The Tonkotsu ramen is the restaurant's most popular dish. (Brian Fong)
When I first went to Uchiwa Ramen in downtown San Rafael the week it opened in September 2014, they were out of almost everything. It was Marin’s first and only ramen restaurant, and so great was the unmet demand that the small restaurant couldn’t keep enough noodles in stock.
"We started with a very simple menu. We wanted to make sure we got it right," said co-owner Benson (Ben) Yang. "We just couldn't anticipate demand. It was a good problem to have, thankfully, we started running out of everything."
Things have changed since then. Uchiwa now has four different kinds of ramen, plus vegetarian and vegan options, and two kids' bowls, a full menu of appetizers, and rotating specials. The bowls are rich and salty, in the Tokyo-style, said Yang. And they hardly ever run out--even with the crowds that fill the space during the winter.
But one thing hasn’t changed: it’s still the only ramen shop in Marin County.
Owners Yang, 49, and Kevin Fong, 51, have long been foodie friends. For over 20 years, they worked together in the healthcare industry. When they started brainstorming ways to take their love of food out of their personal kitchens and to the public, they knew that they wanted to do something locally in Marin, where they both live, and they knew that a diversity of cuisines was lacking on this side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"It's shocking that there isn't more authentic quality Asian food in Marin," said Yang.
It’s not that there’s no good food in Marin. There's even plenty of good Asian food. And it’s not like you can’t get a bowl of ramen at a number of the Japanese restaurants in the county, like Matsuyama in Novato. But even as ramen has exploded in popularity, it hasn’t made its way as thoroughly to Marin. When Yang and Fong talked to the owners of most popular ramen places in San Francisco, they were all hesitant, he said, to move to Marin, and were more likely to head into the East Bay or South Bay.
"The palate in Marin is very strange," said Yang. With so much affluence, there typically comes a diversity of restaurants, but that's somewhat lacking here, he said, because of the demographics. A large Asian population would give authentic Asian restaurants a base of customers, but Marin is only about 6% Asian.
"Kevin and I like to joke that we have 90% marketshare of that 6%," he said.
After the two quit their healthcare jobs in the summer of 2013, they traveled to Japan to hone their ramen techniques and then spent six months perfecting their recipes. During that time, their following grew from serving friends and family in their own kitchens to operating a mini-pop-up out of the Renaissance Center’s commercial kitchen and cafe in downtown San Rafael. (The Renaissance Center has since closed.)
When the official opening of the brick-and-mortar restaurant finally came, the only thing Yang and Fong weren’t sure about was exactly how ready Marin was for their bowls.
The 40-person restaurant is now full most nights, though you can often find walk-up seats at the bar or communal table. Most of the people there are probably ordering the traditional tonkotsu ramen ($12.45), by far the most popular dish, said Yang. Their version of the classic comes with chashu pork, spinach, bean sprouts, mushrooms, green onions, egg, and menma. It’s a hearty and heavy meal that you likely won’t be able to finish.
For a lighter version, the shoyu and shio (both $11.45) are made from the same pork broth as the tonkotsu, but the shoyu uses a soy sauce, while the shio is very light. There is also a miso broth, which is the base of the vegetarian bowl ($11.45) or a pork version ($12.45). We tried the shio vegan bowl ($12.45), which is a tad light on the flavoring without the pork broth to give it extra texture. It comes with bok choy, tofu, and gluten-free noodles, along with the usual veggie toppings, but I'd recommend adding some kimchi to give it spice.
In fact, mix and match toppings as you please; the staff is happy to make recommendations or odd combos they've never heard of.
The menu now also includes an extensive list of drinks and appetizers -- particularly important in the summer, said Yang, when people aren't in the mood for hot soup. The most popular appetizer items are the chili garlic pork wings ($3.95) and the Uchiwa fries ($5.45). We tried the fries, which are an airy, tasty, bizarro world version of American. Yes, they're made of potatoes, but the crispy shell and seasonings are all Japanese. Try them with the special mayo dip.
All the ingredients are sourced locally, as is in keeping with traditions both in the Bay Area and in Japan. The pork, raised and braised in the Japanese style, comes from Masami Ranch. And the noodles at Uchiwa are straight from a Japanese distributor in South San Francisco. "You can't get it anywhere else," said Yang. When they traveled to Japan, he said, the two of them realized both how deeply ingrained ramen is in the culture -- there are close to 30,000 ramen shops in the country -- and how much it varies by region, based on the local ingredients and flavors. What Uchiwa serves is a Tokyo-style ramen, but with the ingredients coming from northern California and a distinctly American flavor that's less fatty and salty than what they learned in Japan.
While Yang and Fong spent quite a bit of time working out their recipes, they still test out new things on the specials menu. If it's a hit, then they move it to the regular menu; if it isn't, then it disappears.
"We wanted to offer folks in Marin maybe something they haven't seen before," said Yang, and to help build up the authentic Asian food in the county.
Across the street, at Saigon Village, you can get delicious pho, and around the corner, at Tenkyu, is udon. Now add to that Marin list: ramen.