During my recent foray to “Ramen Bull,” a cow-fueled ramen residency at L.A.’s BREADBAR from Japan native Nori Sugie, I learned he sources his noodles from San Jose. Talk eventually turned to R&D, and he mentioned a couple of ramen houses that he recommends in the Silicon Valley, including Ramen Halu, which has thrived in San Jose’s Saratoga Plaza since 2003. Lucky for me, San Jose was right on my recent route to San Francisco, and stopping for lunch was an easy decision, and as it turns out, the right one.
Mr. Halu, a Japan-based businessman, partnered with resident chef Kumao Arai on the restaurant. According to my waitress, the name means sunshine/sunny in Japanese, so the logo on the bowls and wall-mounted surfboards includes the sun. The long room features a sea blue ceiling with a school of white, orange, pink, green, yellow and red fish, assorted sea creatures, even a yellow submarine. Pop music predominates, as do framed postcards of Japanese beach scenes and paper globe lanterns.
Even though two bowls of ramen were imminent, the Okara & Soybean Salad ($1.90 small), from a selection of appetizers and side dishes, sounded intriguing. No, okara isn’t okra, it’s the dregs that remain after the soy milk passes through the filter. The curd-like soy product arrived studded with corn and onion strands, plated on crisp iceberg lettuce with fried onion and garlic. This was a nice light starter.
Ramen is measured by the bundle, from a child’s size (half a bundle) to extra large (two bundles). Each bowl comes with either thin noodles, original thick noodles or whole wheat noodles, though choices are limited with certain varieties. Kikurage (firm wood ear mushrooms), Ho-rensou (spinach), Nori (dried seaweed sheets) sheet, Ao-negi (minced green onion) and Menma (seasoned bamboo) are Halu’s de rigueur ramen toppings.
My bowl of Halu Ramen ($6.40) was light brown, cloudy, and better yet, MSG free. My preferred ramen delivery method involves tonkotsu, a concentrated pork bone broth. Halu Ramen incorporates tonkotsu, and it’s seasoned with onion, ginger and garlic and mixed with sho-yu sauce and dashi broth, all contributing to a uniquely savory result. My bowl also contained succulent, slices of Kurobuta bara cha-shu, thin-sliced belly that broke apart into the liquid. Noodles aren’t made in house, though they were pretty close to al dente.
Fire red Tantan-men ($8.90) featured many of the same condiments, but tasted quite different thanks to the spicy, lip stinging red broth, sesame seeds and seasoned ground pork.
Ramen Halu sells a number of different Japanese beers, sakes and shochus to drink. What interested me more were the tofu cheesecake and Japanese-influenced, house made ice creams, but my full stomach wouldn’t cooperate. Ramen Halu was a better than solid introduction to the apparently quite competitive Silicon Valley ramen scene, and my visit will no doubt inspire more slurp-y exploring.