Japantowns everywhere are renowned for their top-notch Asian cuisine (be it Japanese, Chinese, or Korean), excellent festivals (Obon, Cherry Blossom), and peerless ramen. Kumako, one of San Jose's numerous noodle joints, has helped maintain the latter of these three attributes since its opening in 2006. Like many others in the area, this tiny, "New York-style" restaurant boasts a half dozen soups and a loyal cult following of foodies. Said foodies, many of whom hail from nearby San Jose State University, swear by the traditional Tonkatsu and Charsu Ramens, a pair of pork bone based dishes. Other creative ramens like the Tan Tan (Spicy Pork with pepper) and Curry (curry broth with crab) are equally big hits, helping Kumako keep its reputation as the "Best of Silicon Valley".
Last night marked my tenth (or hundredth, who's counting?) trip to Kumako. Per usual, I started with a nice order of Charsu Don, a small bowl of rice covered in succulent chunks of roastedpork, and a side of Gyoza (pan fried pork and vegetable dumplings). The Charsu Don was delicious, although a little fatty, but the highlight of course one had to be the Gyoza, a dish Kumako makes in house unlike most other local establishments. Five came in the $3 order, making it more than worth the price. A crispy crust crackled on the bottom of each dumpling, protecting the sizzling ingredients inside that burned my mouth on first bite (I never learned to wait before eating them). After nearly searing my tongue and ruining my meal, I made short work of the other four pouches and proceeded to order my main dish. I opted for Tan Tan Ramen over the neighboring Tonkatsu Ramen, as "trying something new" sounded like an excellent idea.
That idea turned out to be a mistake. The Tan Tan, though tasty, was $10 of pure spice with a few pieces of pork thrown in. Its broth, what I assume was a Shio or Miso, was so chalk full of pepper flakes, pepper oil, and curry spice that it was nearly inedible. Though I ordered the dish knowing it would be hot, I sincerely hoped for a complex, slow burning heat as opposed to a face punch of chili. As inedible as the broth was, the main ingredients floating in it were pretty perfect, most notably the noodles, which had the nice, slightly chewy consistency I search for. While the fat fest on top of the Charsu Don was good, the pork in the Tan Tan was equally juicy and tender, with half the blubber weighing it down.
Needless to say, I learned my lesson: never stray from traditional types of Ramen at fast casual noodle houses. Shio, Miso, and Tonkatsu are the only types worth sampling, especially here. As enticing as "Italian Style Clam Ramen" sounds (not), I won't ever be giving it a try Kumako, I apologize. Next time, I fully intend to stick with Kumako's respected, edible, and borderline good Tonkatsu Ramen with sliced pork and bamboo shoots. Just thinking about it makes me salivate a little, while the thought of another bowl of Tan Tan induces gagging.