Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - June 11, 2010

Ramen and only ramen

Ramen House Ryowa keeps its menu small and focused

by Sheila Himmel

Before there was Top Chef, the top food thing was Top Ramen, a very cheap meal beloved by generations of college students. Plunk the brick of precooked ramen noodles into boiling water, add the packet of seasoning, call it dinner. Add vegetables, subtract the salty seasonings, or break up the brick and eat it like chips. Packaged ramen is the soul of versatility.

In downtown Mountain View, Ramen House Ryowa works on a similar principle. The food is cheap, fast and adaptable to various flavors and ingredients.

There are four broths to choose from, and a handful of protein and vegetable combinations to insert in the broth. But the menu is not much help. All the tiny photographs of the various ramen dishes look like bowls of ... something. Feel free to ask.

There may be a line outside Ramen House Ryowa, or people hovering over the 30 seats inside, but the wait isn't that long. With two small U-shaped counters and a couple of tables for two, Ramen House Ryowa doesn't invite lingering or large parties. One night, a group of nine did get seated pretty close together, but they sat shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face.

The business at hand is eating, not talking. Does this explain the predominance of male customers? Just asking.

Children are welcome. A couple with a baby and toddler, and a man with his teenage son sat and slurped.

Refreshingly cold barley tea is complimentary. Pitchers and glasses are refilled often. Also complimentary, a very good kimchi awaits you in the condiment line. This chili-slathered Napa cabbage is tooth-resistant, not flabby.

Fried chicken strips come in appetizer and full-meal size. The lightly coated thigh meat stays tender, ready to dip in mayonnaise or a spicy dipping sauce, or to mix with scallions and shredded cabbage.

The broths are basically background. We found the miso soup a little dull, and should have made use of the Japanese black pepper, red chili pepper, luscious chili paste or kimchi from the condiment line. Buttercorn broth is salty. Our top choice would have to be sesame.

Each soup had a variation of thin-sliced, lean pork and pieces of chicken breast, squiggly ramen noodles, hard-boiled egg, corn, scallions and seaweed. There is also a vegetarian soup.

In warm months, Ryowa offers a seasonal treat. Cold ramen salad ($8.25) is like a Cobb salad, stocked with hard-boiled egg, julienne cucumber slices, tomato, pork and shredded chicken breast. In place of the Cobb's lettuce, you get a bed of noodles, and instead of bacon there's crisp nori seaweed and pickled ginger. All the ingredients are placed separately, for you to mix, as is the dressing.

Lunch is a great deal. For $8.50 you get a large bowl of noodle soup, four excellent pan-seared gyoza and your choice of rice: white or fried.

The red-shirted staff is efficient and friendly. Walk in and write your name on the list, watch Japanese game shows on two little flat-screen televisions, peruse the bookcase or take inspiration from a set of golf posters with motivational sayings such as "Challenge: the harder the course the more rewarding the triumph."

Ramen House Ryowa

859 Villa St., Mountain View

650-965-8829

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

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