When Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura moved to Oakland four years ago, they were shocked at the lack of good ramen in the East Bay. The couple had been living in San Mateo, where ramen is relatively abundant. “It’s a whole different world over here,” said Freed.
Instead of taking to Yelp or lamenting the lack of tonokotsu in silence, Freed and Nakamura decided to tackle the problem head-on. About 18 months ago, they started plotting their own ramen shop.
It will not, Freed and Nakamura insist, be a clone of Oakland’s trendy Ramen Shop. “Ramen Shop is not really a ramen shop,” said Freed. “It’s a fancy restaurant that happens to serve ramen.” Instead, Shiba Ramen will be modeled on Japanese ramen shops — it will have counter service, a short menu, and low prices.
“We’re taking the opposite approach to Ramen Shop,” said Nakamura. “Ramen doesn’t have to be expensive or made from specialty cuts of bone. We’re using things like chicken wing tips for broth.”
Added Freed: “We’re trying to keep prices around $9 to $12, and we don’t want people to feel like they need to add a lot of toppings.”
Freed and Nakamura’s measured approach to pricing also reflects the bigger goal of Shiba Ramen — to be approachable. “We are adjusting ramen for American tastes and culture,” said Nakamura. “We don’t have to be completely authentic.”
“We’re trying to strike a balance between authenticity and accessibility,” said Freed. “We want to bring ramen to people who aren’t San Francisco foodies. We want people to come here who are eating ramen for the first time.”
It’s not necessarily an easy task. Both Freed and Nakamura are ex-chemists, not chefs. However, they’re channeling their scientific background into the restaurant planning process.
In order to develop the skills necessary to run the Shiba Ramen kitchen, Nakamura, who will be the restaurant’s chef, took an intensive, 10-day crash course at Syokuno Dojo, a ramen school in Chiba, Japan earlier this year.
Over the summer, both Freed and Nakamura visited Japan for a whirlwind tasting of as many styles of ramen they could find.
“We thought that a great way to evaluate our own product would be to go to Tokyo and eat ramen day after day, trying styles and flavors and absorbing the atmosphere,” Freed wrote on his blog, Ramen Chemistry. “Daily ramen intake would help sharpen our ramen sensitivities, in a way that would be hard to achieve in the U.S. … This kind of experience would give us a better lens to look at what we’re doing with Shiba Ramen.”
The pair even took a salinometer on the trip to measure the salt level in each bowl of soup. “Ramen in Japan is much saltier than here,” said Freed.
They ate 13 different bowls of ramen over six days, mainly at restaurants that specialize in one particular style of ramen. Freed wrote: “We went to one restaurant that specializes in clam ramen, one that specializes in spicy ramens, with over-the-top use of high-flavor additives like bonito powder, and one that sells 1,500 bowls a day of Yokohama iekei-style ramen (tonkotsu shoyu).”
At Shiba Ramen, however, Freed and Nakamura will offer a variety of styles. “We will have something for everyone,” said Freed. “It will be a very streamlined, ramen-focused menu.” Some items — miso ramen and shio ramen — will be familiar to those who frequent ramen shops, while others, like tori paitan, a creamy chicken ramen similar to tonkotsu, may not. Shiba Ramen will also offer a spicy tan tan mein and a dry, broth-less ramen that is hard to find in the Bay. There will always be a vegetarian option and a chicken option, as well as traditional pork-based soups.
On the side will be fried chicken wings tossed with sesame seeds and black pepper, onigiri rice balls, gyoza dumplings, pickles, and one dessert — an ice cream sandwich made with Fenton’s ice cream and crisp mochi shells instead of cookies. (“It’s like a fastidiously Japanese ice-cream cone,” said Freed. “You bite down and smush the shells together and they protect the ice cream from dripping as it melts.”)
To drink, rotating local brews and imported bottles of Japanese craft beer, including a curiously named beer called “Wednesday Cat.”
All of the dishes will have a unique name, in English. Tan tan mein will be called “spicy,” the shio ramen will be called “clear,” the tori paitan will be “white bird,” and that ice cream dessert will get the somewhat cutesy name “Shiba ‘Scream.”
Each ramen will use noodles from Sun Noodle, called the “secret weapon of America’s best ramen shops,” on Eater. Nakamura entertained the idea of making homemade noodles, but didn’t want to dedicate the space and time to noodle making. Further, she finds most homemade noodles too soft. And Sun Noodles are “really delicious,” she said. (For those who want to try a taste of Sun Noodle at home, its product line is available at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market.)
This carefully constructed menu is all Shiba Ramen’s desire to be accessible. “We want to give people a new language to talk about our ramen,” said Freed. Similarly, the restaurant’s design is borrowing elements from Japan, while retaining a distinctly modern look. “Too often ramen places go too Japanese with their name, and it can be hard to remember,” said Freed. They also, Freed said, often follow too-traditional of a model for their design, which doesn’t distinguish the restaurant. (You can read much, much more about the restaurant’s design on Freed’s blog.)
These concepts are especially important for Freed and Nakamura because they hope to replicate Shiba Ramen in other places that aren’t well-served by ramen restaurants. “We hope this Shiba Ramen will be the first of many,” said Freed. “We’re designing it to be very scalable.”
The other distinctive characteristic of Shiba Ramen will be its tipping model — it won’t exist. Shiba Ramen’s design and lack of table service makes this model easy to implement, but Freed and Nakamura said they wouldn’t have allowed tipping even in a full-service iteration of the restaurant: “It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the customer to determine how much money employees make. We’ll pay employees fairly with what we can afford to pay. We want to make it worth their while and want people to want to work here.”
This lack of tipping also makes the restaurant a bit more Japanese. Neither full- or quick-service restaurants in Japan take tips. “In Japan, it was so refreshing,” said Freed. “We didn’t have to think about [tipping] and the service was better.”
Shiba Ramen is currently in its final throes of health inspections, and Freed and Nakamura hope to hold a soft opening this week. Throughout December the restaurant will offer a limited dinner menu. It will hold a grand opening in January with the full menu.