The Shio ramen with pork chasu. (Kelly O'Mara/KQED)
"They're just noodles," yelled a heckler, as he walked by the few dozen of us standing in line outside the newly opened Mensho Tokyo Ramen on Geary Street.
Sure, maybe it's just noodles, but don't say that to popular ramen creator Tomoharu Shono.
This is Shono's first venture into the U.S., but his ramen shops in Tokyo are exceedingly popular and well-known for their inventive dishes. Each of the Tokyo shops has a specific theme, but the new San Francisco spot is more all-encompassing when it comes to authentic Japanese ramen.
What makes it authentic Japanese ramen? There are five things that make up ramen, said Abram Plaut, Shono's Bay Area-based business partner known as Ramen Beast for his ramen reviews and coming ramen app. Those five pillars are: soup, noodles, toppings, oil, and tare (the sauces mixed in). Those can combine in an infinite number of variations, meaning that ramen is "very simple," said Plaut, but also very complex. Much of the ramen around the Bay Area, he said, is really just "noodle soup." But Mensho perfects the combination of all five pillars to elevate the dish beyond soup.
The shop opened this past weekend and is open every night except Monday, but you may need to get there early to get a seat in the small space. Two long rows of tables, plus a narrow bar, manage to cram about 30 people into the storefront, but there's at least that many waiting for a seat.
The wait can be long, and don't expect the line to get shorter anytime soon. The opening has been so hotly anticipated that one guy in front of us was already back for a second time. We showed up a little after 7 p.m. on a Tuesday and were seated around 8:30 p.m. There are also some kinks in the system that still need to be sorted out, in terms of order timing and service.
"It's a work in progress," said Plaut. "Be patient with us."
But the ramen, he promises, is worth the wait.
Right now, the menu is limited to four main items: tori paitan ramen, organic shio or shoyu ramen, and vegan tantanmen. Ultimately, the full menu will include starters, like a starter ramen made via a coffee siphone of kombu dashi and kastuoboshi dashi poured over fresh noodles, and many more kinds of main dish ramen—tori paitan ramen, tonkotsu ramen, ebi miso ramen, organic shio and shoyu ramen, vegan tantanmen, and white truffle shio ramen—as well as tsukemen (a concentrated broth style) and mazesoba (a soup-less version).
Shono, who was in town for the opening, has returned to Japan, leaving the shop in the hands of Plaut and Japanese staff. But he'll be back in San Francisco at the end of the month and will roll out more of the menu then.
Particularly anticipated is the debut of the hand-made noodles. Right now, Mensho purchases its noodles from Yamachan, and that will continue to be the case for the next six months or so until the noodle prep room can be fully built out. The tonkotsu ramen is also on hold until a broth preparation process that meets U.S. food safety standards can be perfected. (In Japan, the broth heats for 8-10 hours and then sits for another 8-10 hours.)
What is available right now, though, is plenty tasty. The current signature item is the tori paitan ramen, a rich and creamy chicken broth with pork and duck chasu, menma, kale, and burdock. Try the standard bowl ($16) or load up on double chase ($18), but good luck finishing. The bowl is fairly heavy and protein-dense. While some of the ingredients are being imported from Japan, Shono has said he is also relying heavily on local farmers markets. All in all, it makes for a very dense and smooth dish.
For a slightly lighter meal, try the organic shoyu ($14), which comes with a pork and chicken broth, pork and duck chasu, kale, kale sprouts, menma, chives, and nori. Or, order the lightest of options, which is what we tried: the popular organic shio bowl ($9). The shio ramen is significantly lighter than either of the other non-vegetarian options, with thinner noodles and a watery broth. You can add extra pork or duck, or just enjoy the spice mixture of garlic, chives, nori, and shio tare.
Top it all off with a Suntory beer on tap, and you'll have a delicious authentic Japanese meal right here in San Francisco.