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Ichiban and HiroNori Craft Ramen: Japanese joints juxtaposed

The heart of ramen is the broth.

TF Avocado roll.jpg
TF Avocado roll.jpg

“Let’s go Japanese,” says Chris.

“You mean chopsticks?” asks Erik. “Not really my thing.”

There are four of us standing around here, dithering by the DMV in Uptown. It’s 4:30 pm.

Chris calls his buddy Phil. “Phil says go to HiroNori Craft Ramen. Hillcrest. Best ramen he’s had.”

Place

Ichiban

1449 University Avenue, San Diego

“Or,” I say, “I know a place with a happy hour, right here, just down Normal Street! Ichiban.”

I have this thing about Ichiban. Means “Number One.” Definitely old school. One of the few actual Japanese-run sushi places in town. Has been open for 40 years. Consistently cheap.

“Let’s start off with sushi here, then ramen HiroNori.”

Chris, Cassie, Erik, in front of Ichiban.

So we cross over to Ichiban. Good that we’re early: there are still plenty of seats in the patio. And happy hour goes from 4-8 every day.

“Except I’m not that into sushi,” says Cassie. “I can eat it, but at heart I’m a ramen gal.”

Actually, they do have ramen here, kind of an add-on to the main menu. You can get a miso, shoyu (soy), or tonkotsu (pork belly) ramen broth with noodles for $13.50.

But really, sushi is the thing here.

So we sidle up to the counter where you order. “Sake,” I say. “I’m dreaming of a nice tall hot sake.”

At $6.50, about the cheapest meal on the menu - Salmon poke combo with salad.

“You mean ‘nihonshu,’” says Cassie. “They don’t call it ‘sake.’” She followed her Navy dad all over the world. She knows stuff like that.

Besides, Satoni, the lady who has been working here for twenty years, nods. Seems “sake” means “alcoholic drink,” and “nihonshu” means “rice wine.” Whatever, I check the Happy Hour menu: sake, large carafe, $4 (down from $7); large bottle of beer (pints of Sapporo, Asahi or Orion), $5 (down from $7.25). Deal! Deal!

Then the sushi: just about the cheapest HH item is the California Roll, 8 pieces for $4.50. Imitation crab and real avo. How can you beat that? They have about a dozen sushi rolls in the Happy Hour list, including spicy tuna and cucumber for $5.75, and Red Dragon, which includes fried shrimp, imitation crab, and spicy tuna on top for $8. And among the 5-piece rolls, the soft-shell crab, with imitation crab, lettuce, cucumber, wrapped in soy paper, goes for $6.50. So I start off ordering a California roll, large Sapporo, large hot sake/nihonshu, and pay out $13.50 plus tax for all three. If that’s not a deal, I don’t know what is.

Satoni, Red Dragon sushi, Cassie, Eric.

The main menu has more interesting stuff, like fried calamari legs (read, squid tentacles, $8.50), tempura fried avocado ($6 for 8 pieces), and the #1 Dinner Special for $12.50 plus tax and including a drink. Tonight’s, stuck on with a Post-It note, is ginger chicken with fried gyoza as a veggie. The #2 dinner ($13.50) is a salmon skin roll with imitation crab, plus two nigiri (slices of raw fish over pressed vinegary rice).

Meanwhile, we share. And what gets down to my end of the table is the Red Dragon roll, with plenty of fried shrimp and a nice top-kick of spicy tuna. “I like sushi,” says Erik, “but I’m getting a sameness. Bits of fish and rice. I’ll be glad to get to the HiroNori place for ramen.”

Twenty minutes later, here we are, on 5th right in central Hillcrest. HiroNori fits right into Hillcrest’s eclectic heart. Hiro and Nori are the two guys who started it. Hiro is from Fukushima, and Nori is from Sapporo. They spent years in ramen joints, learning the trade, before deciding it was worth spending more for things like better quality soy sauce. (They say theirs is always barrel-aged for two years.) In 2017, the two friends started their own thing, and they now have six places dotted around Southern California. One of them, the Irvine branch, was recognized by the Michelin Guide, a huge feather in their cap.

Tonkotsu ramen

The heart of ramen is the broth. For starters, they slow cook it with bones for hours to form the base, which they call the “tare.” The tare’s their own mix of soy, sake, mirin (a kind of sweeter, gentler, sake), garlic, miso, whatever. What I’m tasting here is Cassie’s vegan version. And man, they pile in everything except meat on top of the sesame miso broth: broccolini, tofu, corn, bean sprouts, soy meat, baby kale, chili oil.

Chris is impressed. “It has to be something about the garlic, chili sauce, or the home-made noodles, but these guys are really good.” And yes, Cassie’s vegan broth is rich, creamy, no way milk-soppy. Chris gives me one of his pork buns (about $3.50), so sweet and yet sharp with its shards of pink vinegary onion, and its super-soft doughy exterior. I would come back just for that. Problem is I’m getting full, so I just order a salmon poke combo, basically salad and a small bowl of sautéed salmon on rice. But super-tasty. Costs $6.50.

Some of the tastiest edamame around.

Erik’s not having much fun eating with chopsticks. Can’t get a grip on slippery veggies and meat.

“Uh, Erik, need a hand with those?” asks Chris. He’s a past master. And before Erik has a chance to object, Chris grabs his sticks, wraps a rubber band to bind the top ends together, rolls up a little wad of paper and jams it in between the sticks to serve as the hinge. “Now, just hold them and squeeze,” he says.

“Wow!” says Erik.

We roll outta there about $70 poorer. Never do decide which place was the real Number One.

  • The Place: Ichiban Sushi and Japanese Restaurant, 1449 University Avenue, 619-299-7203
  • Hours: 11am-9pm daily
  • Happy Hour: 4-8pm daily
  • Happy Hour Prices: California Roll (imitation crab and avo), 8 pieces, $4.50; spicy tuna and cucumber roll, $5.75; Red Dragon roll (fried shrimp, imitation crab, spicy tuna, $8; soft-shell crab roll (5-piece), $6.50; miso ramen, $13.50; shoyu (soy) ramen, $13.50; tonkotsu ramen (pork belly), $13.50
  • Buses: 1, 10, 11
  • Nearest Bus Stops: University and Richmond (#1, #11); University and Vermont (#10)
  • The Place: HiroNori Craft Ramen, 3803 5th Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-241-2856
  • Hours: 11:30am-8pm, daily
  • Prices: Tonkotsu ramen, $14; vegan ramen, $14.80; pork rice bowl, $8/12; pork buns, $7; spicy tuna rice bowl, $9/11.5
  • Buses: 1, 3, 10, 11, 120
  • Nearest Bus Stops: University and 7th (#1); 5th and University (#3, #10, #11, #120); 4th and Robinson (#3, southbound); 6th and University (#11, southbound)
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TF Avocado roll.jpg
TF Avocado roll.jpg

“Let’s go Japanese,” says Chris.

“You mean chopsticks?” asks Erik. “Not really my thing.”

There are four of us standing around here, dithering by the DMV in Uptown. It’s 4:30 pm.

Chris calls his buddy Phil. “Phil says go to HiroNori Craft Ramen. Hillcrest. Best ramen he’s had.”

Place

Ichiban

1449 University Avenue, San Diego

“Or,” I say, “I know a place with a happy hour, right here, just down Normal Street! Ichiban.”

I have this thing about Ichiban. Means “Number One.” Definitely old school. One of the few actual Japanese-run sushi places in town. Has been open for 40 years. Consistently cheap.

“Let’s start off with sushi here, then ramen HiroNori.”

Chris, Cassie, Erik, in front of Ichiban.

So we cross over to Ichiban. Good that we’re early: there are still plenty of seats in the patio. And happy hour goes from 4-8 every day.

“Except I’m not that into sushi,” says Cassie. “I can eat it, but at heart I’m a ramen gal.”

Actually, they do have ramen here, kind of an add-on to the main menu. You can get a miso, shoyu (soy), or tonkotsu (pork belly) ramen broth with noodles for $13.50.

But really, sushi is the thing here.

So we sidle up to the counter where you order. “Sake,” I say. “I’m dreaming of a nice tall hot sake.”

At $6.50, about the cheapest meal on the menu - Salmon poke combo with salad.

“You mean ‘nihonshu,’” says Cassie. “They don’t call it ‘sake.’” She followed her Navy dad all over the world. She knows stuff like that.

Besides, Satoni, the lady who has been working here for twenty years, nods. Seems “sake” means “alcoholic drink,” and “nihonshu” means “rice wine.” Whatever, I check the Happy Hour menu: sake, large carafe, $4 (down from $7); large bottle of beer (pints of Sapporo, Asahi or Orion), $5 (down from $7.25). Deal! Deal!

Then the sushi: just about the cheapest HH item is the California Roll, 8 pieces for $4.50. Imitation crab and real avo. How can you beat that? They have about a dozen sushi rolls in the Happy Hour list, including spicy tuna and cucumber for $5.75, and Red Dragon, which includes fried shrimp, imitation crab, and spicy tuna on top for $8. And among the 5-piece rolls, the soft-shell crab, with imitation crab, lettuce, cucumber, wrapped in soy paper, goes for $6.50. So I start off ordering a California roll, large Sapporo, large hot sake/nihonshu, and pay out $13.50 plus tax for all three. If that’s not a deal, I don’t know what is.

Satoni, Red Dragon sushi, Cassie, Eric.

The main menu has more interesting stuff, like fried calamari legs (read, squid tentacles, $8.50), tempura fried avocado ($6 for 8 pieces), and the #1 Dinner Special for $12.50 plus tax and including a drink. Tonight’s, stuck on with a Post-It note, is ginger chicken with fried gyoza as a veggie. The #2 dinner ($13.50) is a salmon skin roll with imitation crab, plus two nigiri (slices of raw fish over pressed vinegary rice).

Meanwhile, we share. And what gets down to my end of the table is the Red Dragon roll, with plenty of fried shrimp and a nice top-kick of spicy tuna. “I like sushi,” says Erik, “but I’m getting a sameness. Bits of fish and rice. I’ll be glad to get to the HiroNori place for ramen.”

Twenty minutes later, here we are, on 5th right in central Hillcrest. HiroNori fits right into Hillcrest’s eclectic heart. Hiro and Nori are the two guys who started it. Hiro is from Fukushima, and Nori is from Sapporo. They spent years in ramen joints, learning the trade, before deciding it was worth spending more for things like better quality soy sauce. (They say theirs is always barrel-aged for two years.) In 2017, the two friends started their own thing, and they now have six places dotted around Southern California. One of them, the Irvine branch, was recognized by the Michelin Guide, a huge feather in their cap.

Tonkotsu ramen

The heart of ramen is the broth. For starters, they slow cook it with bones for hours to form the base, which they call the “tare.” The tare’s their own mix of soy, sake, mirin (a kind of sweeter, gentler, sake), garlic, miso, whatever. What I’m tasting here is Cassie’s vegan version. And man, they pile in everything except meat on top of the sesame miso broth: broccolini, tofu, corn, bean sprouts, soy meat, baby kale, chili oil.

Chris is impressed. “It has to be something about the garlic, chili sauce, or the home-made noodles, but these guys are really good.” And yes, Cassie’s vegan broth is rich, creamy, no way milk-soppy. Chris gives me one of his pork buns (about $3.50), so sweet and yet sharp with its shards of pink vinegary onion, and its super-soft doughy exterior. I would come back just for that. Problem is I’m getting full, so I just order a salmon poke combo, basically salad and a small bowl of sautéed salmon on rice. But super-tasty. Costs $6.50.

Some of the tastiest edamame around.

Erik’s not having much fun eating with chopsticks. Can’t get a grip on slippery veggies and meat.

“Uh, Erik, need a hand with those?” asks Chris. He’s a past master. And before Erik has a chance to object, Chris grabs his sticks, wraps a rubber band to bind the top ends together, rolls up a little wad of paper and jams it in between the sticks to serve as the hinge. “Now, just hold them and squeeze,” he says.

“Wow!” says Erik.

We roll outta there about $70 poorer. Never do decide which place was the real Number One.

  • The Place: Ichiban Sushi and Japanese Restaurant, 1449 University Avenue, 619-299-7203
  • Hours: 11am-9pm daily
  • Happy Hour: 4-8pm daily
  • Happy Hour Prices: California Roll (imitation crab and avo), 8 pieces, $4.50; spicy tuna and cucumber roll, $5.75; Red Dragon roll (fried shrimp, imitation crab, spicy tuna, $8; soft-shell crab roll (5-piece), $6.50; miso ramen, $13.50; shoyu (soy) ramen, $13.50; tonkotsu ramen (pork belly), $13.50
  • Buses: 1, 10, 11
  • Nearest Bus Stops: University and Richmond (#1, #11); University and Vermont (#10)
  • The Place: HiroNori Craft Ramen, 3803 5th Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-241-2856
  • Hours: 11:30am-8pm, daily
  • Prices: Tonkotsu ramen, $14; vegan ramen, $14.80; pork rice bowl, $8/12; pork buns, $7; spicy tuna rice bowl, $9/11.5
  • Buses: 1, 3, 10, 11, 120
  • Nearest Bus Stops: University and 7th (#1); 5th and University (#3, #10, #11, #120); 4th and Robinson (#3, southbound); 6th and University (#11, southbound)
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