When Junya Watanabe, chef-owner of Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen (4646 Convoy St.), talks with you, he looks through you. There's an air of the rock star about Watanabe. Part of it is his hair, another the way he carries himself and another his highly fashionable, slightly edgy attire. Watanabe has an intensity that would be perfect for a politician or CEO. It's an intensity that infuses every bowl of ramen at Rakiraki.
Before Rakiraki, before learning ramen from some of Japan's bests, Watanabe was the creator of one of the world's most famous fashion lines. After leaving Tadashi, Watanabe launched a campaign to learn ramen from some of its contemporary Japanese masters. From one notoriously difficult business, Watanabe went to another.
A bowl of ramen is, at its base, four things: a seasoning mixture called "tare" (Watanabe uses the term differently), broth, noodles and toppings. Indeed, a classic bowl of ramen is constructed in just that order. There are four major "types" of ramen—shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsuóeach subdivided endlessly. It seems every town has its own distinctive version. Each, though, follows the tare+broth+noodles+toppings formula.
Except tsukemen. A mid-1950s innovation, tsukemen became Tokyo's "in" ramen in the 2000s. It is, both literally and figuratively an "outside the bowl" way of thinking about ramen. Instead of noodles being served in broth, thicker noodles are served cold and on the side for dipping into a bowl of a piping-hot, more concentrated soup and toppings. Rakiraki offers a variety of tsukemens. The most traditional is a shoyu-based chicken broth using alkaline water (which gives it a subtle, ineffable sweetness) and vinegar. My favorite, though, was the spicy tsukemen with the X.O. underbelly. It is a fun dish full of big flavors all in balance.
Watanabe prides himself on his Hakata-style tonkotsu ramens, the "Black Edition" featuring black garlic, and the "Red Edition" featuring an intoxicating fermented chili pepper preparation. The black garlic lends the already powerhouse pork-based broth a funky, beguiling depth. The fermented chile preparation of the Red Edition gives it an almost intoxicating quality as well as a definite kick.
One of the best items on Rakiraki's menu doesn't involve noodles: the chicken karaage, basically Japanese fried chicken. Often just fileted bits of soy-marinated chicken coated in potato starch and fried until crisp, Rakiraki's karaage employs massive chunks of chicken. Their sheer size presents practical challenges, but they are challenges you want to overcome because the chicken is that good: moist, a hint of the soy-ginger-garlic marinade, all in a wonderfully crispy exterior.
Within months Watanabe will not just be Rakiraki's chef/owner, but also that of Pokirrito (a poke-burrito spot) and J/Wata (a Tokyo-style stand-up Izakaya concept), both next door to Rakiraki, as well as Rakiraki Little Italy. If, at first blush, that seems like a lot to handle, perhaps it is. But there is a driven edge to Watanabe and a depth. He is more than meets the eyes.
And the same can be said about his food at Rakiraki. It is ramen, yes, but you somehow get the sense there's more to it than that.