There are ramen shops in town that proclaim, proudly, that their broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours, even days.
It’s not unusual to encounter banners declaring 24 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours or longer, enough time for the pork bones to dissolve into molecular disarray. Take the broth home, put it in the fridge, and watch it turn into a solid block of congealed porkishness.
Do not expect this of the broth at Gokoku Vegetarian Ramen Shop. For contrary to the overwhelming meatiness of most ramen houses, this one is based on plants and the essential goodness of plants. And the shock may be that the broth is every bit as good as the ones found at our many pork-based ramen joints, some of which have developed a cult following, with long waits to get in for a bowl of soup and noodles at prime times.
And, dare I say, this broth is actually tastier than many and seems to be notably less salty. Ramen that’s good for you on any number of levels of being. What a notion!
Gokoku sits on a block that’s neither here nor there — too north of Universal City to be part of the crowds, too south of the Arts District to be in the trendy zone. It shares its block with a taco shop that is definitely not vegetarian. It’s a small storefront restaurant, family-run, with (one recent evening) a single server who did a considerable amount of dashing back and forth from the small kitchen.
The menu is finite but big enough that you don’t feel backed into a culinary corner. There are, for instance, 10 ramen bowls to choose from, each similar but also different. And sometimes, very different.
My favorite, among several favorites (first among equals?), is the mushroom ramen, heavy with shiitakes, wood ears and button mushrooms, in a soup packed with baby bok choy, jicama, garlic, cilantro, scallions with a scattering of fried onions on top. You have a choice of three levels of spice, the mildest of which is sufficient for most.
The wood ear mushrooms — funny little things with an ephemeral texture (they seem to melt in your mouth) and a funky flavor — are a constant in the ramens, as is the bok choy, the scallions, the cilantro and the notably nontraditional jicama, a vegetable largely unknown in Japan. Otherwise, the dominant ingredient can be wildly variable.
One ramen is built around garlic, jalapenos and black beans. Another contains kabocha squash and kale. (In two further incarnations, with curry and without.) There’s one with tomato and kale. There’s a soupless ramen — noodles and veggies only. There’s a good deal of tofu used in several of the ramen.
And then, there’s the pineapple and kale ramen, which may be good, very good in fact. But I viewed it in the same way I look at pizza topped with pineapple: a dish that’s there for those who want their food with a Hawaiian subtext.
And though ramen is the signature dish served at Gokoku, it’s not the beginning and end of the options. There’s a quart of rice dishes, a curry rice, a spicy miso bowl, a kabocha rice and a very good bibimbahp — so good, you probably won’t notice the lack of meat.
There are a trio of bento boxes as well, for those with a restless appetite, one built around the ever-present mushrooms, one around spicy miso eggplant (so good!), and one called Pokémon Tofu Bento, for no apparent reason, except that it is heavy on tofu. But Pokémon?
There are small cold dishes as well. I do like the marinated cucumber with seaweed, and the radish with carrots plate, just for the heck of it.
There’s no beer, which is fine. Tea feels like the beverage of choice here.
They proudly proclaim they use nothing canned and nothing frozen and organic whenever possible. They say, “Eat Healthy! Eat Delicious!” And then, they deliver, and they do it in style.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gokoku Vegetarian Ramen Shop
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 4147 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
Information: 818-505-8113, www.gokokuramen.com
Cuisine: Japanese Vegetarian
When: Lunch and dinner, every day
Details: Soft drinks; no reservations
Atmosphere: Minimalist café on a block just north of Universal City, offering a uniquely flavorful rendition of ramen and rice plates, along with bento boxes, all meatless, and all a reminder that you don’t need long cooked pork bones to make a very good ramen
Prices: About $15 per person
Suggested dishes: 10 Ramen Bowls ($12.99 each), Bibimbahp ($11.99), Kabocha Rice ($11.99), Curry Rice ($11.99), Bento Boxes ($12.99), Cold Small Dishes ($2.99-$4.99)
Cards: MC, V
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