If you think of the suburbs as just a land of chain restaurants, it’s time to put aside your center-city bias and get out more in Elk Grove, a growing destination for casual dining.
Journey to the Dumpling has noteworthy options, and rumor has it there are good new Szechuan and Malaysian restaurants. In keeping with the Asian restaurant theme, Kotteri Ramen Bar is a small and stylish place that opened about a year ago. It’s serving up some of the best ramen in the region, with some high-quality flourishes and special touches that make it worth a drive, or staying in the area instead of coming downtown.
Maybe the restaurant’s name is a subtle pun on the exclusivity of the ramen club in the capital region. The Sacramento area has some solid entrants, but the coterie is not as large as you’d expect, given the popularity here of other noodle soups like pho and the nationwide ramen boom.
In the downtown core, the stalwart specialists are Shoki and Ryu Jin, though several other restaurants offer ramen as a menu item. Billy Ngo of Kru and Fish Face expects to open Kodaiko, a ramen-centric casual place on the 700 block of K Street, in June.
Until more ramen becomes available – and even afterward – I can recommend Kotteri. It’s small and tightly focused on its ramen. Both dining room and food have a modern sensibility, with the menu including a few interesting dishes for ramen thrill-seekers: Hokkaido cheese ramen, kale-noodle tsukemen.
Tsukemen, plates of cold noodles served with a salty, faintly smoky broth for dipping, is awkward to eat but worth the struggle, especially as the weather heats up and big bowls of steamy broth lose their appeal.
The regular tsukemen here comes loaded with corn, ground spiced pork, slices of chashu (pork belly) and two halves of soft-boiled egg, its yolk just thickened. The eggs here are the best I’ve seen at a local ramen place, the white soft and without a hint of rubberiness, the yolk smooth and unctuous like some kind of luscious savory caramel. The kitchen also has a generous hand with its unusually good chashu, its fatty rim seared crisp and aromatically spiced, the meat tender.
All the tsukemen toppings also feature, of course, in the soups, where you get a choice of broths in the traditional flavors: creamy red, white and black tonkotsu (made from long-simmered pork marrow bones), shoyu, shio, miso and spicy tantan men. There’s also vegetarian broth. Each comes with varied toppings, noted on the menu, but you can also add your own from a big lineup of offerings.
I went with what was on the menu for my bowl of tantan men, which gets a distinctive nutty flavor from sesame paste and zip from chili oil. I like it a little spicier than the broth here, but it was warmly comforting and easy to spice up oneself. Spiced ground meat added richness and complexity and bean sprouts added crunch.
Both the menu and my server recommended adding katsu (a fried cutlet) in chicken or pork to the tantan men. I did as I was told and had no regrets, even though the tantan men portion is plenty big without it. Furthermore, I took the server’s recommendation and chose pork. It was fried to order and thus showed up a tiny bit after our soup, but it was worth the wait: the perfectly even and crunchy breading was deep golden brown, the meat inside juicy.
On a later visit, I tried the chicken katsu on a rice bowl, katsudon. The tender white meat couldn’t compete flavor-wise with pork, though that’s hardly its fault, but it was again fried just right, a nice textural contrast with the chewy, glutinous rice of the dish.
Red tonkotsu tasted just a tiny touch overbalanced in its aromatics, with a strong undertone of pepper. But it had the lip-smacking savory quality and rich body that characterizes this style. And in all the ramen dishes I tried, the slippery, toothsome tangle of noodles was just right.
The Hokkaido cheese ramen, made popular as a bit of a daredevil food in Japan, gets its name from the Hokkaido region’s status as Japan’s dairy center. I don’t know of another place in our area that’s serving it, though I may easily have missed one.
In Kotteri’s rendition, a mound of grated parmesan melts into the soup, giving it a creamy quality quite different from the collagen-derived body of the base broth. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about the flavor of the cheese, but melting another rich protein into a soup base married well with it and didn’t clash, once I got used to the relatively subtle different flavor profile. It did, however, make the bowl overwhelmingly rich. I was glad of a bit of vegetable in the shape of some bok choy to lighten things but couldn’t come close to finishing my bowl.
The menu is rounded out by a few rice dishes that augment the katsudon (fried rice, chashudon), kid-size ramen and a select lineup of appetizers. My favorite of these was the simplest, a bowl of spicy, bright kimchi that whetted the appetite for the big bowls of soup but wasn’t overly filling.
Lemony, golden-fried karaage (boneless fried chicken pieces ) was juicy inside and more flavorful than the blander cutlet, and the tart lemon dipping sauce alongside complemented it perfectly. Deep-fried gyoza, on the other hand, were dull, with no memorable flavor in the pork and vegetable filling.
The latter were a rare miss for this likable restaurant. Kotteri’s menu is tightly edited and its execution of its few dishes largely strong. If you like ramen, it offers a slightly different style than either the idiosyncratic, almost rustic Shoki or the more wide-ranging Ryujin. I was glad I’d made the drive to Elk Grove to sample it – especially those eggs – for myself.
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Kotteri Ramen Bar
9015 Bruceville Rd, Elk Grove
Info: 916-509-9193. kotteriramenbar.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Beverage options: No alcohol; tea (including Thai tea), soft drinks, and water.
Vegetarian options: There is a vegetarian ramen dish, but not a lot of choice for plant-based eaters.
Noise levels: Moderate enough for conversation, even when the small dining room is full.
Ambiance: Not overly fancy, but the dark-gray dining room accented with trattoria chairs and sleek light wood furniture has personality and style enough to make you forget the space occupies the corner of a bland shopping center.
Kotteri’s excellent broths, careful preparations and well-cooked noodles – plus a few fun extras for thrill seekers, such as cheese ramen – make it a worthy addition to both our area’s smallish ramen scene and Elk Grove’s growing diversity of dining.
Noodles and the deeply flavored broths both shine here, as do the eggs, cooked to just-runny-yolked perfection, and fried-to-order katsu (pork or chicken cutlets). Some appetizers, such as the gyoza, are on the dull side, but kim chee makes up for it.
The pleasant, efficient servers do their job well, without fuss or frills. Food comes out quickly.
Enormous bowls of well-prepared soup are nearly all $10 (even bigger large sizes run about $12), and appetizers are all under $10, making Kotteri a cost-effective lunch or dinner spot.