Every so often, we take a break from the world of fine dining to put our elbows on the table and look for something more casual. We seek value, embrace simplicity, discover good food and save a bunch of money.
Anyone can drop $200 and find quality cooking in a room with clean tables and soft lighting. But how about $7.55?
That's the price of every regular-size bowl of ramen at Hokkaido Noodle House, from the house special with tender medallions of slow-cooked pork and spicy calamari to a bowl of ramen that is completely meat-free.
Somewhere out on the edges, for more adventurous eaters, are ramen offerings featuring ox tongue and bargain-priced skewers of, yes, offal – but wait, it's not necessarily awful. We're talking heart, liver or gizzards – and the heart, especially, is firm and has a bit of chew to it.
What's not to like about a place where the room is bright and clean, the service is upbeat, and the food is delicious, nourishing, exotic yet accessible – and best of all, costs about as much as a pair of gym socks?
Hokkaido makes good old- fashioned ramen – not the noxious, sodium-laced stuff with the freeze-dried bits of veggies that, along with frozen fish sticks and pre-sliced cheese, helped you survive when you first moved away from home.
This is the real thing, where the flavors are clean and deep and authentic, and the food makes you feel revived by the time you head out the restaurant's door. And did we mention that a bowl of ramen is pretty much a full meal for anyone not named "Fridge" or "Moose"?
Ramen is the star at Hokkaido, the latest addition to the eclectic, homespun and international food scene on bustling Broadway.
It's fun to encounter a place on the way up, before it draws the crowd it deserves, when you can still walk in, as of this writing, and grab any table you want. This is the case with Hokkaido, which is right next to the delicious and exotic Ethiopian restaurant Queen Sheba, just a short stroll from the Tower Theatre and, with its wide- ranging menu and French toast to die for, perennial favorite Tower Cafe.
Hokkaido is named for the Japanese province, and in this case, reflects something of an inside joke. The owner, Wei Zhang, is a former chef at Sapporo Grill, the popular, upscale restaurant on 16th Street – and Sapporo is the provincial capital of Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is not elegant or dramatic or upscale, but the ambience is crisp, clean and comfortable, dominated by plenty of natural wood.
Nearby, on 24th Street, the wait for the ramen at the masterful Shoki Ramen House, which earned the maximum four stars in The Bee, can be up to an hour, due to its stellar food, tiny dining room and cult following, the members of which know to bring along reading material or a chess set to pass the time.
Hokkaido is far more low-key, from the intensity of the room to the flavors of the food. And since Shoki is not for everyone, Hokkaido should be a viable player in the ramen game. Some who have tried Shoki, for instance, are put off by all the strict rules – you can't even get on the waiting list until everyone in your party shows up – and refer to its owner-chef as Sacramento's very own "Soup Nazi." Some may find the overall experience at Hokkaido more to their liking.
It comes down to personal preference.
Before we get into the food, let's talk about etiquette. If you're a typical American, your mother taught you not to slurp. Leave it to Mom to take the fun out of food. Eating at a Japanese noodle house is a chance to bring back the sound effects. It's perfectly fine to sip and slurp as you eat.
Slurping with purpose can actually accentuate the flavors in the broth – the same reason wine connoisseurs and coffee tasters do a version of the slurp, drawing in air, or aspirating, to accentuate the flavors.
The beauty of ramen is its simplicity. Take a big bowl and fill it with lots of broth, a nest of long, tender noodles and whatever garnishes you like.
But there are no shortcuts on the way to simple. To make this dish whole requires a broth loaded with flavor, held together through balance. This liquid, which is very nearly clear like a consommé, may fool you into thinking there is not much to it. But to arrive at such a broth, the cook must fill a pot with bones – mainly chicken, with some beef – add water and simmer nearly as long as the average person is awake in a day.
Think of a weekday in which you arrive at work at 8 a.m., stay until 5, enjoy dinner, a drink and your regular walk with the dog. That broth is still on a rolling boil, teasing out the flavor from deep in those bones as the liquid grows ever darker.
By the time you start winding down, our pot is nearly done, too. Time and heat and the magic of slow, purposeful cooking have built something rich and lasting and, yes, there's a certain simplicity to it.
Think of all that time – 14 hours or so – when you take your first taste of broth at Hokkaido.
The house special ramen with spicy calamari and pork is the best place to start for a sense of what this place is all about. While the flavors may not be as intense as what you'll find at Shoki, the adornments – the meat, the green onions, the boiled egg – are actually more plentiful and more attractively presented.
The pork for the spicy ramen was exceptionally tender and nicely seasoned. I could have gone for more heat; I requested extra-spicy, but I would consider this on the tame side of medium. On 24th Street, extra-hot means a meal right on the edge of calling in the fire marshal.
The ox tongue ramen was delicious, with a slightly thicker, milkier quality to the broth. While I appreciated the creamy mouthfeel, one of my companions didn't care for it. The "ten ten" ramen with ground beef and the "yasai" ramen, packed with vegetables and no traces of meat, are also good bets.
Other menu choices also worked out well. We liked the mixed plate of tempura ($6.95) with a light, crisp batter, and we thoroughly enjoyed the pan-fried potstickers known as gyoza ($5.95). They were tender and tasty, with extra flavor from contact with the very hot pan. We also strayed from the ramen and went with the rice-based dishes called donburi. The chicken curry ($6.95) was full of complex spice and tenderness.
The agedashi tofu – tofu that is battered and deep-fried – was one of the few letdowns. The cubes of tofu were on the large side – and about as exciting as plain toast. They were not cooked all the way through, and they could have been marinated in something to give them a hint of flavor.
Still, our focus at a noodle house is on the ramen. Maybe Hokkaido could expand its offerings to include wheat noodles. Maybe in time, when the chef settles in and dares to take the cooking up a notch, he can show off flavors that are deeper and, if the occasion calls for it, bolder.
For now, we see the makings of a fine place for lunch and dinner, and an excellent way to save money while seeking out good food. On worldly, eclectic Broadway, Hokkaido is a nice fit.
HOKKAIDO NOODLE HOUSE
1724 Broadway, Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? Beer and sake only.
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (promising)
It's a pleasant place to visit for good food at a great price. It's comforting for aficionados of authentic Japanese ramen and welcoming to first-timers.
Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
In Japan, ramen is considered fast food. You walk in, order, inhale the food and off you go. Here, you can take your time and appreciate the time it takes to build a bowl brimming with flavor. The taste is balanced, the presentations are very attractive, and the portions are substantial. Try the house special ramen, the "ten ten" or, for something a little edgy, the ox tongue.
Service: 3 stars (good)
Low-key, friendly and attentive. Add charming and funny to the list when Angel, our server on one visit, handled our table.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
Lots of natural light and bright, blond wood in the room. This score will go up when the room is bustling the way a noodle house should be.
Value: 3 stars (good)
Large portions and quality cooking mean you won't feel let down when the bill arrives. Even the large (huge) size of ramen is only $8.95. The yakitori, or skewers, are an excellent bargain. All are less than $5.
Noteworthy: Hokkaido is only blocks away from Shoki Ramen House and its enthusiastic following of ramen geeks. Which place is right for you? Try them both and decide for yourself. Or go back and forth, depending on your mood, and don't play favorites. Both answers are OK.