味千拉麵 ajisen ramen: unmade in china
So the mainstream American media has been making a big furor over unsafe toys as of late, and companies like Mattel are quick to point fingers at their contracted Chinese manufacturers. That’s right, fault the foreigner. I’ll try to keep my politics to a minimum, but I think we can all agree that there’s enough blame to go around, whether it’s shoddy third world quality control or good old exploitative outsourcing, Yankee corporate-style.
Either way, products “made in China” are now so stigmatized that a whole generation of American children will soon be bored out of their wits playing with overpriced wooden blocks and quasi-humanoidal Playmobil® doodads from Denmark. Forget about cool, licensed action figures with 36-point articulation and real “American” heroes with kung-fu grip because, well, kung-fu grip is made in China and by golly, bring on the boycott because the American people demand American quality for their consumer dollar, even if that dollar equals a foreign factory worker’s entire salary for the month of July.
Chinese noodles first appeared in Japan over a half-century ago. As with electronics and automobiles, the Japanese took lai mian and put their own spin on it, creating the various forms of ramen that exist today. Though 1.7 billion people might be rearing to kick my ass for saying so, Ajisen Ramen is what happens when you outsource your noodles back to the mainland. As with lead paint on Hot Wheels, there’s a lesson to be learned in this mess they call a bowl.
Ajisen started out as a modest little shop in Kumamoto, serving up the local style of ramen, a celebrated amalgam of soft noodles and pork-bone soup spiced up with fried garlic oil. When they franchised, branches popped up across Asia, in places like Guangzhou, Taipei, and Singapore. It is this Chinese-run offshoot of the Japanese original that eventually made its way to North America, first to New York City, where I lunched on their “beef ramen” in 2004.
You see, I want to say that their noodles are good, that it doesn’t matter if a ramen shop is run by Japanese people or Chinese people or even say, some exceptionally open-minded Malawi tribesmen. But now that the operation has cloned itself here in the San Gabriel Valley, home to L.A.‘s largest Chinese community, all that remains is a multi-generational facsimile of something that might once have been Kumamoto-style ramen, but, whatever it is now, it really isn’t all that spectacular.
Ajisen sells a packaged version of their signature ramen in Japanese supermarkets; I’m thoroughly convinced that it is this same frozen product that they actually serve at their restaurants. The noodles in Kumamoto ramen are often nothing to write home about, as the pride of this central Kyushu city is largely (and justifiably) overshadowed by neighboring Hakata’s firm, hearty strands. But Ajisen has an exceptionally ill-adapted noodle with a limp texture eerily reminiscent of spaghetti. Not a good thing.
Likewise, the tonkotsu soup is thin and not nearly complex enough despite the signature fried garlic oil, which does add a fragrance as best it can. In a pinch a meal here can be satisfying, but like bad Chinese stir-fry, the overall combination of flavors is one-note and far too straightforward. The restaurant’s namesake bowl comes loaded with overwrought toppings. An ostentatious slab of chashu, not quite buta kakuni is competent enough to earn a few points, but an irritating clump of mushy boiled cabbage is a wallop to the palate that haunts me to this very day.
A quick scan of Ajisen’s menu and it’s easy to see what went wrong. Perversions abound, from noodles with pickled baby octopus more commonly associated with dim sum to “tomato chicken ramen,” which nearly had me gunning for the door. I’m all for innovation, but someone in the quality control department needs to get on the ball at this franchise. Never has something “made in China”, well, made by Chinese people at least, failed this conspicuous consumer quite so.
|a thin and unremarkably straightforward attempt at tonkotsu soup is reasonably disguised by signature fried garlic oil. kumamoto has a mediocre ambassador at best.||5|
|limp and floury noodles, with a texture eerily reminiscent of spaghetti. i swear this is the same stuff they use in their frozen, packaged nama ramen. this undoes the whole bowl.||1|
|the chashu is a gallant if ostentatious attempt at buta kakuni. lose the cabbage and get a fluent english speaker to change the names on the menu, please. "tenderous rib ramen?" oh come on. i dare anyone to try the "tomato chicken ramen." i'm not going to, not anytime soon.||5|
|i lost my appetite midway through.||NA|
|ajisen ramen is surprisingly sleek and pimped out. what's up with the gigantic sumo mural? oh, i guess it's "japanesey" to non-japanese diners. points for the wall of bowls, which echo the shin-yokohama raumen museum. absolutely fascinating. just lose the tacky promotional posters with the airbrushed fonts. no respectable japanese place would be caught dead with those hanging up on the walls.||2|
|kumamoto ramen, outsourced chinese style. sorry, i wish i could love you. but... aaaarggh.||0.5|
227 W. Valley Blvd.