June 5 2015 04:52 PM

Southern Japanese ramen and small bites in Hillcrest

Tajima’s tonkotsu ramen
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Ramen—good ramen, real ramen (as opposed to late night college drinking fuel)—is all about balance. It's a wonderful broth, sometimes deeply extracted, sometimes delicate. It's rich, toothsome alkaline noodles. And it's a careful selection of tasty meat and vegetable garnishes. It is all of these in a single, synergistic and peaceful world (all in a bowl) with each working together to create a tasty whole. And it is perfectly acceptable to slurp.

There are at least 20 regionally distinct types of ramen in Japan, each of which can be subdivided almost endlessly. But there are three basic styles: Tokyo's soy sauce-based ramen, Sapporo's miso-based version and tonkotsu from Hakata in Japan's extreme south. Some of the best ramen houses in San Diego focus on the tonkotsu style, and Tajima Hillcrest (3739 6th Ave., Suite B, with two additional locations in the Convoy District) is definitely one of these.

Cook pork bones down hard repeatedly for days until the last vestiges of marrow and collagen are released into the broth and the bones essentially collapse. That's tonkatsu broth. This results in a milky white, deeply delicious, meaty broth highlighting savory flavors and umami warmth. Tajima's Hakata-style ramen is sparse on the garnishes: thin-sliced scallions, semi-soft boiled egg, pork (or chicken) chashu, sesame seeds and nori seaweed. Additional garnishes are available for the ordering. While Tajima's tonkotsu may not quite have the depth or pack the punch of Ramen Yamadaya's, it brings a certain elegance to the table instead. 

Where that broth really shines is as the basis for Tajima's spicy sesame and curry offerings. Where Yamadaya's tonkotsu broth outmuscles its spicy option, Tajima's gives the Spicy Sesame version a stage upon which to flex its own muscles. It's a broth that reminds you capsaicin (the operative ingredient in chili peppers) is a drug. It is, not to mince words, addictive. The standard garnishes on the dish are ground pork, chives, bean sprouts, pork (or chicken) chashu, a half egg and fried garlic that is no doubt naughty but unquestionably delicious.

Curry may not sound like a Japanese flavor, but it won the hearts and minds of Japanese soldiers (and thereafter the country) after introduction by the British in the Meiji era (1868—1912). Tajima's ramen interpretation of curry makes perfect sense, the rich broth blending happily with the aromatic curry spices. Limited garnishes don't limit Tajima's curry ramen because, again, it is that broth that is the star of this dish.

Ramen is not all that's offered at Tajima. Small dishes like garlic edamame (competent but not extraordinary), gyoza (fried pork dumplings that are pleasant if unspectacular) and pork belly kakuni bun (whoa!) range from enjoyable to must-tries. The service at Tajima was, sadly, not good.  Limited attentiveness (and light staffing) combined with a lack of menu knowledge and an unwillingness to ask the back-of-the-house on multiple occasions with multiple servers.

But that should not stop you from trying some of the best ramen in town.  It is ramen that—regardless of the exotic flavorings of the broth—managed to keep everything in perfect, delicate balance.

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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