While roaming around town in his food truck, and later attracting long lines on the east side of Grand Central Market, Eggslut chef Alvin Cailan would find himself craving ramen.
This desire for noodles led to frequent trips to the Men Oh ramen shop in Little Tokyo, and to an exploration of the ramen shops throughout Southern California. Cailan and his partner Johnny Lee slurped and studied the broths and noodles, eventually with the idea of opening their own ramen-ya.
Now Cailan and Lee, along with partner Nathan Asamoto, formerly chef at Men Oh, will open Ramen Champ in Chinatown in early January.
Ramen Champ will be on the second floor of the Far East Plaza, the shopping center where Chego and Scoops have set up and Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok Phat Thai will open soon. Ramen Champ celebrates the art scene in Chinatown with black-and-white murals by New York artist Mike Houston, whose ramen art has appeared in David Chang's Lucky Peach magazine.
The Tokyo-style ramen shop will serve three types of ramen, with possible additional specials. The tonkotsu ramen with be served with chasu pork belly, scallions, radishes, sesame seeds and black garlic oil.
“The tonkotsu is super creamy and porky. It’s liquid pork,” says Cailan. “That’s our thing, our main soup. We don’t really mess with it. The noodles are custom-made for us by two Japanese guys in a warehouse in Gardena.” Cailan makes his own sauce with chile de arbol, guajillos and New Mexico chiles. All of the bowls can be made into spicy ramen.
The chicken ramen will take what Cailan refers to as a more “old school” approach, the noodles topped with chicken belly made from two chicken thighs, cooked sous-vide, then sliced to look like pork belly, then topped with carrot and scallion ribbons, sesame seeds, radish and schmaltz on top. They'll also feature "mazemen," or dry ramen, dishes as seasonal specials.
"All of our pork is coming from Salmon Creek Farms, all of our chickens are Jidori," says Cailan. "And the vegetables are coming from the Santa Monica farmers market."
Speaking of vegetables, Cailan and Lee will also have a shiitake mushroom broth for a vegan ramen option, served with an eggless ramen noodle. Pork, fish and vegan Japanese vegetable curry rice bowls can also be ordered as a combo meal.
“Ramen and rice bowls are a classic combination,” says Cailin. “Johnny and I call it fat-boy style. If you have leftover broth, you scoop your rice into the broth and eat it like a porridge. We want that to be part of the culture for our dining room.”
What else? Jidori chicken karaage, a French-influenced brandade-style fish and octopus takoyaki, and a battered hon-shimeji mushroom served with shoyu aioli, which Lee calls their "awesome blossom."
The 750-square-foot space has stools lining wrap-around black granite counters. Beverages include house-made drinks of cold brew matcha and coffee, green tea and yuzu hibiscus punch.
“We really think Chinatown is the place to be,” says Cailan. “Parking is cheap and there is lots of it. We can see the people and the culture here is all about putting hard work into things. I loved it from the start.”
Ramen Champ: Far East Plaza, 727 North Broadway, Chinatown.