My CRV smells of ramen and it’s an improvement. I’m sitting in the back of my yawned-open hatchback along Convoy Street, slurping tonkotsu from a to-go container. This is COVID-19 dining for one. I’m thinking about how we have become restaurant sluts. I would never shame someone for their ravenously diversified romantic excursions. Life is short; sex as you please. I do, however, think it’s a bit of a bummer that we’re such restaurant floozies.
We have become a culture of hot, new, youngest things, trading one new trophy restaurant for the next, speaking highly of old favorites in the way we talk about high school sweethearts. (“Oh man, haven’t thought about them in years—what a sweet and confused restaurant, I hope it’s happy and doing well.”)
Which brings me to one of my favorite ramen shops in San Diego: Yakyudori Ramen and Yakitori.
Ten years ago, Yakyudori was the hot new young ramen of choice for San Diego’s top chefs. It had a workmanlike, sweaty, vaguely smoky late-night vibe. It enthusiastically supported the wee-hour drinking arts. It was the Casbah of ramen joints. (For those of you not up on the indie rock scene, The Casbah is our city’s beloved, beer-stained, dark-arts box of righteous new music—tiny but mighty.)
Actually, ramen was secondary to the yakitori. There weren’t many spots in San Diego doing real yakitori—traditional Japanese grilling, using binchotan coals. Japanese chefs love this coal, which is more tightly packed, burning slow and clean and not overwhelming the meats. Yakyudori grills all sorts of meats people around here would consider weird because they’re people around here and not people around Tokyo: cow tongue, chicken hearts, the parts. They are simple-delicious, affordable, and can give unversed Americans that exploratory food thrill that Andrew Zimmern built a career off of. They often top them with the dried bonito flakes, which are so Bible-paper thin they wriggle in the air currents, looking quite alive. What a grotesquely beautiful trick.
Anyway, in my hunt for the city’s best ramen, there are far newer, hyped joints now. San Diego’s ramen scene has caught fire. But I refuse to disown my elders. So last night I tried three different ramen joints along our Asian foodway, the Convoy area. Two of them have far more Instagram tags. And I’m so glad to say that Yakyudori was my favorite.
Their version of tonkotsu doesn’t take bold, postmodern risks in the ramen arts. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles newer craft ramen places have (no kimchi, no gooey bricks of pork belly, no small-batch soy sauce stored in barrels made from Akira Kurosawa’s old furniture). In fact, the very simplicity is what makes Yakyudori’s ramen stick out—a warm, flavorful broth made of chicken, pork, fish, and vegetables—a creamy chicken-ish soup that gets a flavor boost from the fish (though you can’t taste the fish, which I’m glad for, you know that’s where it gets its umami oomph). Breakfast-yellow noodles, crinkly like tons of tiny straws some child bent and ruined, a single round of pork chashu roasted at high heat for a char, then braised.
As ramen explodes in San Diego and across the country because it is one of the greatest comfort foods ever invented and helped latchkey children of the ’80s stay alive—it’s become more and more complicated, ingredients piling on top of other ingredients, a mother lode of chefy things in the bowl.
And then there’s this, Yakyudori’s simple ramen song, a tradition honored and un-mussed.
4898 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa