Here are Rickmond Wong's five favorite Southern California ramen restaurants.
Santouka: Despite their pedestrian locations in Mitsuwa Marketplace food courts, these restaurants are hands-down the best in Southern California, Wong says. "That's right. The best noodler in town is roughly the Japanese equivalent of a Panda Express or an Orange Julius," he writes on his website. "Rich and luscious, Santouka's Asahikawa-style tonkotsu shio broth is the reigning champion of world-class ramen in Los Angeles." 3760 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 398-2113; 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 434-1101; 21515 S. Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 212-1101.
Asa Ramen: Wong raves about this new place, open only since early fall. "Already, a bowl of Asa's kotteri shoyu ramen rates among the best in town," he writes on the website. "Though it lacks the institutionalized perfection of a Santouka shio ramen, Chef Kubo's shoyu-tonkotsu creation already stands head and shoulders above nearly everything else in the local game." Furthermore, he says, Asa is one of the few ramen shops in town to source its noodles domestically, from an artisanal maker in the Bay Area. 18202 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 769-1010.
Gardena Ramen: Wong loves the spirit of this place so much that after first eating here he ranked it second, behind only Santouka. But, he now says, the quality may be slipping a little -- or maybe it's just that Asa has come on so strong. Gardena Ramen is a one-man operation run by Isao Nakamura. On his website, Wong describes the soup as a "complex (the key word here) concoction derived from torigara (chicken bones), genkotsu (pork knuckle), and niboshi (dried sardines). It is slightly opaque and just a tad too salty, but flavorful in impossibly distinctive ways. It is sweet yet savory. Rich yet light."1840 W. 182nd St., Torrance, (310) 324-6993.
Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen: In Japan, Wong says, Hakata ramen is "super popular, and is actually my favorite style of ramen overall; Shin-Sen-Gumi's version of it comes close to what I miss most about living in Kyushu." Hakata ramen is made with ultra-thin, firm noodles; is a purely pork bone soup with no shio, shoyu or miso; and has a wide range of toppings. 8450 E. Valley Blvd., No. 103, Rosemead, (626) 572-8646; 18315 Brookhurst St., No. 1, Fountain Valley, (714) 962-8971; 2051 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., No. C, Gardena, (310) 329-1335.
Daikokuya: Though this Little Tokyo standard is a favorite among Internet foodies, Wong demurs. "It is a decent place," he says, "but I have to say it's also the most over-hyped place in L.A. You have to wait for hours to get in, and it's just not that great." 327 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-1680.
-- Russ Parsons