Warm on the inside, cool on the outside: the proper affect of a good bowl of ramen. It’s a concept that started to make a lot of sense to me this summer, when the weather was as hot as it’s ever been and the heat felt like an unwanted, smothering hug. Make no mistake, I still craved those starchy noodles and that rich, meaty bone broth. And I wasn’t the only one. Walking down 2nd Street in Downtown LA’s Little Tokyo around dinnertime, I found others who shared my obsession and total disregard for the weather—a quietly dedicated crowd, willing to line up in over-crowded shops, ineffectively cooled with half-working oscillating fans, for their bowls of steaming-hot ramen.
My favorite ramen shop, Men Oh on the corner of 2nd and Alameda, is probably the most cramped and poorly air-conditioned of them all. Two tireless servers work something like six tables and a ten-seater bar in the front of the house, graciously taking orders in English then popping behind a thin curtain to shout them in Japanese to the chefs. The curtain is so flimsy, it fails to hide the chaos in the kitchen—the violent chopping of vegetables, the plumes of steam as they hiss out of giant vats of broth, and rapidly moving chefs who look as if they’re navigating a naval ship out of the fog. I like to sit at the bar and watch it unfold—dinner and a show.
Why do I seek out such an uncomfortable dining experience, you’re wondering. But I promise the lines and the heat are only a matter of logistics, which become inconsequential as soon as you fight for your precious spot at the counter and get a taste of this ramen. Nudge the colorful collage of seaweed paper, bright pink ginger, and fermented mushrooms aside with a pair of chopsticks, and you’ll see what all the trouble is for—noodles too delightfully elastic to be true and a broth that’s so creamy it tastes like salty, liquid velvet rolling over your tongue. And the egg: sweet, floral, and perfectly gelled. Reader, I’m telling you now—order an extra egg. You’re going to want it.
It has dawned on me that what looks like total chaos in that kitchen, is actually an expertly choreographed ballet—all those quick, sweeping movements designed to get the most out of that tiny kitchen. Men Oh, after all, prides itself on the quality of its product. Their pork bone broth is traditional to Tokushima, the Japanese pig-farming town that put ramen on the map. Sixteen hours of cooking time allows the bone marrow to melt, which makes the broth sumptuous and complex. Men Oh makes its own noodles, too, with an eye for perfection. At their offsite facility, solely dedicated to noodle making, they perfect the pleasing resilience and floury aroma that are characteristic of expertly-made ramen noodles.
Yes, I’ve spent many stuffy evenings at Men Oh this summer, rubbing shoulders with other sweaty ramen lovers, pulling off layers of clothing as I slurped from those steaming bowls, splashing broth onto myself (probably others, too). Sweat—disproportionate amounts of it, in this case—cools the skin and makes the heat more bearable. Warm on the inside, cool on the outside. That’s the logic behind the phrase. For the other glistening folks at Meh Oh’s counter and myself, it’s not a benefit so much as an excuse to be able to eat this stuff year-round. No matter how you feel about sweating in public places, trust me—this is well worth it.