Making fresh batches of noodles in house daily isn’t an easy feat. For Hyun “Sean” Park, chef and co-owner of Okiboru, a new tsukemen-focused restaurant in Chinatown, it’s a labor of love.
“Obviously, it’s more work and it’s not easy making noodles,” Park says. “But when we were trying tsukemen in Japan, we found out the noodles were so important. In ramen, I think the broth is slightly more important, not to say that the noodles aren’t—those are very important, too. But in tsukemen, the noodles are thicker and they’re served on the side, so I feel they’re slightly more important.”
Think of tsukemen as ramen’s wilder cousin. While ramen consists of thin wheat noodles bathing in a piping hot soup, tsukemen, which translates to “dip noodles,” is offered as a deconstructed version in two bowls. One bowl holds noodles that are thicker and chewier than ramen, and the other vessel cradles a much more concentrated and viscous broth.
Tsukemen noodles are served cold so their texture and form can withstand the warmth of the broth as the strands are coated in a gelatinous layer of umami-laden goodness. It also happens to be a summertime jam for folks who have ramen cravings in the sweltering heat. Slurping is a must to suck up both the noodles and flavors of the broth, and squeezing a slice of lime over the noodles before dipping does a nice job of cutting the fattiness of the intensified soup.
While there are local ramen shops that make their own ramen noodles in house, Park claims that Okiboru is the only restaurant in the United States to make its own tsukemen-specific noodles fresh on a daily basis. Even Tsujita, the tsukemen giant that propelled this dipping style into popularity in Los Angeles, gets its wavy strings of carbs from expert noodle makers Sun Noodle.
And credit must be given where credit’s due: Tsukemen first showed up on the noodle scene in 1961 at late Japanese restauranteur Kazuo Yamagishi’s Taishoken shop in Tokyo.
In order to learn how to make tsukemen, Park took many trips to Japan for research. Through a friend, he was introduced to a longtime ramen virtuoso who showed him the ropes in making tsukemen and ramen noodles and broths.
It’s taken Park a couple of years to perfect his tsukemen skills. While he was experimenting, he would consult his ramen teacher for tips on adjusting techniques. Not one to copy recipes, Park began tweaking his own noodles and broth until he felt like he’d gotten it just right. “We tested batch after batch until we got what we wanted. I mean, the best way to do things is just to keep trying and trying and trying, right?” Park says with a laugh.
On a daily basis, making tsukemen noodles takes Park 24 hours from start to finish, and that includes idle time waiting for the dough to age. In addition to tsukemen, he also makes his own ramen noodles for the restaurant. Park uses the same ingredients for both styles, but the difference is in the amount of time the dough needs to rest (ramen needs an extra day) and the thickness of the cut.
Park starts with a premium wheat flour from Nippon, a company that’s known for being one of the oldest and largest mills in Japan. (For its U.S. market, however, Nippon imports its flour from Canada.) He then adds gluten, eggs, tapioca starch and flour, and kansui, a Japanese alkaline solution that’s essential to giving ramen noodles their springiness.
After mixing the dough and forming it into a roll, Park has to compound it, basically taking two flattened-out layers of the dough and compressing the ingredients together, a process he has to perform a few times. Then he lets it rest before using a machine to cut the rolls into tsukemen’s signature rectangular-like strands. Park says it would be impossible to hand-cut all the noodles for the amount that they have to make daily. Each batch makes 65 portions of tsukemen noodles, and they go through roughly two to three batches a day. Since Okiboru just opened in July, Park anticipates that they’ll just have to make more batches as business ramps up.
But noodle-making isn’t the most labor-intensive process at Okiboru—making the broths is actually harder. While stewing a ramen broth can be a 12-to-15-hour process for Park, tsukemen is a whole other story. It takes him three days to create the tsukemen soup because it needs to be more viscous than the ramen so that it can stick to the noodles like a thick sauce. It requires more time because of how much the broth needs to reduce. “For example, you start with a gallon of broth. In ramen, you’re going to reduce it and end up with three-fourths of that amount. With tsukemen, you’re going to end up with one-eighth of that,” Park says.
His broths start with over 100 pounds of pork and chicken bones, and bonito to give it a light smokiness and fish flavor. Then he adds garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and kombu for umami, as well as apples, onions, and scallions. While other tsukemen broths may have a fishier taste, which Park says is merely a personal preference, he likes to balance his out so it’s lighter on fish flavor.
Just like his noodles, one batch of tsukemen broth in a large 160-quart stockpot will yield 65 portions. Again, Okiboru goes through two to three batches a day. “We’re starting with smaller batches right now. We only have so many ranges, so we’re going to have to double up on each pot. The pots are already big enough to fit a couple of humans, maybe three. You can take a bath in it with no problem,” Park says jokingly.
While tsukemen is often accompanied by slices of fatty, barbecued chashu pork, marinated soft-boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, and scallions, Okiboru offers an additional variation on that. In the signature bowl, the noodles are topped with chashu-seasoned grilled pork ribs. For Park, dip ramen is an interactive, fun way to eat, and he wanted to extend that to the meat as well, with ribs being a food that you can eat with your hands and dunk into the soup.
Like everything else at Okiboru, the ribs are also a test of patience. They’re marinated and brined overnight and then braised for four hours before they’re seared on the grill. The result is a tender hunk of juicy meat.
However, Okiboru’s not only catering to carnivores at the restaurant. The shop also offers a creamy vegetarian tsukemen option with grilled tofu as a topping.
Park, who’s been professionally cooking Japanese food in L.A. for nearly the last decade—and last worked at Wolfgang Puck’s WP24—dives in headfirst when it comes to preparing any cuisine. When the L.A. native moved to Atlanta for a couple of years to help a friend out with his restaurant, he ended up making several trips to nearby Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the city. It was there that he decided to open an Indian-and-Thai curry restaurant called Blue Dream Curry House, a nod to the area’s scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Park, who still co-owns the restaurant and visits Asheville regularly, is proudest of the korma recipe he developed that he makes from scratch.
Making food from scratch is part of Park’s philosophy, and now he’s brought that dedication to Okiboru. “The noodles make all the difference in the world,” Park says. “In a sandwich, you need excellent bread. There’s a difference between a place that makes a sandwich with their own freshly baked bread versus something that they bought.”
Okiboru, 635 N. Broadway, Chinatown
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