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Testing the Bone-Broth Waters | Shiba Ramen brings a less-fussy but still fully slurp-able brand of ramen to the East Bay. | By Ethan Fletcher

Slurping noodles has never been my thing.

Yes, I've read the food stories about how it's perfectly acceptable in Japan to suck up noodles with great gurgling gusto, the louder the better, in order to get the maximum amount of flavor in each mouthful while the soup is still hot. It makes perfect sense, but that's just not how I was raised.

True story: My sister, tasked with coming up with and implementing her own invention for a class in high school, crafted a Darth Vader–like helmet with a feeding tube to fit over my head so that she wouldn't have to suffer through what she deemed my overly loud chewing. Needless to say, I learned quickly growing up to keep my mouth closed when I ate.

Which is all to say I've been a little nervous about this new trend of authentic Japanese-style ramen eateries recently popping up in the East Bay. I love ramen as much as the next guy, but would this drive towards authenticity mean I'd be stuck dining in some personal version of surround-sound slurping hell?

Shiba Ramen seemed like a good place to test the bone-broth waters. It's the first of the new food kiosks to open in the Emeryville Public Market, the longtime food hall that is being renovated and refreshed with newer eateries. So far, food trucks KoJa Kitchen, Mustard & Mayo, and We Sushi have also signed leases. The benefits were obvious: I could order my ramen and slip off to a quiet corner of the communal dining area to eat in silence.

Shiba husband-and-wife owners Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura opened softly in late 2015. They are former chemists and first-time restaurateurs. Their blog, www.RamenChemistry.com, is well worth reading for its light-hearted discourses on everything from building umami flavor to the challenges of getting a liquor license and hiring decent help in the Bay Area. Any new ramen joint, however, will be hard-pressed to match Shiba's fairly remarkable combination of quality, accessibility, and affordability.

More than anything, authenticity among new ramen shops is being driven by those last two elements. Perhaps it's in reaction to a place like Ramen Shop, the hip Rockridge eatery opened by three Chez Panisse alums that has drawn endless publicity (and corresponding waitingle times) for its upscale, California-seasonal approach to the cuisine. But Freed/Nakamura made hay in their preopening marketing blitz phase by emphasizing a less fussy take on ramen that mirrors what the experience actually is like in Japan. That's to say a quick and easy comfort food fix, the Japanese answer to the American cheeseburger and fries.

It's hard to get less fussy than the Emeryville Public Market (even if it is a beautifully revamped space), where the economic lifeblood is an office lunch crowd whose main goal is to get a decent bite for not much more than $10 in not much over a half-hour. Freed and Nakamura manage to use the space to their advantage, eliminating overhead courtesy of the order-at-the-counter service that bypasses waitstaff and lets them charge $12 or less per bowl. Instead, all the work is concentrated inside their little kiosk, a buzzing beehive of activity in which ramen is cranked out with impressive efficiency.

I first visited the week they launched lunch service after a few trial weeks doing dinner only. Unfortunately, a delivery of noodles had not yet made it, and so all they had available was their brothless "dry ramen." It was not the first time a mistake threatened to derail my experience at Shiba—simply put, the service was not ready for primetime during my initial visits, when they messed up at least something in my order no less than four times over two weeks. I chalked it up to growing pains, sucked it up, and ordered the dry ramen, and as with subsequent visits, the quality of the food quickly soothed my irritation.

The dry ramen was delicious. "Dry" is a bit of a misnomer actually, as the bouncy egg noodles are lubed with a slick pork–infused coating that practically begs slurping (I resisted). Instead of the traditional thin cuts of chashu, this version sports cubed chunks of super-moist pork belly, to go with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and green onions, making it feel like something of a ramen/stir-fry hybrid. Whatever the definition, it worked, not least of all for the addition of the marinated soft-boiled egg, halved to reveal a savory yolk cooked to a lovely custard-like consistency.

Which is a good example of the impressive attention to detail at Shiba, at least in regards to the food. Every ingredient—from that egg to the simmered bamboo shoots packed with nearly as much umami flavor as the chashu to the pickled, spicy mustard greens in the tasty, little rice ball appetizer—seemed to be executed with meticulous care. That's perhaps no surprise given the owners' chemistry backgrounds. Nakamura, who oversees the kitchen and attended a weeks-long ramen-intensive course in Tokyo in preparation for the opening, runs a tight ship.

She has to in order to get the food out so quickly. My order came in five minutes the first time, and I never had to wait longer than 15 minutes, which seemed unbelievable. But it makes sense when you think about it. Most of the ingredients that make up ramen—the slow-cooked pork belly, the braised bamboo shoots, the marinated egg, even the famously labor-intensive, long simmered broths—can be done ahead of time. That doesn't make it any less work; it just doesn't translate into lengthy wait times for its customers.

Perhaps the more amazing aspect of Shiba is the variety of ramen available, each of which proved distinct and uniquely flavorful. The "clear" version was an excellent take on classic ramen, sporting many of the same elements as the dry but with a rich, clean pork broth and the more standard thin cross sections of braised pork belly. Totally yummy, totally satisfying, and just $10.

I'm always suspicious of vegetarian alternatives to dishes that typically contain meat (Tofurky anyone?), but Shiba's soymilk ramen packed an improbable, impressive amount of flavor. Grilled Kabocha squash is a more than adequate protein swap, the beautifully orange, firm (and not overcooked) wedges offering a sturdy centerpiece along with sweet corn, bamboo shoots, peppery noodles, and light, flavorful broth with just a hint of mild soymilk aftertaste. I liked it better, in fact, than the "white bird," which had a creamy chicken broth that I found overly rich.

Perhaps my favorite was the spicy ramen. The noodles are immersed in an enjoyably rich pork broth and topped with ground pork spiked with Japanese chili pepper, lending a slow, lingering heat that builds nicely the more you eat. It's an addictive combination, and as I worked my way through the dish, I became aware that I had started slurping up noodles in noisy contentment.

Hey, it's not something I'm proud of. I'll have to call my sister to see if that food helmet is around.

 

 

 

 


 

Shiba Ramen

Emeryville Public Market,
5959 Shellmound Street,
Kiosk No. 10, Emeryville,
www.ShibaRamen.com
Open Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm and 5-8pm,
Sat. 5-8 pm, Sun. 11am-3pm.
Happy Hour Mon.-Sat. 2:30-5pm.
Average entrée is $10.
Beer, wine, and sake only.
Credit cards accepted.

 

 



Japanese chili pepper produce the heat for the spicy ramen at Shiba Ramen. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

 

 

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