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

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Rakiraki revisited

It’s been over a year since I first encountered Rakiraki on a trip to San Diego. If I had to sum this eatery up in a sentence, it would be “love at first bite”. Since then I’ve been back several times whenever I get the opportunity. Driving to San Diego always means a bowl of ramen at some point, sometimes late at night, but this time, I met a group of friends for lunch and find a completely revamped menu, thankfully, with my favorites still intact.

We start with some Farmers’ Market Fresh Cucumbers and Tomatoes ($4.95), a perfect way to whet your appetite and get those tastebuds going. Cucumbers and vine-ripened tomatoes are marinated in Japanese pure sesame oil and red pepper chili oil. A refreshing salad of the spring time bounty you are finding at the markets right now. I like to eat it throughout the meal as a palate cleanser.


I can’t eat chicken karaage anywhere else after having the Chicken Karaage ($5.95) here. My son asks every time if we can take an order to go. Usually, restaurants tend to cut the chicken into small pieces resulting in dry, tough chicken. Here, the chicken is left in larger chunks and allowed to marinate in a tasty blend of seasonings before deep-fried to a crispy perfection, leaving the chicken moist and juicy. Served with house ponzu dipping sauce, the acid cuts the oil resulting in an addiction I can’t get over.


A new item to fall in love with is Ikageso Karaage ($5.95), crispy deep-fried delicate squid with a side of spicy Japanese mayo. I don’t need it since I love them as is and take the leftovers home warming it up in the toaster oven for a snack the following day.

fried squid

I have never been a fan of takoyaki until Rakiraki’s Takoyaki ($4.95). I generally do not like the texture of this Japanese street food because of its soft mushy texture. Here, the octopus balls are dotted with a rather generous amount of of tako (octopus) bits which add a nice variation of textures when you bite into it. The accompanying mustard mayo and takoyaki sauces are flavorful, but once again, I like to eat them au naturel since they are already drizzled with takoyaki sauce with a generous topping of bonito flakes, leaving them already well-seasoned.

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Chinois Custom Gyoza ($4.95) is always a hit with kids and adults alike. The wrappers are not thick and the filling light and nicely seasoned.


After eating a very dismal ramen burger at the 626 Night Market recently, I promise my son he can order one here. Tsukune Katsu California Ramen Burger ($9.75) does not disappoint. A tsukune katsu pattie is enveloped between a ramen noodle bun assembled with lettuce, tomato, spicy mayo and five-spice soy sauce using triple pressed ground chicken with shiitake and kikurage mushroom. The bun has a nice crispy texture on the outside and the chicken is beautifully seasoned. It is definitely redemption for us all.

ramen burger

Some of my friends have never tried the curry here, so we order Beef Katsu Setagaya 27 Curry ($9.95) to share. I love the bold flavors of this curry — I’ve had it before many times always super spicy — we order it mild this time to suit everyone’s palates. The beef katsu is tender and absolutely perfect as leftovers the following day.

But of course, what I am here for is ultimately, the ramen.  Rikimaru Spicy Miso Tonkotsu Ramen ($12.75) — ordered super spicy — with flame blistered XO underbelly chashu is not only beautiful but tastes incredible. I’ve always stipulated that the broth at Rakiraki is phenomenal. Add to that perfectly textured double extra thick craft noodles and the smoky charred aromas of the underbelly and this is a bowl of absolute perfection.

spicy ramen

I am not about to leave without the Rikimaru Spicy Miso Tonkotsu Tsukemen ($11.75) with some of that delicious flame blistered XO underbelly chashu. Boy am I glad there are many of us sharing this. I know I’m supposed to be dipping my noodles into the dipping broth and not slurping it, but I can’t help it, it is just SO good.


And how can we leave without trying the new Rikimaru Oxtail Ramen ($12.95). Those of you who love oxtail pho will love this item. A bowl of unctuous oxtail in a little broth is served alongside a bowl of premium rich and bold chicken broth ramen — utter perfection! Take a piece of oxtail, dip it into the ponzu, take a sliver of fresh ginger and put it in your mouth. Now take a bite of ramen. Repeat! I’m salivating as I’m writing this!

oxtail ramen

There is no doubt that this is my favorite ramen spot in southern California. As much as I love Rakiraki, I can’t justify a three-hour return trip just for a bowl of ramen. I’m hoping they will open a location in Orange County soon. But in the meantime, whenever I’m down in San Diego, I make it a point to dine there at least once.

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

Rakiraki on Urbanspoon

a birthday celebration at Hinoki & The Bird

We’d been hearing the buzz about Hinoki & The Bird in magazines, on TV, and just in general lately. We found an excuse to make the drive up to celebrate a friend’s birthday and to check out what the hype was all about.

The brainchild of David Myers, the man behind Comme Ca, in LA and Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, the restaurant is nestled in an office building, hidden from view. Once you drop your car off at valet, the indescript door opens to reveal a landing where you are introduced to the bustling dining room below as well as a pseudo open kitchen where you can view the chefs in action.

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I was very pleased that we were seated on the patio. It reminded me of Gjelina’s patio which is always more pleasant than sitting in the dining room itself. After we settled at our table, it was time to order some cocktails.

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The cocktail menu offers selections for all, and if you don’t see anything you like, their mixologist will be happy to create one for you according to your preferences. We ordered a total of 12 cocktails between us: Jungle Bird Quaffers ($14), Tommy’s #2 Quaffers ($14), Griffith Park Swizzles ($14), Seasonal Fix Swizzles ($14), Elijah Craig Manhattan ($15).

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The menu is eclectic and there were many items we had our eyes on. Chili Crab Toast ($16) was very familiar to me reminiscent of the Singapore chili crab I grew up with, but this had only a hint of heat to it. Spicy cucumber and coriander provided an element of freshness to each bite.

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Pumpkin Toast ($12) was on the other spectrum from the crab toast. The slightly sweet pumpkin combined with the salty sweet miso jam and creamy goat cheese appealed even to my non-sweet palate, although I didn’t care much for the goat cheese. I was glad there were only two little dots on top and not more.

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I’m a big fan of Beef Tartare ($15) and this was incredible. The pickled jalapeno lent a spicy tartness to the perfectly seasoned beef. The quail egg yolk intensified the creamy aspect of the already rich flavors. A sprinkling of parmagiano cheese completed the dish with more saltiness. This was one of our favorites of the night.

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The Lobster Roll (MP/on our night $19) was better on paper than in actuality. I didn’t like the denseness of the squid ink roll which took away from the subtle nuances of the crustacean. On its own, the lobster was perfectly luscious, delicately sweet even after being seasoned with green curry and Thai basil. I chose to omit the bread which overpowered the lobster and masked its flavors. 

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One of the specials of the night was a chilled egg custard topped with uni and baby corn ($14) and was my ultimate favorite. I could have eaten two bowls of this and called it a night. One of my friends and I were scraping the bottom of the bowl, making sure not to leave even a speck of this umami-filled treasure behind. This was a definite winner in my book!

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Hinoki, a Japanese cypress tree shows itself in the signature dish, Hinoki Scented Black Cod ($26). A piece of the tree’s bark is lit and laid over a piece of seared black cod, allowing it to gently “smoke” and coat the fish as it arrives at the table. Beautifully flavored but overcooked, our server sent a new dish out to us and the second time, it was perfect! It is tender, melt-in-the-mouth and is exactly why black cod is also known as ‘butterfish’.

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Sambal Skate Wing ($23) reminded me of a dish I grew up eating in southeast Asia. Instead of skate, stingray was used, a fish similar in look and texture to the skate. Served on a piece of banana leaf (they wrap the stingray in banana leaf in Asia) the fish is smothered in a spicy sambal paste and possessed hints of the fragrance of the banana leaf. The nuoc mam (fish sauce) dipping sauce was so enticing we couldn’t stop eating it, even using it with other items still left on the table.

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The birthday boy ordered Drunken Duck Breast ($26) which was good but not fantastic. I would’ve liked more seasoning — the exterior of the meat was nicely flavored but didn’t extend all the way to the inside.

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We also ordered some sides which were absolutely delicious! Shiitake ($11) mushrooms were allowed to shine on their own without much fussy fiddling. They were plump, meaty and so good even on their own.

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Roasted Yam ($9) were little yams slit down the middle and filled with crispy lardon and creme fraiche. The lardon added saltiness to the natural sweetness of the yams and I’m glad my BFF ordered this because they were so good and so simple!! 

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Hinoki & The Bird is a fun place with a very cool menu. Everything was really good with a few stand-outs and the staff were awesome. Our server Raewyn was knowledgeable, friendly, and made sure we walked away absolutely happy with our experience. I highly recommend a vist!

Hinoki & The Bird
10 Century Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90067
Tel: 310-552-1200

Hinoki & the Bird on Urbanspoon

satisfying Japanese at Gohan

I’ve been to Gohan several times through the years and usually for lunch. The selection is good and when I don’t feel like waiting in line at Fukada, this suffices. The restaurant is really nice, minimal decor, clean and uncluttered. Service is pretty good as well even when it gets busy.

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A bowl of house-made potato chips and lotus root chips are set down for you to enjoy while you peruse the menu.

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We started with Chicken Karaage ($7), usually my favorite, but this was just okay. The portion size is a little on the small side and the coating to moistness ration is average. I would’ve like more crispy exterior, but it was just passable.

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My son loves Agedashi Tofu ($6) and this one was just as good as any you’d find anywhere else. The accompanying sauce was nicely seasoned and neither overpowering nor teetering on the bland.

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Our favorite appetizer was Portabello Tempura ($7.50), meaty pieces of portabello mushrooms with a light crispy batter. The dipping sauce was decent and I would totally order this again.

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I wanted to try the Chicken Katsu Curry because I make this often at home but am too lazy to make it from scratch. I use the packaged Japanese curry which really isn’t all that great but is fast and easy. Unfortunately, the curry tasted not much different from the package kind. If you want curry, go to Curry House.

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If you are hungry, I highly suggest the combination meals such as Zaru Soba Combo ($12.25). It comes with your choice of an accompanying item. The soba tasted like the Korean version rather than the Japanese ones. The former has a chewier texture than the latter.

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Pair it with Spicy Tuna Don, a generous portion which I usually can’t even get to if I ordered the combo. The don is good but not as spicy and also doesn’t have as much mayo as the one at Fukada — which is a good thing for me.

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If you’re looking for something soupy, Sansai Udon ($11.75 as part of combo) is a great choice. The broth is hearty and flavor-filled with a good amount of sansai (mountain vegetables) to boot.

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Combine the udon with Beef Yakiniku over rice for a really filling meal. The beef is tender and a tad sweet for my liking, but my friend really liked it.

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Katsu Donburi wasn’t bad either if you like donburi. I’m not a fan of katsu on donburi because it makes the katsu soggy. Perhaps I could ask for it on the side? The donburi itself was good.

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Gohan is a great little place when you want some home-style Japanese food. Although it is Korean owned (I found out recently), the food is very authentic and stays true in both flavor and presentation.

Gohan Japanese Bistro
13842 Newport Avenue
Tustin, CA 92780
Tel: 714-204-0401

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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

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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