Pantheon of noshing
Shoki II Ramen House1201 R St.
Sacramento, CA 95811
There seems to be any number of timeworn traditions of meticulous artistry when it comes to Japanese food preparation: teppanyaki to sushi to tonkatsu and, apparently, noodles. Given the abundance of two-bits-a-throw packages in supermarkets, it doesn’t seem like ramen should be in such rarefied company. But the whiteboard at Shoki Ramen House on R and 12th streets, the longtime home of Hitomi Japanese restaurant, says it damn well is, buster.
Shoki isn’t new to Sacramento. The white house on 24th Street in Curtis Park—about the size of the pad Cousin Itt bought when he finally moved out of 0001 Cemetery Lane—with the constant lines to get in was the original. It’s still open. A server says the new location is taking pressure off the first.
Compared to the original joint, the new formerly-known-as-Hitomi space seems spacious. And on a 1 p.m. visit, it’s channeling the original location with a number of folks waiting contentedly in triple-digit heat for a bowl of noodles.
Again, it’s hard to visualize ramen anywhere near the apex of the pantheon of Nippon noshing. In Tokyo, at daughter Katie’s request, a ramen joint is visited. The staff wears royal blue jumpsuits with daffodil yellow rubber boots, undercutting any wisp of culinary gravitas. Noodles, broth, chopped scallions, a square of seaweed, maybe a couple slabs of chasu, an al dente boiled egg and wisps o’ spinach just don’t seem near as intricate or amazing as kaiseki ryori or even cobbling together okonomiyaki or yakisoba.
Don’t go saying that to Shoki’s master chef Yasushi Ueyama. He goes to great lengths to cover the whiteboard on the main wall of Shoki the Second with an explanation of just exactly what constitutes his exceptionally bitchin’ ramen. In brief: Unless going vegan—which in the flavor department carries a comparable oomph to the meat offerings—Maestro Ueyama blends three broths to conjure what he says is a “bowl of dreams.” There’s niku, a meat broth gleaned from pork, chicken bones, bonita and seaweed. Its seafaring sister, wafu, and yasai, the veggie broth. There’s no MSG. No artificial flavors. No flavor enhancers. The garlic and chili paste aren’t added until halfway through the 6- to 8-hour bubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble brothification process so that they can be better enjoyed.
Nevertheless, with the exception of the Tan Tan Men, with its spicy, minced meat laden broth, the ramen dishes are benign, bordering on bland. Sure, part of this assessment stems from an unquenchable affinity for heat—there’s red chili paste and garlic on each table to help solve that issue—but for all the whiteboard hype the expectation is to savor something the emperor would eat when he feels like taking himself downtown.
The difference between the shoyu, soy-based sauce, and shio, seaweed, is elusive. Standard servings come with one thin plank of pork, chasu. An appetite may warrant boosting the price of a medium bowl from around $7 or $8 to $10 by adding three more chasu slices. If going the Tan Tan Men route, keep the spicy level at regular. If still not achieving nose-running nirvana, add some of the stuff on the table. And like pho, a regular sized bowl is plenty to fill up on.
There are some donburi options as well—more on the dinner menu than lunch. The word translates to bowl but wouldn’t be donburi without rice. Most intriguing is the Shirasu-Avocado don at $8.50 for which the little Japanese whitefish has been substituted with salmon. Rice in the chasu don is covered with a slate, wind-whipped sea of chasu pieces. Even after pouring the accompanying broth over it, the flavor is still pretty tame. Maybe it’s not traditional, but a little container of shichimi tôgarashi chili pepper would be a righteous tabletop addition.
As to the variations and vagaries of ramen: Who knew? When Shoki says it does, it’s the truth.