Forget the possible heat and inevitable crowds, it's time for another edition of the Ramen Yokocho fest. The massive noodlepalooza is coming to Santa Anita Park on the weekend of March 28-29, and this time the Ramen Yokocho Assn. is not only bringing you 11 ramen-yas but, for the first time, they're holding a ramen championship.
When you buy a ticket, you'll also be given a ballot so that you can vote for your favorite ramen. Only the U.S. ramen shops are eligible (the Japanese shops are considered guests), thus seven of the 11 shops are in the running to become Ramen Champion. Of those, seven U.S. shops are entrants from Hawaii, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, including Alvin Cailan of Ramen Champ, the newish ramen-ya in Chinatown's Far East Plaza, and the only non-Japanese chef competing.
When we ran into Cailan on Monday, checking out the permanent lines in front of his Eggslut stall at Grand Central Market, he said he and his crew at Ramen Champ were working on a Kitakata-style tonkotsu ramen for the event — the first he's beeen to as a vendor, although he's been there before as a customer. "Thin flat noodles. Diced pork back fat," said Cailan. "It should be interesting."
Also coming are Shin-Sen-Gumi, Urban Ramen, and chef Mako Tanaka of JuJuYa, all of Los Angeles; San Francisco's Men Oh; Kaido from Las Vegas; Hawaii's Kamitoku; and from Japan, Osaka Ramen Collabo (Osaka), Tatsunoya (Kurume), Wakamusha (Fukushima) and Kin-To-Un (Kagoshima).
The majority of the ramen shops will be bringing tonkotsu ramen, the wildly popular, very rich pork broth soup, although there will also be bowls of spicy miso ramen, shoyu and shrimp tonkotsu. This year, Wakamusha will be bringing bowls of Bai Tang ramen — billed as Japan's latest ramen trend — a creamy chicken-based soup.
The winner of the ramen championship will be announced on March 29 at 4 p.m.
This year's festival is being held over two days at Santa Anita racetrack, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission to the racetrack is $5, although the ramen festival itself is free. Bowls of ramen cost $8.50 per bowl (cash only). Kids under 12 get in free, and parking is free at Parking 6. For those wanting to avoid long lines, there are pre-event express tickets available at Ramen Yokocho's website.
It's worth noting that at last year's Ramen Yokocho fest at Santa Anita, they sold over 50,000 bowls of ramen, despite both impressive heat and lines.
The Ramen Yokocho Assn. was established in Southern California in 2013 to promote appreciation of ramen. "Yokocho" means "alleyway" in Japanese, and the festivals are meant to, sort of, replicate the experience of eating ramen in Japanese alleyways lined with food vendors where the noodles were historically sold.
Because taking pictures of ramen is almost as much fun as eating it, on Instagram @ascattergood.