Chef Kenji with the meat-searing flame machine
  • Chef Kenji with the meat-searing flame machine
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Convoy. I’m trying to find this danged eatery my friend Annie is all abuzz about. “It’s fabbo, darling! It’s a revolving restaurant. That is, the food revolves around you. Little food boats on these tracks. You just pluck what you want and munch away!”

She’s talking about a place called Kura Revolving Sushi Bar. Only problem: it’s while I’m searching in the dark that I notice this other place that makes you think of a Japanese country inn. Huge paper lantern, rough timber walls, corrugated iron, old wooden steps. Hmm.

Maria’s Black Edition ramen, mixed with charcoal

Maria’s Black Edition ramen, mixed with charcoal

I hesitate in front of it, partly because they’ve installed an overhead heater outside the door, to help waiting customers keep warm in the chill out here. Plus a big old hanging plank has rough hand-painted lettering: “OPEN.” “Till 12:30am,” adds a neon sign. Then it says, “Ramen and Tsukemen.”

Ramen, of course, I love. Tsukemen, well, what the heck is tsukemen? Time to outsource the brain. “A ramen dish in Japanese cuisine consisting of noodles which are eaten after being dipped in a separate bowl of soup or broth,” says Wikipedia on my iPad.

Across Convoy, Kura looks cozy enough, and it’s packed with people, even on this Monday night. Except a screen outside says “Welcome to Kura. Estimated wait time: 21 minutes. Parties waiting: 6. Serving next: #175. Sign in.”

Oh man. Twenty-one minutes out in the cold? Then, fate steps in: cell phone starts vibrating my thigh. Annie. “Sweety puss. Can’t make it. Looking after these kids. The mom’s not back to take over.”

My Hakata Tonkotsu ramen

My Hakata Tonkotsu ramen

Pity but… hey hey! Free to eat wherever! Lickety-split, I’m back across Convoy and up those old steps to Raki Raki, partly because of how it looks, warm and intimate. But wow. Also because it’s totally crowded, and wafting heavenly smells from dozens of steaming ramen bowls. Actually, it doesn’t take long to get in. Soon enough, I’m in the warmth, seated at the zinc counter. Four ramen chefs work away behind a partial glass screen. Place is abuzz.

Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen

4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa

Irrashaimase!” yell the servers and cooks, every time someone comes in. “Welcome!” There’s something I find seriously addicting about places like this. For starters, they’re enthusiastic. Plus, the place seems to attract interesting people. The chat’s about everything from politics, to food, relationships, design, cats and dogs, more relationships, discussed openly. There’s a nice cross-pollenization of talk.

If I weren’t working tonight I’d be straight into a Sapporo beer and a li’l bottle of hot sake by now, and — yes — a California roll, to help soak everything up.

But no. We’re talking water and ramen — the same sort of noodles you find in the unbelievably cheap food section at Vons. Now, thanks, they say, to chef David Chang of New York City, who started his Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, ramen has become respectable. Chang turned this wheat noodle soup into a comfort food that’s giving sushi a run for its money.

Samantha’s stuffed jalapeño tempura

Samantha’s stuffed jalapeño tempura

Right now, Maria, gal on my left, is eating octopus balls. That is, bits of octopus typically rolled into dumplings (“takoyaki”) usually tanged up with pickled ginger and green onion.

It’s a great deal. Four for $5.95. But Maria doesn’t finish them. “Not enough flavor,” she says. “Too much filler.” But then a serving gal comes with her major ramen dish.

“Black Edition ramen with jukusei fermentation,” Maria says, reading from the menu. And wow, it goes on to say that the ramen is “fermented with organic garlic oil roasted with natural bincho charcoal for 18 hours.” And it looks so seductive. On a bed of well-sunken noodles, chunks of pork belly float, surrounded by everything from bamboo shoots to pickled half-eggs to shallots to seaweed to red pickled ginger to a little patch of sesame seeds floating beside chunks of fried garlic.

Dang, but it’s tempting.

Maria dives in with her chopsticks and black plastic spoon. “The noodles are nice and chewy,” she says. “But the standout is the flavor of the broth. Has to be the best I’ve had here.”

“‘Here’?”

“Well, I work for a medical optical company. Have to travel a lot. I’ve been to Tokyo, and the ramen broth there is just so… out of this world!”

Heather, who’s sat down to my right with her boyfriend, gets a chicken karaage-don (“our famous crispy karaage [deep fried] chicken over rice,” with a sweet chili sauce). Costs $8.40.

Hmm. No, gotta be ramen. On the other hand, I’m also trying to have something different than Maria. Place has about 20 choices of ramen. I end up with the miso broth-flavored tonkotsu underbelly with akadama hot sauce on the side, which really does kick it all into life.

There are a zillion combinations of ramen bowl, but the differences look subtle. Main thing is to have a broth that gets richer and richer the further down you slurp. (And slurping is a compliment to the chef). But if you ask me, go for the aburi chasiu, which is tonkotsu pork underbelly, flame blistered by Kenji, the chef with the impressive flame-thrower in the kitchen.

Samantha, who’s now sitting on my left, disagrees. “Beef is the way to go,” she says.

“Best ramen in town,” says this Lao gent walking past with his wife on their way out. And who am I to argue? My pork-based broth has already thickened to a kind of savory cream.

And actually, I put a perfect cap on everything by heading next door to this place called “Sul & Beans,” and in the same space, “Somisomi.” Have a Vietnamese coffee ($4.95: not cheap, but it’s super strong and has lots of condensed milk), and a delish green tea swirl kinda gelato from Somisomi. Now all I’ve got to do is down it before the #44 bus rolls up. Because I think it’s the last.

  • The Place: Raki Raki Ramen, 4646 Convoy Street #102-A, 858-573-2400
  • Hours: 11am – 12:30am, daily (till 1:45am, Friday, Saturday)
  • Prices: Chicken Karaage (deep-fried), $8.95; stuffed jalapeño tempura, with cream cheese, bonito flakes, $9.95; California roll, $6.50; original ahakata tonkotsu ramen, $11.95; black edition ramen (jukusei fermentation), $13.95; chicken ramen, $10.95; curry ramen, $13.95; miso ramen, $12.95; oxtail ramen, $17.95; kimchee ramen, $13.95
  • Buses: 27, 44, 60
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Convoy Street and Balboa Avenue
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