It was over a year ago when Regina and I first noticed that construction of a newish-modern retail building at the intersection of Sawtelle Blvd and Mississippi Ave, along the predominantly Japanese “Sawtelle corridor” of restaurants and little boutiques and izakayas, had been completed. The corner spot had been leased by a company out of Japan called Tsujita, and floor-to-celing posters had been pasted up in the windows. Brilliant color photos of giant bowls of luscious-looking ramen noodles proclaimed the dawning of an exciting new noodle revolution soon to occur on Sawtelle. Being the noodle-nuts that we are, Regina and I were stoked for this new upstart to open its doors. We have many favorite noodle joints in LA, and while we can appreciate the occasional attributes of Daikokuya, Orochon, Chin-Ma-Ya, Yamadaya, or Santouka, we probably love most-of-all Ramen-Ya on Olympic, not least because we live close-by but also because we are fans of the neighborhood in general, the colorful “Sawtelle corridor” being right around the corner. We wanted another killer noodle restaurant in West LA!
Regina used to live a couple of streets west of Sawtelle and our very first date was at Fu-Rai-Bo, the fun and funky izakaya (Japanese pub) just across the street from Tsujita, so we have a sentimental attachment to the neighborhood. Anyway, with the promise of a new and delicious noodle house opening right there, Regina and I waited with bated breath and growing hunger.
After months of inactivity Tsujita finally opened. We were in the neighborhood hunting for some cheap eats and we noticed a throng of some fifteen diners waiting outside the door, passing around menus and arching their eyebrows hungrily at the pert hostess every time she poked her nose out the door and called out a name from the list.
Regina snagged a menu and we scanned it, mystified, as we read about Lobster Dynamite and Miso-Marinated Foie Gras and Beef Steak with Jalapeno Salsa. Huh? Where were the noodles? The name of the place is Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles and yet the menu had no…stinking…NOODLES!! I was expecting a ramen joint, maybe a fancified ramen joint, but still a place THAT SERVED RAMEN NOODLES!! I have to admit I was a little bent out of shape about it. I didn’t want this…modern fusion BS, I wanted Chashu Ramen! Why advertise a place and even call it a noodle restaurant and have not one (NOT ONE!) dish that featured a single, squiggly strand of slender pasta? I asked the harried hostess what the deal was, how long they’d been open, when lunch service was going to start, would there even be noodles at lunch, WTF? Her reply: this is our first night, no noodles at dinner, lunch would start soon, and yes, noodles at lunch! And then she gave me a look like two ninja throwing stars and muttered something (undoubtedly) rude under her breath.
Regina and I weren’t going to wait around that night to try it; I think we ended up eating chicken wings and nasu soboro across the street. To be fair, the dinner menu at Tsujita did indeed look interesting, but we decided to wait for their lunch service to begin and try their noodles first. I must say that I felt a disconnect between the expectations that they deliberately set, and the menu that they unveiled on their debut night of service. Regina and I felt somewhat misled, and we weren’t the only ones. At least three other people within the five minutes we were there looked at the menu and had a similar confused reaction to ours. We all looked up at the sign (and the word NOODLES) and then back at the menu, perplexed.) Some restaurants don’t recover from mistakes like this. I wasn’t sure at the time if Tsujita would.
Another couple of months passed before I noticed that Tsujita had finally opened up for lunch service. Honestly I’d forgotten about it, despite my earlier anticipation for it to open. Yamadaya-Ramen had opened in Culver City and that occupied my noodle-cortex for a short while. But I was still looking for an opportune moment to give it a whirl, and reset my expectations for this Tsujita place.
Yesterday I got that chance. And yes, the noodles are excellent!
I waited about five minutes for a table, Tsujita being full but not overwhelmed at noon on a Wednesday. I was solo for this initial tasting. Regina was working across town, sadly. But by myself I sat at the counter, which seats about 10 people in the back of the restaurant. You can observe the chefs if you wish, but at the low counter you really only get a view of symmetrical stacks of (rather nice) bowls and plates. The interior is nice, modern, and pleasant. The most interesting feature might be the ceiling, comprised of a thousand wooden dowels cut to different lengths and hung vertically to create a textured pattern that resembles a inverted topographical relief, a map perhaps of noodle heaven.
Tsujita serves tonkotsu ramen, which is a Tokyo-style noodle soup with a rich, nearly creamy broth made of long-simmered pork bones with other flavorings (usually closely-held, secret, individual touches as set out by the ramen master on site). Tsujita apparently uses the recipe of a Mr. Tanaka, a purportedly revered broth-meister from Adachi, Tokyo which calls for simmering the broth for a preposterous 60 hours. I didn’t try their tonkotsu ramen yesterday, but I got what they consider their specialty, tsukemen. When you eat tsukemen, the noodles are separated from the soup, and the soup is used as a dipping sauce for the noodles. The menu instructions at Tsujita recommend squeezing a bit of lime juice over your noodles after you dip them. Other alterations can be made with a fine array of condiments — soy sauce, tsukemen sauce (a spiced soy I believe), vinegar, pepper, red pickled ginger, and karashi takana, a fantastic house-made condiment of minced mustard grains, pickled with red chili and something smokey and deeply-flavored (maybe smoked bonito) with a flavor not-dissimilar from chipotle peppers.
The broth that comes with the tsukemen noodles is thick and nearly gravy-like, rich, salty, smokey, and utterly seductive. It’s filled with small hunks of tender pork, a whole soft-boiled egg, a handful of chopped green onions, and some tasty strips of bamboo shoots that have been simmered in intense, dark soy sauce, which imparts a deep mahogany hue. I kicked up the broth with some of that karashi takana, which added a great level of heat — flavorful and not too fiery.
I ordered the Char Siu Tsukemen, which means I got a large pile of room-temperature ramen noodles topped with six substantial slices of tasty and tender pork shoulder, cooked perfectly with some fatty areas and lots of meaty flavor. The noodles also come with a stingy slice of lime and one piece of nori.
With my chopsticks I grabbed a little pile of noodles and dropped them into the thick broth. I broke up a hunk of pork and dropped that into the broth too. The noodles were fantastic! About twice the thickness of standard ramen, these noodles weren’t quite as thick as udon noodles. They were chewy and flavorful and the delicious broth clung to them perfectly well.
With my spoon I cut in half the soft-boiled egg and it was revelatory. The yolk was so yellow it was nearly orange. Runny and custardy and spilling out into the broth like liquid gold. Oh, my! Such perfection. So yummy.
My tsukemen noodles were delicious and perfectly cooked. But tsukemen is not really my favorite way of eating ramen; I really prefer the broth thinner. The tsukemen is a nice change of pace, but as you eat the cold-to-room-temperature noodles and dip them over and over into the broth, the broth cools rapidly. By the time I had finished my noodles the broth was virtually cold. Of course I understand that that’s half the point of tsukemen — as the temperature changes different flavors reveal themselves. Indeed, the soup was multi-layered and showed more nuanced herbal and spice profiles as it cooled. Interesting and tasty.
I understand that if you have leftover broth, the servers can add hot water to your cooled dregs, allowing you to finish it as a wetter sort of soup. But I ate the whole thing with abandon and I must have missed that step. HA!
I think next time I’ll try the straight tonkotsu broth with noodles. I love hot broth and I found eating tsukemen that I wanted more soup! So, that’s next time I go for lunch, with Regina for sure. I’m not sure if I can slip out on her for noodles that many times and get away with it! I think I’ll also give dinner a try at some point. After trying their lunch and seeing the meticulous attention they pay to quality, I’m more open to sampling their nighttime “modern fusion BS”. When I do, I’ll be sure to report back to you right away, lovely readers!
Service was cordial but prices were maybe a little high ($12 for my tsukemen). Menu and sign translation was a little obtuse; they could benefit from a better in-house translator.
Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles 2057 Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025
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