901 E Street, East Village
I’ve eaten Tajima ramen. I’ve eaten a lot of Tajima ramen. When the small restaurant group out of Kearny Mesa opened a ramen bar in Hillcrest in 2014, the opportunity to slurp its perfectly made noodles quickly transitioned from novelty to habit. During repeat visits, I’ve tried every variation of their rich, slow-simmered tonkotsu pork broth, which includes curry and spicy sesame options. To put it plainly, it’s become one of my favorite restaurants.
When Tajima opened a branch in East Village not long ago, even closer to my house, I knew I would visit often and that the ramen would be great. Anything I might write about it would be redundant. Unless I did the almost unthinkable: go to Tajima and not order ramen.
I’ve considered this before. The place offers steamed pork belly buns, rice bowls, and karaage chicken as perfectly viable alternatives. But hitting a ramen bar and not ordering noodles feels like going to a steak house and ordering a pasta dish. It’s just being bad at life.
That said, if you put a steamed bun stuffed with braised pork belly in front of me, it will be gone in no time. I’ve eaten Tajima’s kakuni many times as a ramen topping, so I knew it to be flavorful and tender. In a $5 steamed bun it’s just as good, albeit paired with cucumber and spongy dough rather than dripping in pork-marrow stock.
The rice bowls are also done well, ranging from $5 to $9 depending whether you want something like spicy ahi tuna or a fried pork cutlet. There are several to choose from, and on my latest visit I decided to go for the curry karaage.
You can get the karaage fried chicken à la carte, but I wanted to pick the marinated and fried chicken tenders off the top and treat the curry as dipping sauce. As expected, the chicken was flavorful and crispy, if lightly oily. The curry was appropriately tangy, served with crunchy little bits of fukujinzuke. That’s a big word for a standard accompaniment. I finally looked it up after eating it here. It’s a bright red pickled radish, an excellent counterpoint to the sweeter Japanese curry style.
I also ordered a relatively new Tajima item — tempura Brussels sprouts. I’ve never seen any tempura order include Brussels before and, with apologies to broccoli, it instantly became my new favorite tempura-fried vegetable. Tajima doesn’t use the sort of light panko tempura batter I’m accustomed to encountering at sushi restaurants. This is a little heavier and savory in a way that reminds me of Korean pancake dishes, or jeon.
Pairing it with fried chicken wasn’t my brightest idea — you have to drink a lot of Tajima’s Japanese craft beer offerings to counteract the cumulative saltiness. But if I ever get sick of ramen, it’s good to know Tajima’s got another dish I can enjoy.