"Our restaurant aims for painful, delicious and spicy," reads a sign on each table at the new Killer Noodle on Sawtelle Boulevard. "Customers with sensitivity to spice should check with server before ordering. First-time visitors should refrain from ordering levels 5 and 6. Please take care of your bottoms when you complete your meal."
Did you happen to see the cartoon that played with the re-release of "Spirited Away" a couple of years ago? In the short, also animated by Japan's Studio Ghibli, three office workers discover that the café they've visited for lunch specializes in excruciatingly spicy curry, and whoever manages to finish a bowl of the hottest wins 1,000 yen.
The curry flows from the ladle like molten lava. The two men are defeated by levels three and five. The woman makes it through an entire bowl of level 10, collects her money, staggers out to the street to the strains of the Bob Marley song "No Woman, No Cry," and belches a fireball ferocious enough to rock the space shuttle orbiting overhead.
Japanese cuisine may be noted for its subtlety, the way the droop of a pine needle or a single cherry blossom signifies everything you need to know about the progress of the season, but it also has its heavy artillery. Tonkotsu ramen, whose broth is made from pork bones boiled halfway to eternity, is one of its blunt force weapons. Brutally spicy food is another.
Tantanmen, spicy ramen loosely based on Sichuan dan dan mian, has taken over half of Tokyo. Its fans are fond of lecturing you on the necessity of bok choy leaves, the permissibility of a soft-boiled egg, and the precise ratio of hot chile to numbing sansho pepper necessary in a proper bowl. Tantanmen is a perfect cult object, occupying the space where chile freaks and ramen obsessives intersect. And while tantanmen is not unknown in the Los Angeles area — I was fond of the Nagoya-style tantanmen at the late Anzutei in Gardena, and tantanmen shops occasionally pop up in Torrance food courts, but there has never been a local tantanmen restaurant remotely like Killer Noodle, the new tantanmen parlor from the people behind Tsujita, whose tsukemen and ramen are generally considered the best Los Angeles has ever seen.
Killer Noodle occupies a prime spot on Sawtelle Boulevard's ramen row, across the street from a crowded udon kitchen and just up the block from the lines clogging the sidewalks around both Tsujita and Tsujita Annex. It is large, perhaps the size of both of the other ramen shops put together, painted crimson, and dominated by a bright red chandelier. Ranks of spice-filled apothecary jars of spices are lined up on shelves behind the bar. You can sit at a long communal table if you wish. There are big pitchers of ice water at every table, the server will ask you whether you will be needing a bib, and the napkins are positioned so that you can grab a big handful without wrestling with a dispenser. Even if you had no idea what Killer Noodle might serve, you suspect it is prepared to serve a fairly specific need.
The menu at Killer Noodle is short: three kinds of ramen, served with or without soup; a handful of optional add-ons that include poached egg, cilantro and meltingly soft roast pork; and a couple of rice bowls topped with things you're probably getting anyway. You select your spice level, from one to six, for both conventional chile heat and for sansho pepper, whose numbing effect is similar to that of Sichuan peppercorn. There are those rules on the tabletop sign, and an admonition that there will be no refund if the noodles turn out to be too spicy. A server confesses that the spice levels were adjusted a bit during the pre-opening trials, that the six is pretty close to what used to be a five, but she also suggests that you begin with a three, no matter how hot you swear you order your food at Orochon, Jitlada or Chengdu Taste.
You try the Tokyo-style noodles with soup, level three (sansho level four), and you like them a lot. The soup is thick with ground nuts, the top is sprinkled with sesame seeds and what taste like chopped cashews, and there is an almost imperceptible funk of dried shrimp. The noodles are what they've always been at the Tsujita restaurants — thin, firm, chewy, almost bouncy under your teeth. There is a ball of ground pork, miso and aromatics floating in the center, what other local ramen parlors sometimes call a flavor bomb, which dissolves into the hot broth over the course of the meal.
It is spicy but not too spicy. The downtown-style ramen you swipe from the bowl next to you is good too — a little sweeter, a little more vinegar-forward, with broth a bit thinner; not dissimilar to what you might taste at a Sichuan place like Chong Qing Special Noodles in San Gabriel. Your lips do not vibrate quite so vividly with the particular numbing effect of the pepper. The original-style noodles, with lots of tofu and black pepper in what is recognizably Tsujita's signature chicken-pork bone tonkotsu broth, is a little meaner than you may have been expecting, laced with fresh chiles and vinegar. Nobody at your table shows obvious discomfort. Everyone is happy. The idea of ube bread pudding down the street at B Sweet afterward seems like a pleasant option rather than a necessity.
But there is the level six to be addressed — some of us can no more ignore the challenge any more than we can ignore the Howlin' Hot chicken at Howlin' Ray's. You order a bowl Tokyo-style, without the soup — the noodles in the soupless version are thicker and chewier, like the peerless tsukemen at Tsujita, although you can barely see them beneath the shower of sansho pepper. Servers hover around you, making sure that you are not in too much physical distress, offering you towels, refilling the ice water. And then you are done, floating on a sea of endorphins, feeling perhaps the level of distress that you might after a Guisados chiles toreados taco or two but no worse for the experience. Still, the next time around you are thinking you'll go back to three.
The Tsujita ramen specialists open a spicy noodle shop
2030 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (424) 293-0474, www.killernoodle.com.
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. Cash only (ATM machine on site). Beer and wine license pending. Street and limited lot parking.