Ramen / Ajisen Ramen

Do you know how strong your food math must be to have 700 ramen shops worldwide and your soup still taste this good? Sure you do, because you played Mickey Mouse telephone as a kid. One child said “I like raisins” into your ear, you whispered “I have to pee” into the ear of the next kid, who in turn just screamed incomprehensibly into the dirty void that was the third child’s ear.

Point is, quality control gets exponentially harder with each link in the chain. Recipes are mistranslated, ignored, cheated a little bit for cost, tossed out the window. It’s a miracle one of Ajisen’s satellite ramen shops isn’t just microwaving can after can of Campbell’s chicken noodle and laying pork chashu on top.

In long conversations with one of the city’s most creative restaurateurs, the most surprising thing I learned was his adoration of The Cheesecake Factory. Here was a man who’d made his name on weird design and art and counterculture, and he admired the Old Navy of food. Why? Quality control. To have that big of a menu, and feed that many people on a daily basis across the globe, without quality dovetailing until people are getting divorced over your alfredo, which is for some reason green? That’s a heroic feat of organization, calculus, scale, and managing humans.

Let’s not pretend here. Ajisen is airport ramen—industrialized in every sense of the word. It has barbecue in it. It commits all sorts of crimes that will make ramen purists write angry Yelp poetry (see the “New York Steak Cutlet Ramen”). But purists, while impressive with their strictly segregated food flow charts, are not very fun. So let’s mute their whine-song for a minute. Out of 10 ramen places I’ve tried so far in San Diego, I’d put Ajisen’s “Best Combo” near the top.

Here’s why: meat. Whereas most ramen broths are creamy, salty, with a subtle animal flavor, their Ajisen Best Combo Ramen tastes of deeply roasted bones, liquefied grill marks, a more basal carnivorism. It is the ramen for those people who like a little pepperoni with their sausage with their soppressata. It’s loaded with sliced pork and collagen-filled barbecue pork, more pork, a bit of pork. It is my nine-year-old’s favorite, though admittedly I’m not sure that’s the target demo Ajisen is shooting for. She’s right, though. And she doesn’t “do soup,” especially not soups with mushroom strips and big, luscious chunks of swine.

It must be noted, my reticence to even include Ajisen in my citywide vision quest for the best ramen. It has never been more important to support our small, independent restaurants. Our local mom and pops are suffering, big-time. But to ignore a chain in a true search through the city’s ramen inventory feels a bit pretentious, and methodologically flawed.

Plus, let’s not pretend that we don’t occasionally find ourselves facedown in a Double-Double, or that we don’t occasionally walk out onto our porch in a Gap T-shirt, sipping coffee from a Target mug, searching groggily for today’s Amazon joy. But most importantly, let’s not pretend chains and franchises have no ties to local culture. Almost every one of the locations represents a serious investment by the woman or man or family running them. The man in the mask behind the Plexiglas who politely handled my transaction did not fly in on the Ajisen corporate jet for the day to collect the San Diego money. He lives here. And the ramen he hands to people is good.


Ajisen

7398 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Convoy

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Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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