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October 18-24, 2006

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Ramen speed: Now Japantown really does have everything.

A Noodle Hope

With the arrival of Kumako and its ramen offerings, Japantown officially has it all

By Stett Holbrook

JAPANTOWN has just about everything. There's a hardware store, a travel agency, restaurants, a grocery store and even a golf shop. But until recently, something was missing: a ramen restaurant.

Japantown is loaded with good restaurants, but any self-respecting Japantown has to have a ramen house that sells slurpable bowls of soupy noodles. With the opening of Kumako last month, J-town now has its missing ingredient.

Kumako is a partnership between Ray Kojima and Art Kunimoto. They're from Sacramento and San Jose, respectively, but spent several years living and working in New York, where they perfected their particular brand of ramen. They call it "New York-style" ramen, but really it's just their version, made with what they describe as a lighter yet more complexly flavored broth.

Kumako moved into the small space formerly occupied by Yazu. While I loved Yazu, the space was too cramped for the culinary ambitions of the restaurant. Former chef and owner Brett Yazukawa is now looking for more spacious surroundings elsewhere. With its long counter and small tables, 28-seat Kumako is a better fit for the space, although its growing popularity means it can fill up quickly. I think the seats at the counter are best because you can watch Kunimoto at work as he prepares each bowl of ramen.

Kumako's menu is simple. They serve nine kinds of ramen, curry rice and a few appetizers. For me, a good bowl of ramen is a delicious trinity made up of the broth, the noodles and the toppings. According to Kunimoto, who prepares the ramen with two long chopsticks from a small but tidy workspace behind the counter, the shoyu ramen ($7.95) is the essence of the restaurant's New York style. The opaque pork broth is pleasantly salty and rich with a distinct porcine flavor that has a few hints of garlic and ginger. It's clean and light, but a little too light for my tastes. I like my broth with more depth and robust flavor. But it still makes for a good bowl of ramen.

The tangle of kinky noodles served in the soup isn't made in-house but delivered fresh daily from a San Francisco purveyor. The noodles are springy and light with just enough resistance and chew. Kunimoto tops the ramen with pickled bean sprouts, pickled bamboo shoots, green onion and a few slabs of rich and fatty pork.

The miso ramen ($7.95) offers a little more depth of flavor, thanks to the addition of miso paste. Kunimoto said the broth has hints of citrus and chile pepper in it, but I confess I couldn't detect it.

The tonkotsu ramen ($7.95) was the best bowl ramen I had. Made with a deeper, richer pork bone stock, the broth has a fuller body and richer taste. But the piggy flavor could be too assertive for some.

For something a little different, curry ramen ($7.95) builds on the light pork stock and layers in aromatic curry flavors. The soup is moderately spicy and tickled the back of my throat.

While it's not on the regular menu, be sure to try the gyoza ($4). Made in-house, the pan-fried pork dumplings are very good and filled with a fat wad of pork seasoned with green onions, Chinese cabbage and a secret ingredient Kojima won't reveal.

Kumako serves several brands of good sake and beer as well as Calpico ($1.75), a yogurt-based Japanese drink that tastes like creamy lemonade, if you can imagine such a thing.

Kojima says he plans to add a few more bowls of ramen to the menu, including one made with tofu from the excellent San Jose Tofu down the street—a street that's complete now that there's a place for ramen.


Address: 211 E. Jackson St., San Jose.

Phone: 408.286.2111.

Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-9:30pm Mon-Sat.

Cuisine: Japanese.

Price Range: $7.95-$8.50.

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