One of the East Bay’s Best Ramen Shops Takes Its Cues From Hawaii

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A bowl of ramen: red-tinted broth topped with pork chashu, egg, scallions and a flurry of grated Parmesan cheese.
Even though Masa Ramen Bistro's signature "Broke Da Mouf" ramen doesn't have Hawaiian ingredients, the over-the-top spirit behind the dish is quintessentially Hawaiian. (Luke Tsai)

At Berkeley’s Masa Ramen Bistro, one vintage travel poster on the wall depicts a woman in a stylized kimono. In another, a young man crouches on a surfboard, riding a wave alongside a school of flying fish. “Fly to Hawaii,” the poster reads, and that’s also the promise that the restaurant offers to prospective diners: It’s a marriage between Japanese traditionalism and chill island vibes — between tonkotsu on one side of the menu and Spam musubi on the other.

Not for nothing, the restaurant also serves some of the tastiest ramen in the East Bay.

Open since September on University Avenue, a few blocks away from the UC Berkeley campus, Masa Ramen is the brainchild of its namesake, chef Tim Masa Kawamoto. He and his partners in the venture, Clyde and Jackie Ulep, were born and raised in the Honolulu area, and upon arriving on the mainland, they identified what seemed like a surefire business opportunity. They met a lot of Hawaiians who’d relocated to the Bay Area, and, at the same time, they hadn’t been very impressed with the local ramen scene.

“We just felt like there was a niche for it,” Kawamoto says.

So Kawamoto, who is Japanese and has spent the better part of his career cooking at Japanese restaurants in Hawaii, set out to create his own unique mix of the two culinary traditions. Hawaii itself has its own rich ramen culture, Kawamoto explains. Because there are so many people of Japanese descent who live there — and many Japanese tourists who visit — there are a lot of high-quality traditional ramen shops, which span many of the different regional styles that are popular in Japan. At the same time, Hawaii has its own local style known as saimin, a noodle soup created by Chinese and Japanese workers on the pineapple plantations during the early 20th century.

A plate of Hawaiian-style mochiko fried chicken with shredded cabbage and lemon wedges on the side.
The restaurant serves both Japanese-style karaage and Hawaiian-style mochiko fried chicken — the crunchy, sweet-and-savory version pictured here. (Luke Tsai)

Masa Ramen Bistro doesn’t serve saimin. And, for the most part, it doesn’t really aspire to serve “Hawaiian ramen,” in that literal sense. If anything, the focus of the menu is comfort food, both Hawaiian and Japanese — but the two sides are mostly kept separate. The Hawaiian side includes things like mochiko (sweet rice flour) fried chicken, Spam musubi and loco moco. On the Japanese side, the restaurant serves curry plates and karaage-style fried chicken, in addition to its daily lineup of six or seven different ramens.


Meanwhile, Kawamoto says he wouldn’t necessarily characterize the ramen itself as any kind of “fusion” food. The Diamond Head, for instance, is a straight-ahead tonkotsu ramen, and it’s about as satisfying a version as you’ll find in the area — rich without being overly heavy. But that’s not to say that the ramens don’t have a certain Hawaiian sensibility to them as well.

Take the restaurant’s signature “Broke Da Mouf” ramen, for instance, which takes its name from a Hawaiian expression used to describe something very, very delicious. (Or, as Kawamoto puts it, “It’s just so good, you can’t wait to have it.”) The base of the dish, again, is Kawamoto’s creamy tonkotsu broth, which he spikes with black garlic oil, garlic butter and chili sauce, all made in-house. Thin, straight ramen noodles are custom-made for the restaurant by Iseya Craft Noodle, the same Hayward-based noodle maker that supplies San Francisco’s Noodle in a Haystack and a few other highly touted ramen shops. Most striking, a little mound of hand-grated Parmesan cheese sits on top, providing an extra layer of unctuousness once you mix it into the broth. It’s a bold bowl of ramen, both in its flavors and in the way it manages to strike just the right balance between so many disparate components.

There’s nothing Hawaiian per se about any of those ingredients, Kawamoto explains. But the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spirit behind the dish is purely Hawaiian. “You know how they say in Texas, everything is bigger?” he says. “In Hawaii, the term is ‘go for broke.’ If you’re going to go, then go all the way. If you’re going to eat, then eat.

Another nod to Hawaii’s multicultural food traditions: The restaurant serves oxtail soup, a slow-simmered, star anise–fragrant dish that came out of Hawaii’s Chinese immigrant community. Masa Ramen Bistro serves the soup in the traditional way, with a side of white rice. But, fittingly for a Hawaiian ramen restaurant, you can also order it over ramen noodles.

In the five months since it has been open, the restaurant has already picked up a devoted following among Cal students and folks who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Kawamoto says he understands why some hardcore ramen heads may have been a little bit skeptical at first, perhaps worried that the “Hawaiian ramen” concept was just a gimmick.

There is one demographic, however, that Kawamoto says has embraced the restaurant from the start: “Japanese people love Hawaii,” he says. “For them, it’s the best of both worlds.”

Spam musubi — spam and rice wrapped in a large piece of toasted seaweed — served on a black plate.
Spam musubi, Masa Ramen Bistro style. (Luke Tsai)

Masa Ramen Bistro is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–2:45 p.m. and 5–8:30 p.m., at 1923 University Ave. in Berkeley.