Carla Meyer

Shoki Ramen offers happy times in old Trails building

Shoki Ramen House retains history of Trails diner

New occupant of 21st Street building has kept the feel of restaurant once owned by Hollywood's Esther Williams.
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New occupant of 21st Street building has kept the feel of restaurant once owned by Hollywood's Esther Williams.

When Shoki Ramen House opened in the old Trails Restaurant on 21st Street this past spring with a “build-your-own” concept, it produced ramen anxiety.

For the ramen layperson – this means most of us, no matter how many times you watch David Chang on TV – this approach entailed too many options, among several kinds of broth (or no broth at all), noodles (or maybe rice instead?), proteins and vegetables.

Soup eating was never meant to be so proactive. One wants comfort, not an assignment, when seeking out ramen on chilly fall days like the ones just around the corner. And the ramen at Shoki’s other branch on R Street always has been especially comforting in its consistent high quality. Japanese-born chef Yasushi Ueyama built his reputation as Sacramento’s finest ramen maker on his easy-to-order, scratch-made soups.

Good news: The new Shoki now offers the same menu as R Street. Tan tan men, shio, shoyu and curry soups arrive at your table with Ueyame’s pre-set ingredients in the bowls.

That is, unless you order a small ramen, which comes with the colder ingredients such as wakame (seaweed) and fresh spinach on the side, so as not to cool the limited amount of liquid in the bowl.

Don’t order the small ramen. Medium bowls come with plentiful amounts of scrumptious broth, for $1 more (or $7.90-$9.90 per bowl), all ingredients included.

The patron retains some agency. One can sub out thick for thin noodles, or ask for less salt, for no charge, or opt for yam or whole-wheat noodles, or extra vegetables or meat, for a $1-$3 charge.

The 21st Street Shoki’s retro interior adds an extra dose of comfort to the relief of now having the appropriate degree of control over one’s ramen. Ueyama and his wife and co-owner, Kathy, retained many design details from Trails, a barbecue restaurant first opened in 1952 by movie and swimming star Esther Williams.

The distinctive neon sign outside, and wood paneling inside, are intact, along with a wagon-wheel light fixture. The nearly year-long delay in this Shoki’s opening was due to kitchen construction and updating of the aging building’s plumbing.

Though the 21st and R Street Shokis share a menu, the new, diner-like Shoki offers more character, and a better chance of finding a seat quickly. This location takes reservations, whereas R Street, where there often is a wait, does not.

There were plenty of seats available on our visits to 21st, though lunch is busier than dinner. On one weekday evening, I briefly was the only diner in the place. Sitting in the restaurant’s front corner, in a vinyl booth surrounded by big windows, as mournful jazz played on the sound system, I felt like I was in an Edward Hopper painting.

This location celebrated its grand opening in August, four months after it soft-opened. Those months were spent experimenting with the menu and seeking customer feedback, Ueyama said through his wife, who translated his Japanese into English. That feedback inspired the shift back to pre-built ramen, though Ueyama said he will continue to use 21st Street to float new ideas, as he did recently with a well-received matcha ramen he plans to revive soon.

My visits to the new Shoki proved experimental as well. Like many Shoki fans, I had barely touched on the menu during visits to R Street, where I always ordered the tan tan men, accompanied occasionally by sides of chashu pork or steamed cabbage.

The tan tan men, a soy-sauce-based broth with Shoki’s thick noodles, chili oil and seasoned minced beef, has so much going for it – umami (from bonito – or fish shavings – and kelp in the broth), heat, meatiness and perfectly cooked noodles that are easy to bite into while maintaining some firmness – that ordering any other ramen seemed unnecessary. The chashu – thin sliced from pork shoulder Ueyama slow cooks and submerges in tare sauce – offers a flavor in between just-roasted and cured. I love it because it evokes the pickled beef tongue I grew up eating in Basque restaurants in Bakersfield, just as the steamed cabbage suggests Basque soup.

Although the tan tan men, chashu and cabbage were enough for me to recommend the R Street branch to friends since it opened in 2011 (the original Shoki opened on 24th Street in 2007 and closed in late 2014 in favor of the 21st Street site), my review visits revealed other treasures to bolster that recommendation. Like the shio, or sea-salt, ramen, the clean taste of which makes it perfect for people who are under the weather but not seeking sinus-clearing heat. Its opposite numbers are the tan tan men and deeply flavored curry ramen, the latter’s broth rich in spices and in sirloin beef that melts into it during a long cooking process.

Shoki’s shoyu, or soy, ramen, is less of a sure thing. The first time we tried it, the broth assumed the qualities of the wakame and nori (wet and dried seaweed, respectively) within it, becoming too sweetly seaweed-forward. On second try, this ramen showed more dimension, reducing the soup’s seaweed elements to the accents.

The noodles, thick and thin, were perfect in taste as well as texture throughout our visits. Crafted to Yasushi Ueyama’s specs by artisanal maker Sun Noodle, Shoki’s noodles hold much of the bowl’s salt component, giving them more comparative flavor than noodles in other restaurants’ ramen. That’s likely because some other broths hold pre-made, sodium-laden elements. When a soup is awash in salt, noodle flavor will not stand out.

We also found new treats among starters and sides, including the small but hearty “mini-sukiyaki” and “mini-curry” rice bowls, which cost a mere $2.50 when ordered with a ramen or $3.50 separately.

Also a steal is a $4 appetizer consisting of cream cheese, katsuo (bonito shavings), and nori in which to wrap both. If tuna is the chicken of the sea, then salty katsuo is its ham. The bare-bones avocado “sashimi” (avocado slices, wasabi and soy-based dipping sauce), though refreshing, seemed pricey at $4.50. But only in the context of otherwise low prices.

Our attempts to run up big bills at Shoki, by ordering three ramens, three or four side dishes, a crisp Himitsu draft beer – Shoki’s versatile collaboration with Ruhstaller – artisanal sodas, hot tea, a scoop of made-special-for-Shoki Gunther’s vanilla ice cream with black sesame seeds, resulted in $40-$50 tabs. That’s more than reasonable for a restaurant that offers full, and very friendly, service.

Kathy Ueyama said Shoki keeps costs down with ingredients that do double or triple duty on the menu.

Though this is a blessing to wallets, the re-purposing can lead to flavor fatigue. Spinach, nori and wakame repeat among the ramen bowls and in several other dishes.

A lot of people would not see this repetition, since most diners do not try several ramen bowls at once. This is partly because a cooties-free group sampling of multiple soups requires a complex network of extra bowls and spoons with which most people would not want to bother. It’s also because repeat Shoki customers often have a single soup in mind when entering the door.

Take, for instance, the tan tan men, to which I returned after abstaining for two visits. But this time, I tried the “kurogoma” version, which substitutes smokiness-lending black sesame seed for the standard bowl’s white.

It tasted like home, and then some.

Shoki Ramen House (21st Street)

2530 21st St., Sacramento, www.shokiramenhouse.com, 916-454-2411

Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Tuesday.

Beverage options: Five beers on tap. Sake and shochu. Limited wine selection.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes, and vegan-friendly

Gluten-free options: The yam noodles are gluten-free.

Noise level: Moderate

Ambiance: Shoki’s owners kept the wood paneling and most of the seating from the old Trails Restaurant, lending the ramen restaurant an especially homey feel.

Overall 1/2

Yasushi Ueyama continues to make exceptionally high-quality ramen in the newest Shoki, which has returned to a more standard menu after starting with a “build your own” concept.

Food 1/2

The tan tan men and curry ramen are deeply flavored standouts, but the light, clean flavors of the “shio” ramen also shine.

Service

Servers are friendly and accommodating, but we had to wait far too long to have our order taken on one visit.

Value 1/2

Prices are beyond reasonable for a full-service restaurant, but costs can add up when ordering additional ramen ingredients ($3 for shiitake mushrooms, for example).

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