The concept of ramen sounds simple, as it's basically a triumvirate of ingredients.
Broth that can be made from pork-based stock (tonkotsu), salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu), or fermented soybeans, rice or barley (miso). To confuse matters, chicken and/or pork stock generally are added for more flavor.
Add quality noodles cooked "koshi," which is the Japanese equivalent of the Italian "al dente" not limp from overcooking, but not too firm in the middle, either.
Toppings typically include pork, seafood, seaweed, egg and/or vegetables.
Clearly, ramen isn't a one-dimensional dish. The variations on the template are many, and are largely based on regional tastes, culture, geography and availability of ingredients.
Lunch pal Greg Jung and I were kicking this around at a table inside the 7-week-old Ryu Jin Ramen House, watching sumo wrestling on a Japanese TV station and looking at the menu ($3.50 to $9). Let's see For starters there are shoyu, miso, shio, mabo and yasai ramens, and more. Add to those a long list of sides.
Jung calls himself a "ramen aficionado," with good reason: He began cooking Top Ramen for himself at age 11. During lunch, he demonstrated the proper technique for slurping the broth and noodles.
"The slurpier, the better," he explained. "It's a compliment to the cook and shows (diner) satisfaction.
"With ramen, the key thing is the broth," he went on. "Next is the texture of the noodles. They should bounce back (to the bite) and never be mushy. The third consideration is presentation and visual attractiveness."
We ordered a bunch of dishes. On the table were finely ground white pepper, soy sauce, chopsticks and big spoons. I asked for a fork, just in case. Jung laughed.
Jung owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Sacramento. As we waited, we talked about how insurance companies are responding (or not) to the many claims caused by the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.
"I live in the land of risk management," he said.
How risky? I wondered. Would he insure, say, the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary tour?
"No," he said emphatically. "There are too many baby boomers who won't be able to handle the excitement."
What about the upcoming movie version of Dean Koontz's novel "Odd Thomas"?
"Yes, but not the sequel."
How about the meal we were about to eat?
"A healthy yes," he said.
That's when our two glorious ramens arrived. Shiro tongotsu ("white") is creamy, pork-based broth brimming with noodles, two thick slices of succulent pork, steamed cabbage, black mushroom, red ginger, green onion and a seasoned whole egg.
Aka tongotsu ("red") is the same thing, but the fiery, reddish broth is far different. The deeper we spooned into it, the hotter it became, setting fire to the other ingredients. A very good thing.
We added a plate of tasty fried cakes made from wheat flour, chunky with bits of octopus and cabbage.
"This is street food in Japan," Yung said. "You would order this from a stall in downtown Tokyo, after you've been nightclubbing."
Next were luscious fried oysters in crisp panko breading, with dark and pungent dipping sauce; fresh-tasting dumplings filled with spinach and green onion; and seasoned deep-fried chicken wings.
How do you say, "It's all good" in Japanese?
The chef-owner of Ryu Jin (which translates to "dragon god") is Viengxay "Sai" Vongnalith, who also owns Akebono restaurant and sushi bar on Freeport Boulevard in South Land Park. His résumé includes former ownership of three Edokko restaurants around town, all of which he sold over the years.
"I brought (the recipes) with me from Tokyo, where I was a chef," he said on the phone.
Vongnalith's deeply flavored ramen broths are aged 24 to 26 hours, he said. It's a commitment that shows.
With the holiday season in mind, we went on walkabout inside the Cost Plus World Market on Howe Avenue to explore its "savories and sweets from around the globe." It's one of seven Sacramento-area stores in the 260-unit national chain that began life in 1958 on Fisherman's Wharf.
We walked past Artisan Gifts, made a left at the Alpine Workshop and came to an incredible cornucopia of food and beverage items from England, Scotland, Australia, Italy, Germany, Austria, Holland, Japan, India, Mexico and more.
We roamed through multiple aisles and saw thousands of items ginger-wasabi chocolate and smoked salmon, Sacher torte and maple-pecan pie-flavored coffee, black truffle oil and Cajun spice, Thai chilis and pumpkin pasta sauce, dried shallots and blood orange juice, meringue nests and red-velvet pancake mix, kipper filets and lobster pate, cured bockwurst and curry sauces, steamed puddings and picadillo mix, sunflower-seed bread and hazelnut stollen.
There was even a massive chocolate-covered cake in the shape of a yule log, filled with hazelnuts, cream and custard. Plus gift packs of caviar, salumi, hot sauces and grilling spices.
We sampled too much, including Schuhmann gingerbread cookies (Germany), Zapps Voodoo kettle-style potato chips (New Orleans), Biscoff cookies (Belgium), Glenfiddich shortbread rounds (Scotland), Chimes ginger chews with orange (Indonesia), Sanders chocolate-covered pretzels (Michigan), Pearson's Nut Goodies (Minnesota), house-brand white chocolate with Key lime and Bolivian rose sea salt (Oakland).
In retrospect, there seems to have been a theme going on.
We asked store manager Tom Hedtke if he has a favorite amid the munchies.
"I'm a big fan of Utz Old World Pumpernickel Pretzels," he said. "There's a bag of them in my office."
They were tasty, too.
Cost Plus World Market, 1821 Howe Ave., Sacramento; (916) 929-0220.
RYU JIN RAMEN HOUSE
Where: 1831 S St., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch is 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays- Fridays. Dinner is 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, until midnight Fridays-Saturdays.
Food: ★ ★ ★ ★
Ambience: ★ ★
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 341-0488, www.ryujinramen.com