In Praise of Late-Night Ramen

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Last summer, Kyle Itani, chef and co-owner of the then-nearly-brand-new Uptown Oakland restaurant Hopscotch (1915 San Pablo Ave.), was talking to a friend about Oakland’s lack of late-night dining options when he hit upon an ingenious idea. What if, after Hopscotch finished dinner service at 11 p.m. on Friday nights, the restaurant stayed open? And what if, instead of his regular upscale Cal-cuisine menu, he served ramen, which Itani had always thought was the perfect one-dish meal — just the thing to eat at the end of a long night of drinking?

So was born Yonsei Ramen Shop, which Itani started running as a weekly pop-up inside his own restaurant last October. For three or four hours every Friday night, he would convert Hopscotch into a ramen shop — the kind of bare-bones, down-and-dirty shop you might stumble upon in some Tokyo alleyway.

Yonsei Ramen Shop
  • Yonsei Ramen Shop
This month, after a summer-long hiatus, Itani has relaunched Yonsei with a few minor changes: Now, the pop-up’s start time has been pushed up an hour to 10 p.m. — presumably to accommodate oldsters (like this author) who can’t summon the joie de vivre to stay out much later than midnight. He and his staff will sling noodles until they sell out, usually sometime between 1 and 2 a.m. Meanwhile, instead of hosting the ramen shop in Hopscotch’s main dining room, Itani has moved the operation two doors down to a recently acquired annex that the restaurant eventually plans to use to for hosting banquets. (Itani said the venue change also ameliorates a somewhat awkward dynamic they encountered last year, wherein regular Hopscotch diners who were finishing up dessert at the end of a quiet meal would be alarmed to find a swarm of hungry/boisterous/possibly inebriated ramen-philes pressed up against the door.)

When I swung by to check out Yonsei’s season debut last Friday, I initially walked right past the dimly-lit, makeshift ramen shop, marked only by a hand-painted sign propped on the ground: “RAMEN.” The atmosphere and decor inside could not have been more casual — we’re talking bare, unpainted patches on the walls; a makeshift “bar” with a drop cloth draped over it; and well-worn wooden tables that looked like they’d been swiped out of someone’s garage.

Sure, there was a certain artificiality to the divey-ness of the space — Hopscotch is, after all, a nice restaurant, and each carefully crafted cocktail on the drinks menu still costs nine or ten bucks. Besides, Itani told me the haphazardness was at least partly a temporary thing: They do plan to paint the walls, buy new tables, and install a real bar counter.

Whatever the intent, at least for this one late Indian summer evening, I bought into the vibe whole hog. As midnight drew near, the room was steaming hot, and over the sound system (or maybe just a boombox) Eminem was spitting his one verse on “Forgot About Dre,” a song I hadn’t heard, or even thought about, for years. Sipping water from a Pabst Blue Ribbon plastic cup, I felt like I was hanging out in some college buddy’s partially-finished basement — like maybe we should have pulled out a deck of cards to get in a few rounds of Big Two. Except, of course, we would have been eating plain-old instant noodles instead of Itani’s ramen, which is legitimately great.

Last weeks menu (via Facebook).
  • Last week's menu (via Facebook).
Sorry, I buried the lede: The ramen was great. The version I tried, listed on the menu as “Pork Ramen for Beauty and Health” ($9), had a shoyu (soy sauce based) broth made with kombu (seaweed), dried shiitakes, tuna flakes, long-simmered pork bones, and just a hint of rice vinegar to lighten things up — “a perfect blend of earth, land, and sea,” as Itani put it. The broth was clear and clean-tasting, perfect for hot weather; the noodles were springy and eminently slurpable. The basic bowl came topped with a scattering of scallions, a slice of luxuriously tender pork belly, and two water-chestnut gyoza (wontons, basically) that gave the dish a bit of a Chinese slant.

For $4, you can also buy an optional topping set, which included, among other delicacies, sweet corn, delicate shimeji mushrooms a beautiful shoyu-marinated soft-boiled egg, and some kind of spicy shredded dried pork. The egg alone makes it hard to pass up.

Both the broth and the toppings vary from week to week depending on the season and what raw materials Itani has on hand. Tonight, again starting at 10 p.m., he’s serving the same basic pork ramen that I tried, but next Friday it might be something different. The good thing about the once-a-week pop-up format is that there’s freedom to experiment, which is why Itani follows a bunch of ramen shops in Japan on Instagram: “I like to see what they’re doing, to see if there’s anything crazy they’re doing that we can try out here,” he said.

Yonsei also always offers a vegetarian ramen option, as well as a limited selection of fun bar snacks — during our visit, Itani was serving “okonomi taters,” a cross between tater tots and okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake).

Given how popular the late-night ramen business is, I asked Itani why he doesn’t open Yonsei more than one night a week. It turns out that the amount of leftover pork or chicken bones that Itani has left over after a week’s service at Hopscotch makes just enough stock for about a hundred bowls of ramen — enough to last three or four hours on a Friday night, but no more than that.

According to Itani, the fact that he’s able to make the stock basically for free is the main thing that allows him to adhere to one of his personal ramen rules: “I really, really believe that ramen should be under $10 a bowl.”

Certainly, when it comes to satisfying a late-night ramen craving, that’s one rule I can get behind.

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