After several visits to Ramen Nagi in downtown Palo Alto -- the first U.S. location for the Japan-based chain -- I vow to never again stand in line to get into a restaurant. I won't get back those hours of my life, and yes, it is all a little over-hyped, but I came away a fan.
Ramen Nagi, which manages to be both trendy and traditional, is a case study in what can go right when a chef channels all his culinary energies into a single, beloved comfort dish.
We are talking about steaming, deeply flavorful bowls of noodle-and-broth goodness, prepared with assembly-line efficiency and brought to your table by friendly young servers. The pork-centric selections, all dubbed "kings," are sizable and prices are fairly reasonable, at least if you don't populate your bowl with too many extra ingredients. The original king is $13.50. The other four are $14.50: black (squid ink), red (spicy), green (basil) and veggie.
Customization is the defining feature of Ramen Nagi. Diners choose the strength of flavor, amount of oil, level of garlic and even the desired cook time for the noodles. You write your selections on the "omotenashi sheet," a reference to a distinctive form of Japanese hospitality that mandates hosts devote themselves wholeheartedly to their guests. The forms streamline the ordering process and you'll usually be happily slurping within about 10 minutes.
Founded by chef Satoshi Ikuta in 2004, Ramen Nagi now has more than 40 outposts across Asia, but just one other shop (so far) in the United States, at San Jose's Westfield Valley Fair mall. It opened in December, six months after Palo Alto.
Nagi means "calm" or "tranquil," and the 60-seat restaurant indeed manages to stay composed and orderly despite the constant rotation of diners. There is an animated buzz in the sunny, red-and-black dining room. You won't feel rushed to turn over your table even if ramen is supposed to be eaten fairly quickly.
With the exception of the veggie king, each bowl starts with a slow-simmered tonkotsu broth as its base. The pork bone broth is said to be cooked for more than 20 hours, resulting in a robust and earthy flavor.
I went for a red king on my first visit, selecting normal levels of oil, salt, garlic and spiciness, along with thin, firm noodles. Now I know to go up a level on the spiciness, as "normal" had very little kick. The savory broth turns a deep, velvety red with the addition of red chili oil and red miso. Long, eggy noodles, flash-boiled in purified water for less than a minute, shared the bowl with several intensely flavorful ingredients, including a salty ball of miso-infused minced pork, tree mushrooms and tender pork belly.
I would have expected a marinated, Japanese-style soft-boiled egg to come as a standard ingredient, but rather annoyingly, the egg (so critical to the ramen experience!) is an add-on ($1.75).
The vegetarian king was created specifically for meat-eschewing Californians and is found only at Ramen Nagi's Palo Alto and San Jose locations. The cauliflower- and onion-based broth was a little on the salty side (I selected the normal level of flavor). The accompanying hash brown patties -- a creative stand-in for meat -- had to be plucked quickly from the broth where they were rapidly turning into a goopy mess, but otherwise this was a deeply satisfying, nourishing bowl of hard-to-find vegetarian ramen.
Squid ink and black miso turn the black king the color of tar. I could only eat half a bowl, punctuated with green onions, tree mushrooms and a salty, minced pork, before giving up in the face of its sheer ugliness and slightly sweet, fish-forward flavor. The black king is an intense, rather intimidating experience and was not for me, though I did make sure none of the divine noodles remained in the dark depths of the broth.
Ramen Nagi goes full-on fusion with the green king. This Japanese-Italian culinary mashup was delicious, if also a little salty (again, I selected the "normal" level of flavor). The vibrant green broth worked well with thick, firm noodles. A sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and chunks of thick bacon made for a bold, creative expression of ramen and spoke to Ramen Nagi's tagline: "Universal Noodle Creators."
One of my favorite offerings was the complimentary and addictive black pepper bean sprouts. They are among an array of condiments and seasonings, including seaweed vinegar, picked vegetables and fish powder, conveniently placed on each table to further enhance the customization options. Also on each table: a box of tissues in lieu of napkins, in keeping with how things are often done in Japan.
To avoid the longest lines, try going on a Monday. Otherwise, make sure your phone is charged or have a good book with you.
541 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: No
Noise level: Energetic, but not overly loud