Review: In Sawtelle, Mogu Mogu is a ramen shop without the soup
Just beyond Sawtelle Boulevard’s ramen row, where the nearly infinite variations on broth include the pork-intensive tonkotsu at Tsujita; Killer Noodle’s chile-spliced tantanmen; and the mushroom-based vegan “hippie” broth at Tatsu, you will bump into Mogu Mogu, a new kitchen dedicated to the brothless ramen called mazemen (“mixed noodles”).
Mogu Mogu (the name is Japanese onomatopoeia for “chewing food”) is a spartan but cheerful dining room on Olympic Boulevard tucked between a bodybuilding gym and a copy shop.
Owner Tomohiro Wada, an upbeat and attentive host, describes mazemen as “third-wave ramen.” (The first wave, he says, is the broth-filled ramen bowl that most Americans know; the second is tsukemen, the burly ramen “dipping” noodles served with a super-concentrated broth on the side.)
First-timers are plied with instructions. The house protocol is to stir the noodles for 30 seconds, blending all the toppings until they emulsify into sauce. On every table there are jars of vinegar flavored with ragged strips of red chile; about one-third through the bowl, Wada recommends anointing the noodles with the lightly spiced vinegar for a reviving whomp of umami flavor.
Mazemen, naturally unconcerned with broth, has more freedom to play with toppings, especially those that might be diluted or lost in a hot soup. (“With mazemen, we can do whatever we want,” Wada said).
So there is cheese mazemen, noodles layered with minced pork, two wobbly onsen eggs, ample Jack cheese and ringlets of scallions. Like most bowls, it’s furnished with strips of nori and a hummock of blended fish powder.
Stir it thoroughly and the dish turns fragrant and creamy, with salty, garlicky contours. Someone at the table will probably compare it to a Carbonara sauce.
Curry mazemen uses many of the same seasonings and ingredients, but the addition of Japanese curry powder adds a fragrant, warming pulse.
The deluxe mazemen is the heartiest, gilded with jiggly flaps of pork chashu and spicy ground pork. The meaty dish has a surprise rival in the dense veggie miso mazemen, a chunky blend of cubed tofu, corn, ruffles of tenderized kale, fleshy red bell peppers and slices of lotus root. It’s wholesome, crunchy and replenishing, with a rousing, sweet-spicy kick from lashings of chile-inflected miso sauce.
Mogu Mogu, like many local ramen restaurants including Tsujita, Daikokuya and Ramen Hood, uses wheat-flour noodles made by Sun Noodle, a supplier with manufacturing facilities in California, New Jersey and Hawaii. Mogu Mogu’s noodles are thick and yellowish, with a slight, wavy curl and tensile strength. They are a joy to chew.
There are two ramen soup bowls, concessions to diners who can’t fathom ramen noodles without broth. Assari tonkotsu is made with a light-bodied pork and fish bone stock, deepened with wood ear mushrooms and fatty pork chashu. Spicy miso ramen is fortifying and aromatic, laced with chiles and garlic and layered thickly with ground pork, scallions and corn.
Appetizers are praiseworthy, especially the Mogu chicken, fried boneless pieces with a loose, crackly crust, daubed with a sweetish chile sauce. Steamed buns filled with pork belly, crispy jalapeño, cilantro and kale are gratifying to chew — crunch collapsing into succulence.
A native of Kanagawa prefecture west of Tokyo, the 32-year-old Wada has been in the restaurant industry since he was 18. He’s cooked in high-end teppanyaki restaurants, sushi parlors and ramen shops in Orange County, a jack-of-all-trades who says he’s been waiting for the right concept to start his own restaurant.
He thinks mazemen might be it. He hopes to open a location in Orange County next year.
If you peek into the storefront window on any given day or night, you will probably see Wada maneuvering easily between tight rows of small tables, passing out bowls of rice for the oi-meshi, or rice follow-up, the denouement of every meal at Mogu Mogu. When the last noodle is gone, you unload the rice into your bowl to soak up the semi-slush of meat and garlic sauce at the bottom of the bowl. It is all soft starch and juice at this point, but its residual warmth feels like armor on a cold day.
Location: 11555 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite B., Los Angeles, (424) 343-2909, mogumoguus.com
Details: Credit cards accepted. No bar. Lot and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Mazemen bowls $12-$15.50; appetizers $3-$6.50; ramen bowls $12
Recommended dishes: Deluxe mazemen, cheesy mazemen, veggie miso mazemen, Mogu chicken, Mogu buns
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