Behind the Noren Curtain

Cuteness, ramen, and udon reign at Yuzu Ramen & Broffee.



The tonkotsu included first-rate ingredients and delicious broth.

Photos by Lori Eanes

As we slid through the noren curtain at the front door, we were greeted with an outburst of what sounded like a flock of chirping birds. It was all of the Yuzu Ramen chefs, hosts, and servers joining in a chorus of the traditional Japanese welcome to a business, “irasshaimase!” Although there were a few gaijin in the group, the bubbly staff was by and large Japanese (a few, we learned later, not fluent in English), by and large young, and all wearing uniform red T-shirts imprinted with “Team Foodzilla.”

For those unfamiliar with it, the boisterous greeting might be startling, but it’s also charming, even cute. And cuteness is prominent in this Emeryville contribution to the Bay Area’s burgeoning obsession with Japanese cuisine and especially noodle soup. The full name is Yuzu Ramen & Broffee, the cute add-on referring to the bone broth that Yuzu sells by the glass and frozen in take-home jars and touts as a nutritious alternative to coffee.

 

Gobo karaage is battered and fried burdock root.

In fast-casual style, we placed our order at the iPad register just inside door (and at the end of the long 10-stool bar that leads to the open kitchen), took our number, chose a table in the empty dining area (it was nearing the end of lunchtime), and helped ourselves to water and hot green tea at a station near the door. In the few minutes before our food started arriving, we took in the surroundings: What was once an anonymous, low-slung cinderblock building had gone through several incarnations (Aquarius Café, Bacano Bakery) before Foodzilla partners Steven Yamaji and Nori Itasaka gave the space—accommodating about 30 at bare-wood two-, four-, and six-top and communal tables—a bright facelift.

On the long wall opposition the street-facing windows, two (dare I say cute?) cartoon-like posters show rolling green hills and a pale blue sky in which, beneath white ice-cream-scoop clouds, are inscribed the motto “Great Broth Great Ramen” and the mission statement: “Our Broths Use: Organic Vegetables whenever available 100% Grass-fed / Pasture-raised meat & bones No Antibiotics Non GMO-fed No Artificial Coloring or Flavors No MSG or Preservatives.” Good info but almost TMI for a décor element (and “organic … when available”? Hmm.). Outside, tables and chairs on the sidewalk and along the side patio provide pleasant seating on warm days and evenings. Our dishes arrived promptly. A side of gobo karaage, lightly battered and fried burdock root, with sliced lemon and spicy mayo on the side, proved a crunchy and leathery alternative to potato. Then came our bowls of ramen: spicy tonkotsu for me—milky, not overly rich pork broth and thin noodles, with kikurage (tree-ear) mushrooms, baby arugula, soft-boiled egg, and melt-in-your-mouth slices of chashu (braised pork belly); spicy gyukotsu for Robin—dark brown, savory beef broth with standard ramen noodles, mushrooms, egg, a spear of perfectly cooked asparagus, and slices of grilled beef (a bit overcooked), garnished with threads of red chili. All the ingredients were first rate, including the toothsome noodles, but broth is the key to great ramen, and both of these boasted deep, clean, and complex flavors. I could see drinking it like coffee. Maybe.

Yuzu’s ramen choices may seem limited—pork, beef, miso, and vegetable—but each is available as regular or spicy (and on our visit, there was significant chili heat to the spicy), and with thick udon noodles instead of one of the three different ramen noodles. We finished lunch full and satisfied but curious about the ippin (a la carte dish) portion of the menu and the sake offerings.

 

The tebasaki or fried chicken wings were plump and crispy.

Upon our return a week or so later, the dinner menu was exactly the same as lunch, and the same sort of 1960s modern acoustic jazz (big in Japan) was piped into the room. But there was table service, and the two flat-screen TVs near the door were showing live sports instead of displaying the menu. As much as we hankered for more ramen, we ordered as many of the single-portion small plates (most available in double portions as well) as we thought we could mange.

Because I’m more into chicken and raw or barely cooked fish than Robin is, I ate all of the tebakara (four plump and crispy chicken wings coated with red chili and sesame) and virtually all of the mini poke-don (a rice bowl with sesame-ginger shoyu sauce-coated chunks of yellow tail, tuna, and salmon). The former was spicy enough to make me perspire and shake off a lot of the pepper flakes, and the latter was delicious despite tasting a few hours shy of sparkling fresh.

Robin ate the lion’s share of yaki-meshi (simple but addictive fried rice with egg, chashu, green onion, and shredded red chili) and the spicy version of yaki-men (fried ramen noodles tossed with chashu, cabbage, and green onion, and topped with bonito flakes that fluttered in the rising heat).

 

All the staff members wear bright red T-Shirts.

Faced with only a few beer, wine, and sake choices, we opted for a carafe of the Dassai 50 junmai daiginjo, which yielded two full shots for each of us and went so well with the small dishes that we could see such meals becoming habit forming, perhaps adding a sashimi-arugula salad, kimchi, edamame, or the nonspicy chicken wings (tebasaki).

With room for dessert, but feeling that we’d had enough rice, we skipped the enticing malted milk rice fritters and ordered the other two options: luscious and subtle matcha (green tea) crème brûlée and a visually dazzling, refreshing Citrus Maximus, a medley of coconut cream, Buddha’s hand, yuzu “caviar,” and pink pomelo, from which it got its name. They were the best dessert bargains we’ve had in years.

Although open since September 2016, Yuzu Ramen still hasn’t gotten quite up to speed in service. Empty plates weren’t cleared promptly, the table wasn’t wiped clean of rice kernels and sauce drips between courses, and while the kitchen turned out dishes efficiently, after delivering them, servers would disappear for long stretches. A bill was hard to summon. Perhaps we should have employed the customary “excuse me” declarative, “sumimasen!,” to get someone’s attention.

But everyone paid attention when we left, sending us off with a rousing collective “domo arigato gozaimasu,” making it impossible to leave without a smile.

 

Yuzu Ramen & Broffee

Japanese. 1298 65th St., Emeryville, 510-853-1525. Ippin (small plates, single and double) $2-$13, ramen/udon $13–$17, desserts $5-$6, sake by the glass $11, carafe $8-$22, bottle $57-$985. Serves lunch Mon.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Mon.–Sat. 5:30 p.m.–8:45 p.m. Yuzurb.com CC$–$$$

 

Published online on June 16, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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