Hot in Japan
Sacramento, CA 95818
Hokkaido, as the geographically literate are keenly aware, is the second largest and northernmost of Japan’s islands. It must be a lovely place, because its capital, Sapporo, is named after a beer.
Hokkaido is also the name of a self-described noodle house next to Kathmandu Kitchen near 18th Street on Broadway. Its corn-colored walls and light-wood tables create a cheery and inviting space—a stark contrast to some noodle joints in Tokyo, with their dark plank walls and low ceilings, whose claustrophobia is compounded by steam and smoke swirling from the open kitchen. Curtis Park’s Shoki Ramen House has a more traditional Japanese hole-in-the-wall noodle-house feel.
Hokkaido’s welcoming warmth is amplified by its servers, which include, on one occasion, an observant matriarch who notices several heaping spoonfuls of modestly spicy hoisin sauce being dumped into the house special ramen. Soon thereafter, she appears tableside with a tiny dish of the chef’s newly minted hot sauce, in which bits of dried and fresh red chilies swim in sesame chili oil.
“You like it very hot?” she asks.
The patriarch, from near the bar, looks over in both surprise and mild aggrievement when the teeny dish’s entire contents are poured into the ramen. While not creating a conflagration, the benign, milky pork-based—tonkatsu—broth takes on a rust hue and a much more demonic character.
On other visits, the friendly and forthcoming Cynthia and Megan scramble to accomplish various whims, like having the chef fire up the house special donburi beef: a hearty mix consisting of a small warm cabbage island wedged next to a cyclops of black sesame-seed-strewn rice in a mahogany ocean of ground-beef sauce. The few dried chilies added to the sauce have little impact.
The complimentary sunomono is generous but teeth-chattering. The cucumber half-moons have been in the back of the fridge awhile.
A bit of self-inflicted confusion is engendered by the gyoza appetizer, which is, in fact, just as advertised, gyoza: pot stickers. Somehow despite reading the word gyoza, and knowing pot stickers are a common ramen accompaniment, the brain conjured “yuk wok,” the deep-fried dumplings that have graced the menu of the venerable Frank Fat’s for decades. Hokkaido does the gyoza tradition proud, although there is scant nuance to steaming.
The vegetable tempura is Tuber World Headquarters: sweet potato, zucchini, carrot and a green yam the waitress says is cucumber. More variety would be welcome.
In Japan, eateries tend to be more specialized. A teppan place is all teppan all the time. Don’t look for okonomiyaki at a sushi joint. And, if harboring a hankering for something more than ramen, avoid a noodle house.
While Hokkaido does offer eight ramen options including the spicy—which would better live up to its name with a generous helping of the chef’s chili concoction—it also features nine donburi dishes, including four curries, as well as seven types of yakitori. Among the yakitori options is the unfortunately but accurately named “offal,” upon whose two skewers a diner can have a choice of chicken gizzard, heart or liver. Okra or asparagus yakitori are vegetarian options.
There’s more than enough ramen and corn kernels in the normal size of the house ramen. But it, like the other ramen choices, seems light on everything else. Two 2-inch by 2-inch, half-inch-thick slices of char siu; one piece of inaccurately named spicy calamari; half a boiled egg; a garnish of dried seaweed; and a very light—as in damn hard to find—scattering of green veggies seems, to be charitable, a bit thrifty. More scallions. More spinach. More of everything but noodles.
Ramen, on its own, isn’t terrifically flavorful. It’s the broth and the fixins that enliven it. Hokkaido could add some flair and flash to its fare. The chef’s self-made hot sauce is a promising creative step in that direction. Zutto tsuzukete kudasaimasu.