Noka Ramen is open Mon. through Fri. from 11 a.m.–2 pm and 5–9 p.m., and Sat. and Sun. from noon–3 p.m. and 5–9 p.m. The restaurant is located at 90 Franklin St. in Oakland.
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