To get to Shiba Ramen, you must navigate the Emeryville Public Market parking lot, weaving around small children running free from their parents and shuffling behind slow moving tourists spilling out of Hot Italian. The Shiba stall is near the back of the market, surrounded by mostly empty stall-fronts. On a Saturday evening, the market’s tables were about half full, with at least a quarter occupied by guests eating ramen.
While Shiba generated long lines and quite the hype before its opening in late 2015, the diners that evening seemed more concerned with eating dinner and getting on their way than having a mind-blowing ramen experience.
That’s what co-owners Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura were aiming for — accessible, streamlined ramen — and that’s what we found on our recent visit.
There are no surprises, and some dishes are better than others, but if you’re in the Public Market, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better meal.
Unlike other East Bay spots like Ramen Shop, Shiba uses pre-made noodles from Sun Noodle. It was a good move — Sun Noodles are perfectly springy-chewy, and they stay that way, even after sitting in the broth for 10 or 15 minutes.
Shiba’s spicy ramen ($11), called simply “Spicy” on its menu, gets its heat from a serious slick of chili oil floating on top of the milky, rich tonkotsu broth. Ground pork mingles in with the noodles, making an appearance in just about every bite. The fairly sparse toppings — bok choy, bean sprouts, green onions and togarashi peppers — aren’t particularly inventive, but they give the otherwise heavy soup a burst of freshness.
On the slightly lighter side is the chicken toripaitan (aka “White Bird,” $12), a twist on tonkotsu made with chicken bones. Shiba’s version is a little under-seasoned and the broth lacks a strong backbone of umami — stronger bonito flavor would go a long way to fixing those problems. However, its chicken “chashu” is quite good. Made from thighs tightly rolled into a roulade wrapped in chicken skin, it delivers on the fatty-chewy-rich front while still tasting lighter than traditional chashu made from pork belly. A serious char from the flattop added welcome character.
The boiled egg served on all of Shiba’s ramen soups could use improvement — it is served lukewarm, and needs seasoning. A few hours in a soy sauce broth would do wonders.
Temperature control is a larger problem at Shiba. While its ramen broth is served piping hot, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Shiba uses cheap, generic plastic serving bowls that simply aren’t able to retain heat. If you’re a ramen slurping expert, it’s conceivable that you could get through the bowl before it cools off, but the average diner will be left with cold broth during the second half of their meal. Clearly, this is a cost-cutting measure, and is likely reflective of Freed and Nakamura’s decision to open up in a food court using a model that they hope to franchise. “We’re designing it to be very scalable,” Freed told Nosh in an interview before the restaurant opened.
One dish I’d be happy to have franchised are the “Shiba Wings” ($6.50 or $13) — fried chicken wings tossed in a sesame and black pepper. They’re not knock-you-over-the face spicy wings like my favorite Korean fried chicken, but they’re enjoyable for their subtlety, super crisp skin, and expertly cooked chicken meat. Black pepper isn’t a common chicken wing flavor, but it should be.
My favorite dish at Itani Ramen, which opened in May, was also a fried side item — the crispy pig’s ears ($6) served with a supremely juicy lime wedge, scallions and house-made shichimi togarashi pepper. Fried pig’s ears may not be for everyone, but when they’re this good, they should be. Each sliver was crazy-crisp, with just enough chew to add texture but not enough to turn the dish into a jaw-strengthening exercise. They are even better dipped into Itani Ramen’s miso hot sauce called “El Scorcho Miso.”
That “El Scorcho” ($0.75 supplement) is far from scorchingly hot; my server advertised it as “Sriracha-hot,” but it barely approached that burn level. However, its one-two punch of dried chiles and ginger was actually much more desirable as a ramen addition or dip than a fiery chile oil. There’s no worry that it will overpower anything else, and the savory-salty quality of the miso really shined through.
When stirred into the shio pork ramen ($11) I had for lunch on a recent weekday, “El Scorcho” kind of disappeared into the milky pork broth, adding just a hint of heat. The broth itself was perfectly seasoned with hints of the unmistakable fishy-umami goodness of bonito flakes. It’s a good thing the broth was good, because Itani’s house-made noodles are really a downer.
Owner Kyle Itani has decided to make his noodles using an Italian pasta maker, which is currently not doing the right job. While my noodles weren’t exactly overcooked, they lacked the characteristic chew that Shiba’s Sun Noodles have in spades. And the outermost portion of the noodles turned mushy within seconds of sitting in the super hot broth. It sounds almost like a cop-out to advocate for pre-made noodles, but in this case, they’re far better.
Toppings-wise, Itani Ramen’s chashu and soy-cured eggs are both excellent, and the pork is worth the extra price if it’s not already included in your ramen of choice. The chashu is the epitome of what pork belly should always be — rich, with tender meat and silky fat. The yolks in the cured eggs are a creamy custard, with bold salty soy to match. Watercress, yu choy spinach, bamboo, and green onion were all relatively sparse, but fresh. The nod towards seasonal produce without going totally Ramen Shop on the dish kept it grounded in Japan and not California.
However, there’d be no mistaking Itani Ramen for a decidedly new-Oakland restaurant. Its interior is all bright orange and sleek lines, the servers in baseball caps and Warby Parkers, and Beyonce on the stereo. Cutesy comic strip directions for eating gyoza (who knew you’d need directions?) sit on each table. Once tip and tax are included, Itani Ramen’s prices are noticeably higher than at the much less intentionally “cool” Shiba Ramen, which doesn’t accept tips. Itani Ramen has been built ready for the ever-incoming monied hipster crowd, but its noodles aren’t yet ready for the big time.
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