The tonkotsu style dominates San Diego's ramen scene. That milky-white, meaty broth made from slowly boiled pork bones is certainly a powerhouse. But there's more to ramen than this one classic, Japanese style. The opening of the first American outpost of Tokyo-based Nishiki Ramen (8055 Armour St., Suite 201A) in the Convoy District gives us a rare chance to explore the edges of ramen world.
The best bowl of ramen at Nishiki is the miso ramen. It proves that non-tonkotsu ramen has a lot to offer. The dish is gorgeous. There's a single spear of brilliant green asparagus shooting across the bowl, contrasting with the red of chili threads and a grape tomato and the white of the impossibly thinly sliced onion. The broth is more elegant than powerhouse, light with a pleasant saltiness. The dish pleased the palate and pleased the eye.
But the star of the bowl, indeed, the star of all Nishiki's bowls, is the noodles. Nishiki makes the organic whole-wheat alkaline noodles daily in-house. The noodles—thinner for the miso ramen than the others—are firm and chewy, almost bouncy in texture. As you slurp through your bowl the noodle in the broth subtly thickens the soup.
The signature "Nishiki Ramen" broth is as close as Nishiki's comes to tonkotsu. But chicken takes center stage. As profound as the meatiness of the broth may be, it lacked salt and, hence, a sense of satisfaction. Like the miso ramen, it was an attractive dish. The garnishes of baby corn, okra and grape tomato popped visually and gave the presentation drama.
While Nishiki's ramens are grounded in tradition they are not exactly traditional—and sometimes not close. The dishes depart from tradition particularly in the garnishes. Okra is not exactly a traditional ramen garnish. And while corn off the cob is used in some regional variations, baby corn is rare.
The strangest of Nishiki's offerings is the ramen del sol, a completely vegetarian affair. This dish is a good idea taken over the top. The first thing you notice is the sliced raw tomato. In ramen world, that's not promising. Next you notice the raw arugula. In a ramen? Why? And a broth that suggests vanilla? Really? The noodles are good. I'll give it that. But the overall effect is, frankly, weird. Every spoonful was a struggle.
But while the ramen del sol showcased the hazards of innovating in the key of ramen, Nishiki's other inventions worked well. If veggie madness killed the del sol, creative use of vegetables in other dishes elevated them. The menu is short now, but all chicken-based broth, a seafood ramen and a ramen twist on Sichuanese dan dan noodles are on the way.
If those menu additions are at the del sol level that's not a good thing. If they're more like the other bowls that's better. And it will further show San Diego the ramen world goes far beyond tonkotsu.