Ramen Champ Rolls with the Punches

Alvin Cailan’s new noodle shop feels like eating in Tokyo

It’s a quiet Sunday night on the first floor of Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. A few people are eating outside Chego, but both Pok Pok Phat Thai and Scoops Chinatown are closed. Upstairs, though, is a different story.

It’s 7 p.m. and there are close to 20 people hovering outside Ramen Champ, a new restaurant that seats just 22. It’s the last day of Ramen Champ’s soft-opening weekend, and Downtown scenesters and a film crew who wants to shoot the kitchen are mingling with Chinatown elders and visitors who seem to be there largely to take pictures of people taking pictures.

But there’s no chaos outside. There’s a woman handing out paper menus, efficiently taking orders, and then asking you to sit and wait. Some have been a bit confused by this process. But anybody who’s eaten ramen in Japan (or even some of L.A.’s more popular noodle shops), where you often order before you get into the restaurant, appreciates what’s happening.

There are three ramen bowls, three rice bowls, and three sides on the menu, and the move, it appears, is to come with a big enough group to order one of everything. Once you get inside, which seems to take less than 20 minutes even if 10 people are ahead of you, the food comes rapidly.

Chef/partner Alvin Cailan, the Eggslut boss who opened Ramen Champ, is expediting in the cramped kitchen. Chef/partner Nathan Asamoto, who cooked at Men Oh Tokushima, is assembling bowls of ramen, putting gorgeous radishes, scallions, and carrots over rich, gravy-like pork tonkotsu and schmaltzy chicken shio. Chef/partner Johnny Lee, also from Eggslut, is marching back and forth with perfectly runny ramen eggs and chicken belly and anything else anybody needs.

It’s jammed in this kitchen, with other cooks sauteing and scooping and frying chicken while Cailan looks at his slips and realizes that everybody has ordered a lot of food. The Ramen Champ team is, as people say in the restaurant industry, in the weeds. But Cailan stays calm, tells his crew that everybody can hear them in the open kitchen, so let’s try to be quieter. He has his head down at times, but you see him looking at everything going on in his restaurant.

And it all works. His place is packed, but it’s running like a Tokyo ramen shop. It takes maybe 15 minutes to get all our food, and without half an hour of sitting down, we’re ready to go.

Tokyo/New York ramen chef Ivan Orkin, the man most famous for putting schmaltz in Japanese noodle bowls, once told me that the best feeling for him is to have a dude wander into one of his restaurants, order a bowl, get it in a couple minutes, slurp it in a couple minutes more, smile, say thank you, and then leave. Ramen is a casual affair, something you eat quickly after somebody has spent days preparing it.

Cailan, Asamato, and Lee get it. They serve a 20-hour tonkotsu for 20-minute diners. That feels like Japan.

Ramen Champ officially opens today.

redarrow Ramen Champ, 727 N. Broadway, #203, Chinatown