5 favorite Asian restaurants of 2014

I often crave comfort foods I grew up eating. After a string of non-Asian meals, I will find myself gravitating towards something familiar, usually consisting of rice, but also, noodles of some sort swimming in broth. I also love spicy foods, so southeast Asian cuisines are especially popular in my culinary repertoire.

One of my favorite restaurants is Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen, located in what may be considered as San Diego’s Chinatown. On every visit — which is practically every time I go to San Diego — I will order the ikagetso (fried squid) as well as chicken karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) and a ramen of some sort depending on my mood. On my last visit, I returned once again to the original, one of the first ramen offerings I fell in love with from the start. You can read my visit from this summer, here.

oxtail ramen

Vientiane is a hole-in-the-wall which I frequent at least once a month and now, have gotten some of my friends completely hooked on it as well. The northern Thai and Lao dishes are a huge hit especially the crispy rice, ong choy, Lao sausage, and if you’re into it, mok pa (steamed catfish in banana leaf). The kids who work here know my order and laugh when I veer off the usual because they know at some point during my meal, I will order the dishes I didn’t at the start. Here is my last post from 2013.


I found Rice Paper Bistro last year and it was one of my top 10 picks of 2013. This little spot sticks out like a sore thumb in the run-down strip mall it is situated in, but has remained a favorite in 2014. Step inside and you will be surprised at its modern feel and creative menu. My favorites are the ong choy salad, fried frogs legs and my latest indulgence, beef with ginger and scallion. The specials board is often dotted with new and innovative dishes you’ll absolutely adore. Here’s my post from 2013.

ong choy salad

On cold days like these, my favorite thing to do is visit Tang 190 for one of its hearty Korean soups. Here, you can indulge in bone soup (sullungtang) which has that milky look from simmering for hours on end. Enjoy a spicy beef soup (yukgejang) or my son’s favorite, bibimbap (beef stone pot rice). The Napa cabbage miso beef bone soup is currently my favorite. Read about Tang 190 here.


Whenever I’m up in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, Pine and Crane is a must-stop even if I am actually up there for a meal — I will order take-out to enjoy the next day. This little fast casual spot has been my favorite Chinese eatery this year with its tasty ma po tofu, 3-cups chicken, beef roll, dumplings and more. What I love most about the restaurant is its ability to create these traditional Chinese dishes but without the greasiness. We need Pine and Crane in OC! Read about them here.


Stay tuned next week for more “best of” lists of 2014!




San Diego’s DaoFu takes home-made to another level

I am always excited when I find a little mom and pop spot regardless of where I am. On a recent trip to San Diego, a friend, who had been to DaoFu previously, brought me here because he thought I would love the food.  He wasn’t wrong. The sign alone intrigued and piqued my curiosity: “Home-made tofu and soy milk.”

The restaurant is small and the cozy nature of it really appealed, not to mention the smiling face of the lady who seated us. I found out later that Maggie is the owner/chef’s wife.

Naturally, on a first visit, I always order way too much food because I want to try everything, but before we even ordered, a complimentary salad arrives with some home made tofu alongside. The beet and raspberry salad dressing — also made in-house — was delightfully tart with a hint of sweetness. The tofu was absolutely incredible. Not only was it texturally pleasing, but it possessed the robust flavors of soy beans that I know and love.


This is why we wanted to encompass more tofu into our meal. The Lily Flower with Asparagus and Oyster Mushrooms ($12.98) was selected because I love lily flower. It was just a bonus that a wedge of fried tofu was present on the plate. All plates arrive with your choice of white, brown or half/half rice. We opted for brown throughout.

veg plate

When asked what spice level you want, don’t go crazy like I did. I told Maggie 10. She put me in my place when she told me 5 was sufficient. We negotiated a 5 for the first dish and later, I went up one level to 6. Seeing I am able to eat habanero-level heat, and a 6 was hot enough, I would like to warn others before they try to order on the Orange County heat level I am accustomed to. Trust Maggie when she tells you it’s hot enough!

We started with some Chicken Salad Rolls ($8.28), a take on the Vietnamese rice paper rolls stuffed with lettuce, mints, cilantro, bean sprouts and rice noodles. They are cut in half and sits on a plate of house sauce similar to the dressing on the salad, but just a hint sweeter.

chicken rolls

Both my friend and I love chicken wings so an order of Garlic Chicken Wings ($8.36) was on the agenda, but first, I had Maggie confirm it wasn’t a sweet sauce the wings were doused in. She assured me it wasn’t. These fried chicken wings are coated with a savory garlic sauce which are perfect on their own, or accompanied with a bowl of steamed rice. So good!

chicken wings

Maggie recommended the next dish, Stuffed Tofu, Eggplant and Peppers ($12.11), what we refer to as ‘yong dao fu’. The tofu, eggplant and peppers are stuffed with fish paste and lightly pan fried before they are topped with a piquant spicy sauce. Typically, fish paste tends to be hard and with a fish ball-like texture. Here, it is soft and complements the vegetables perfectly, especially the tofu.
stuffed vegs
Wild Steamed Red Snapper Rice Pot ($13.88) was positively our favorite. Brown rice is topped with steamed snapper fillets with a sauce seasoned with ginger, garlic, wine, scallion and cilantro. The delicate fish is not inundated with sauce so you’re able to taste it on its own, or, with the sauce-seasoned rice. The shiitake mushroom slices enhanced the flavors providing us with various tastes with each mouthful. We couldn’t stop eating this!
fish rice pot
When we were done, Maggie brought complimentary ice cream (all guests receive this) to us and continued chatting to me in Cantonese. This is when I found out that her husband Eric started making tofu with no experience whatsoever, perfecting it through the years. She is delighted that her customers love their food and especially, the tofu. She explained that the tofu is organic and Eric insists on creating everything from scratch right down to making the noodles they serve. I was bummed I didn’t know about this sooner, but will definitely return and order noodles on my next visit.
There are a ton of vegetarian dishes available which appeal to non-vegetarians as well so there is something for everyone. I wish we had something similar in Orange County, but the closest thing we have is Dao Son, a shop selling home-made tofu in Westminster. There is no Chinese chef in OC making his own tofu and noodles that I know of. Do you?

3332 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-281-6888

Daofu on Urbanspoon

OB Noodle House San Diego

I’ve been wanting those chicken wings after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (Triple D), where Guy Fieri visits OB Noodle House in Ocean Beach, a seaside neighborhood of San Diego! On a recent visit, we make it a point to stop by the original location off Cable Street for lunch (there is a second location off Niagara on the cusp of Ocean Beach and Point Loma). As we drive past it, our hearts sink when we see the hordes of people outside.

Circling around the neighborhood several times, we find a spot less than a block away and check in with the hostess who informs us of the 20 minute wait, but lucky for us, it only turns out to be 10.


There is inside and sidewalk seating — we are led to what I would call the best seat in the house, a corner table affording us a view of the entire restaurant. It is busy, very loud with music blaring, the upbeat vibe reminds me of eateries I’ve come across many times while living in Hawaii.

We settle on some sour beers (on the day of our visit beers were half off — score!) which is absolutely refreshing on a warm day and perfect with the appetizers we select.


Grilled Lemongrass Chicken Satay ($6.95) is surprisingly tasty. I am not sure when it arrives as the reddish hue is “radioactive”-like reminiscent of Chinese cha siu. The chicken is bursting with lemongrass aromas and well-seasoned. A ramekin of hoisin sauce accompanies but I enjoyed them without it.


But what I am here for are the Spicy Garlic Wings ($11.95) and they do not disappoint. Ironically, the twelve succulent wings (and these are the real wings, not drummettes) are also strangely red in color, but crispy on the outside and oh so moist on the inside. Be careful when you eat them because they are scorching hot on the inside — retaining its heat even to the last wing. I can probably devour the entire plate but it is rude not to share.

chicken wings

Sizzling Fish ($11.95) is tasty and comes with a bowl of steamed white rice. The basa fillet is topped with caramelized ginger and garlic, with chopped fresh cilantro and green onions. I often cook basa at home but have never thought to use caramelized ginger before! I will be doing that from now on. The crispy bits of garlic and ginger definitely elevates the flavor to another level.

sizzling fish

We see a guy eating a plate of House Special Fried Rice ($12.95) at the next table which entices us to order it. It is a hefty portion,with a generous amount of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), shrimp, beef, eggs, Chinese sausage and sate sauce, but I can’t figure out why the fried rice is so sweet. The Chinese sausage usually possesses some sweetness, but I can’t imagine sate sauce to be. I bring it home and doctor it up with other ingredients and condiments — much better!

house fried rice

Unfortunately, Stir Fried Crispy Egg Noodles With Chicken Assorted Vegetables ($8.95) is highly disappointing. The crispy noodles remind me of the bits of crispy noodles you get in the Midwest when you order chow mein, except these are long and resemble regular noodles. They taste a little stale and the overall dish is bland and flavorless. I pick out the cabbage and broccoli and we leave the rest.


My final conclusion? There is definitely some hype surrounding this place, not all of it warranted. I see a lot of people eating pho, but I’m not sure this is what I want when lil Saigon is so close by. The chicken wings are definitely worth returning for — if there is no wait for a table — but then again, if I am craving them, I can just order to go and pick them up, right?

OB Noodle House
2218 Cable Street
San Diego, CA 92107
Tel: 619-450-6868

OB Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Lukshon & Godiva join forces for the year of the horse

Last week, I was invited to a dinner at Lukshon in Culver City in collaboration with Godiva who created special chocolates in celebration of Lunar New Year, which happens on January 31st this year — the year of the horse! People born in this year are known for being independent, free-spirited and feisty and the menu this evening featured the Szechuan peppercorn in many of the dishes known for its spicy numbing qualities. Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon also infused many of the savory dishes with Godiva chocolates, making some unique and delicious pairings I’d never tasted before.

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We were really here to be introduced to the commemorative Lunar New Year chocolates which comes in several variations all enveloped in a stunning red box (the color of prosperity in Chinese culture).

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The dinner was served family style and you’ll be happy to know that most of the savory dishes are available on Lukshon’s regular menu. I was tickled to be in the company of Karin E Baker, deputy editor of Flavorpill LA, Tommy Lei, known fashion blogger of My Belonging and Jocelyn Wang, the person behind V3Con Digital Media Conference and currently, President of the Asian American Journalists Association LA Chapter.

Our first course is a platter of Duck Popiah which we all zoomed in to take photos of. Popiah is a Singaporean fresh roll and here, Chef Sang has filled it with duck confit and a wonderful dark chocolate hoisin sauce which was so subtle none of us could detect it. However, we all agreed, it took the edge off the hoisin by giving it a smoother, more balanced flavor than pungent hoisin alone. Pickled stem lettuce added a touch of crunch and acidity to the dish.

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I was so excited when Crispy Whole Fish arrives. An entire fish is presented beautifully, curved and fried to perfection. I was given the task of breaking apart the fish which revealed moist, tender flaky white fish morsels which we drizzled with the accompanying pecel (a spicy, sweet and tart sauce originating from Indonesia). Wok charred cucumbers are heavenly and possessed the intoxicating flavors of Szechuan peppercorns. I couldn’t stop eating it was so addicting!

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Chinese Eggplant was soft with a crispy exterior and tossed in panch puran, an Indian five-spice mixture topped with a dollop of fennel raita and shards of crispy eggplant. The menu also stated cocoa nibs as an ingredient and again, it was so deftly added to the dish without overpowering.

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The bowl of Crab Fried Rice was devoured so quickly we didn’t have much time to think about it. The blue crab infused jasmine rice had bits of pea tendrils, serrano chile and egg combined together and was so decadent it would have made a meal in itself.

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Our next dish was Beef and Broccoli but like no other I’ve ever tasted before. Tender slices of hanger steak prepared in a black bean cocoa butter sauce was so rich and savory we all took more than a piece. Gai lan not only added color, but also, a wonderful vegetable component to the dish. I prefer Chinese broccoli over regular because of its leafiness. Puffed tendon added another textural dimension to this mouth-watering dish.

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The Brussels Sprouts were also highly addicting and we were thrilled they placed two bowls on our table. The chile garlic vinaigrette possessed hints of sesame, coating the slightly charred Brussels sprouts which were eaten with glee.

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And if we thought the crab fried rice was good, the Heirloom Black Rice made us even happier. Savory lap cheong (Chinese sausage), onion, roasted garlic are prepared with the rice and topped with a runny Lily’s farm fried egg which added another dimension of richness to the already perfect rice.

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However, if there was to be a piece de resistence of the meal, I’ll have to say, Spicy Chinese Ramen was it. The broth was absolutely impeccable with so much depth and layers of flavors in every spoonful. Ma la (the flavor given to Szechuan peppercorns) bamboo, pork belly and crispy ear were ideal accompaniments but all I wanted was to slurp up all the broth.

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By now I was really quite full but every one at the table was excited about the desserts about to hit the table. There were four desserts including Godiva White Chocolate Vietnamese Iced Coffee spiked with White Lion arrack. Arrack or arak is a distilled alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, fruits or sugarcane, but not the same as the anise alcoholic beverage consumed in eastern Mediterranean countries or north Africa. It was incredibly strong, both the coffee and the spirit and we wanted to take it with us to drink the next day but due to the alcohol content, was unable to take it with us.

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Godiva Milk Chocolate Cherry Shooter also had some sort of alcohol in it. I wasn’t able to “shoot” it, but instead, took a small spoonful to taste from the crushed candied almond-rimmed glass.

shooter (640x425)

Chocolate and Pear “Donut” had specks of gold all over it which created the most visually stunning edible ever, unfortunately, the photo doesn’t do it justice at all. With chicory, kecap manis caramel, fresno chile and puffed rice.

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The item I was most looking forward to was Macadamia and Black Sesame Dumpling. New years generally includes “tong yuen” which is a mochi based dumpling with a filling of some sort, traditionally, peanut, black sesame or red bean. I wanted only a bite but it was a difficult task so I popped the entire thing in my mouth.

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Even though our meal was part of a celebration that can’t be duplicated, you can visit Lukshon and put together your own lunar new year dinner, or, any time of the year. That ramen is to-die-for and should not be missed.

3239 Helms Avenue
Culver City, CA 90034
Tel: 310-202-6808

Lukshon on Urbanspoon

Buddha’s Belly is nostalgia in my mouth

We visited Buddha’s Belly a few weekends ago, a restaurant I remember seeing time after time again when my BFF used to lived in Santa Monica. The restaurant is only a block away from the water and I remember always seeing it packed with people whenever we drove by.

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As we drove by it on this particular afternoon, there was again a crowd in there. After finding parking, we strolled in to find a restaurant decorated in my favorite colors — orange and green — and a table by the floor-to-ceiling window, a perfect spot for people watching.

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We began with some beverages, including Thai Iced Tea something my son has gotten quite addicted to of late.

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Black Orchid Sour ($11) is a bourbon-based cocktail with violet liqueur, blackberries, lemon juice and egg whites. I wasn’t sure I’d like it because I’m generally not a fan of bourbon, but it was DELICIOUS! The bourbon wasn’t overpowering and the flavors were fruity and pleasing.

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We wanted the Tuna Volcano but then found out we could get a Curry Chicken Volcano/Tuna Volcano ($10) combo. Sushi rice is formed and then fried to create a crispy bottom for either a curry chicken or an ahi tuna topping. Both were very tasty with a great textural contrast in every bite.

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I absolutely adored Duck Tacos ($11.75) which reminded me of the Peking duck pancakes I used to eat in Hong Kong. Topped with green onion, hoisin sauce and served on corn tortillas instead of the traditional flour pancakes, they were equally delicious and I craved more hoisin sauce on mine. If you’re longing for Peking duck, come and get some of these instead.

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Korean Tofu Crunch ($7) is a light appetizer sitting over gochujang, a Korean chili paste with garlic, soy, sesame oil, scallion and seaweed. My son devoured it! This dish consisted of everything he loves: tofu and anything Korean!

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I’ve never been a huge fan of pad Thai because I’ve never had it anywhere outside of Thailand worthy of the real thing. The Pad Thai ($11) here is outstanding. The consistency is spot on and not the least bit greasy. Shrimp, chicken breast, tofu, onion, egg, bean sprouts, nira chive, cilantro and peanut are tossed with rice noodles and coated with that incredible char all Asian street food is known for known as “wok hei”.

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We love Thai food and Tom Yom Koon Ramen ($11) sounded interesting. The red chili broth infused with lemongrass and kaffir lime was swimming with shrimp, tomato, straw mushrooms and cilantro. A side dish of coconut milk was served alongside for you to add to your liking. We all agreed the broth was wonderfully aromatic and even took the remainder home.

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I was intrigued by Ginger Fried Rice ($11) and thought it was going to be like the one my mom makes, but it was nothing like it. Sweet red ginger is the main ingredient and they weren’t skimpy with the sirloin steak or shrimp tossed in. Egg, shiitake, mushroom, red onion, red bell pepper and sesame seeds complete this dish perfect as an entree or a shared item for the table.

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Living in Hawaii, miso black cod was a weekly staple so I wanted to try the Baked Alaskan Black Cod ($19). A beautifully presented bento box with jasmine rice, broccoli and a cucumber salad, the fish was deliciously addicting and I was trying to savor every morsel slowly.

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Every dish I had invoked some sort of ratatouille moment for me. It brought back childhood memories and fuzzy feelings I was happy to surround myself with. To take it one step further, we ended the meal with Coconut Tapioca Pudding ($7), one of my favorite Asian desserts. The dollop of red bean just made it even better!

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If you’re ever in Santa Monica and wanting some southeast Asian food, stop by this place! They even have a happy hour menu in the afternoon for snacks and delicious cocktails!

Buddha’s Belly
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tel: 310-458-2500

Buddha's Belly on Urbanspoon

Umami packed ramen at Rakiraki San Diego

I was scrolling through Twitter one day and saw an entry about a ramen place serving tsukemen, but it was in San Diego. I love tsukemen, a ramen style noodle dish served with a dipping broth on the side. Very few places in OC serve this and I’m always looking for better ones to try.

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After a few tweets here and there, I decided to bookmark it for a future visit when I was down in San Diego. I finally made it there after months of anticipation and was really surprised at this gem immersed in the chaotic mess that is Convoy Street. The wood exterior stood out and the interior was a well thought out space of minimalistic eco-friendly chic.

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The menu is extensive with ramen offerings as well as sushi, and rice bowls. Also on the menu are various tidbits generally eaten as snacks. I saw several Japanese favorites and wanted everything — too bad I only have one belly!

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We are served alkaline water — complimentary — and I love the taste of this. I buy alkaline water from the grocery store so I know the health benefits. Believe it or not, the broth for all the ramen is made with this alkaline water. I was excited to taste it!

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But before getting to the ramen, we started with Chicken Karaage ($5.75). I’d like to say I’m something of a karaage expert simply because I always order it wherever I go. I was happy to see a really generous portion for under $6. The exterior was nice and crispy while the interior was moist and juicy. They use organic chicken here and I can definitely taste the difference. It was nicely seasoned and I wanted to eat piece after piece, but had to pace myself.

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I’m usually not a huge fan of Takoyaki ($4.50) due to its texture, but found these very pleasing.

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They were not doughy and mushy, but had a lovely bouncy texture with a nice chunk of octopus hidden inside. The dough wasn’t toothy and really quite good.

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When it came to ramen, I wanted to start off with the Original ($7.25), a chicken base broth packed with flavor, but is not thick and does not have that cream-like consistency like its pork bone counterpart. Some days, I just want a clean, light bowl of noodles and this would be the perfect choice. Maybe it’s the alkaline water, but the broth has a very clean, crisp finish on the palate.

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But wait! Look here! Something is really different with the ramen. I notice some scorching on top. The scallions are scalded and so is the chicken. What’s going on? Each bowl of ramen here is scalded with a torch to give the toppings a ‘seared’ touch. It makes everything pop just a little bit more. I like it!

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What I came here for was the tsukemen so I was looking forward to Spicy Tsukemen ($9.25). I love tsukemen and there is only one place in Orange County I know which serves it. At Rakiraki, you can opt for cold or hot tsukemen and I didn’t like the idea of a meat broth being cold so I opted for the hot.

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The noodles were perfect in texture and the dipping broth was absolutely spot on. It was saltier than the regular ramen broth, but rightly so because this is only meant as a dipping sauce and not to be sipped like you would with ramen. The flavors were hearty and rich with chunks of pork swimming underneath.

I also tried the Spicy Miso Tonkotsu ramen which was seriously good. The broth is not greasy and never leaves that gnarly film in your mouth after eating. The broth is not overly salty which happens often when I eat ramen. I found out that unlike other restaurants, Rakiraki simmers its broth for a certain number of hours and then they take it off the heat so it isn’t evaporating throughout the day, compromising the flavors.

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There are bottles of house-made infused vinegar on the table which I highly recommend you try — if you like vinegar. I love it. The grain vinegar is infused with imported Japanese chilis and garlic. I drizzle some onto a spoonful of noodles and I found it helps cut any of the richness you might encounter. It is so palatable I was even sipping on it. I wish they sold this!

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Consistency is vital to the concept of Rakiraki and it may take a few more minutes wait time than other ramen houses you’re accustomed to. The room temperature broth is brought back to boil once an order is put in so each bowl tastes the same every time you visit the restaurant. The precision taken is unrivaled.

I was really impressed by my visit here. I’ll definitely be coming back again! Maybe they will consider opening one up here in Orange County!

4646 Convoy Street
San Diego, CA 92111
Tel: 858-573-2400

Rakiraki on Urbanspoon