The time has finally come: Ippudo is opening its downtown Berkeley restaurant on Friday, July 28. Fans of the ramen shop have long been waiting for this location at 2011 Shattuck Ave. (at University) — the first on the West Coast — to open. The chain, which was founded in 1985 by Shigemi Kawahara in Fukuoka, Japan, is now operated by I & P Runway, a joint venture by Chikaranomoto Holdings and Panda Restaurant Group, known for its Chinese fast-food chain Panda Express. The company already has a total of 17 restaurants across the world, including two outposts in Manhattan and a San Francisco location that will open this year, and has grand plans to continue expansion around the world.
We were invited to a soft opening this week of Ippudo Berkeley. Here’s a look at what to expect on the menu, as well as a peek behind the scenes of the kitchen and noodle-making room.
Ippudo is known for its Hakata-style ramen from Fukuoka in Kyushu, Japan. This style of ramen has a milky tonkotsu (pork-bone) broth as its base and thin, straight noodles.
Unlike at many Bay Area ramen restaurants, Ippudo makes its noodles in house. We got to view fresh noodles being flattened, cut and handpacked in the back of the restaurant. The noodles are rested for two days before they make it into a bowl of soup. At Ippudo, guests can choose to have their noodles kata (firm) or yawa (soft). In Kyushu, locals are known to ask for bari kata (very firm).
Here’s a look in the kitchen, where bowls of ramen are constructed. Above is the pot where noodles are boiled and then strained.
This is the bowl-warming area, where the heavy ceramic ramen bowls are heated in 172°F water before serving.
And here’s a huge pot of boiling stock. Ippudo boils pork bones for 18 hours to create its rich tonkotsu.
Ippudo highly encourages pairing its food with sake and will have bottles that fall under four categories, depending on your preference: clean and crisp (Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Honjozo, Ichinokura Mukansa Honjozo), fragrant and luxurious (Dassai 50, Nambu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai, Yamato Shizuku Junmai), mild and gentle (Sho Chiku Bai Nigori and Naraman), and classic and aged (Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo, Shichida).
In addition, Ippudo carries some fun sakes that are best to drink as an aperitif, like the popular fruit-flavored jelly sakes by Ikezo, Funaguchi Gold cans, as well as umeshu (plum wine). Japanese beer selections include Asahi and Sapporo on draft and Kirin Ichiban and Kyoto Beers in a bottle. It also has a variety of wines and non-alcoholic drinks.
Aside from ramen, Ippudo’s food menu will feature starters, salads and rice dishes. For our first starter, we tried the Ippudo Buns, which are soft, puffy steamed buns filled with pork, chicken or battered and fried eggplant and oyster mushrooms. Each bun comes tucked with a slip of iceberg lettuce, a sweet soy glaze and a squirt of mayonnaise. We liked each of the fillings equally — a pleasant surprise since vegetarian options don’t often live up to, or fairly compete in flavor with, the meaty options.
The second starter was the Ippudo Wings, which are fried chicken wings glazed in a black pepper sauce.
The final starter we tried was the Goma Q, a long caterpillar-shaped dish of cut Japanese cucumber seasoned with a chili pepper spiked sesame oil sauce and sprinkled with crushed roasted sesame seeds. After all the glazes, meats and starches, it was a refreshing dish to cleanse the palate.
We also tried the Gobo-Ten Salad, which was mixed greens with a soy dressing, topped with crispy fried gobo (burdock root) on top. The frying of the burdock mellows out the medicinal flavor that gobo can have (which I personally like), so the topping was mostly just a crispy textural component more than a strong flavor addition here.
And finally, our bowls of ramen arrived! There are three main styles of ramen at Ippudo; different sauces (Ippudo’s “magic sauce” and a fragrant garlic oil) and fats (clarified lard and back fat) are added to the original tonkotsu broth to create the different versions: Shiromaru (classic mild broth), Akamaru (classic broth with red “Umami Dama” miso paste and fragrant garlic oil), Karaka (classic broth with hot spices and fragrant garlic oil). There’s also an option for Shoyu Ramen (made with a soy sauce flavored broth with a bonito fish dashi base). Bowls come topped with slices of pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms and scallions. A soft-boiled seasoned egg, extra chashu and/or nori (seaweed) can be added to any of the three tonkotsu styles of ramen at extra cost.
We tried all three ramen types at our visit so that we could get a taste for the original, unadulterated tonkotsu broth in comparison to the flavored versions. We had our bowls with kata al-dente noodles and the addition of soft-boiled eggs. The tonkotsu in the Shiromaru Classic is silky, but not overly creamy or thick; porky, but mild and not gamey at all. The word unctuous gets thrown around a lot when describing tonkotsu ramen broths, but this one is actually not oily or slightly viscous like others we’ve had. The Shiromaru Classic is a soothing choice for traditionalists. However, this might be the first time we’ve liked the non-traditional versions better than the classic. The addition of the miso paste and fragrant garlic oil in the Akamaru Modern adds a punch of flavor that balances the broth nicely.
For fans of spice, we recommend the Karaka Spicy, which has a definite kick, but as most Japanese food, isn’t tongue scorchingly hot; instead, the spices add a pleasant twinge of heat and good chili flavor. As for the noodles, they had a nice chew, but aren’t bouncy like curly ramen noodles, but are almost more like Japanese somen noodles, which have less springiness. For the best flavor, bowls of ramen should be eaten as soon as they hit the table, so slurp up!
Ippudo Berkeley opens on Friday, July 28. A word to the wise, the hype is real and there will be lines, so plan accordingly!