In the food-obsessed Bay Area, even a bowl of ramen can hold a lot of expectations, with people seeking unique toppings or rich, creamy broths. But that defies the tradition of ramen from Japan, where it’s found in every alley and eaten simply and quickly by the populace.
Ramen is food for the people, and it doesn’t have to innovate as much as it just has to satisfy one’s hunger.
A good bowl of ramen has to fill you up and comfort you, especially in the cold days of winter, and then let you go on with your day.
That’s the goal of the new Shiba Ramen in Emeryville’s resurging Public Market. Shiba, which had a soft opening last December, is in the food court. (I say it’s resurging because the whole food court area is being renovated and new tenants are moving in, with Shiba being one of the early ones.) Its website touts the no-fuss approach to ramen, saying it should be “easy, casual and delicious.”
Started by a husband-and-wife team of Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura (both former chemists; this is their first time as restaurateurs), Shiba is supposed to be a place where ramen is approachable, not trendy; affordable, with nothing over $15.
Ironically when word got out, Shiba got mobbed by the typical ramen lovers, especially people in the East Bay hoping for a more convenient place for good ramen on this side of the bay (instead of driving to San Mateo). This resulted in several Yelp comments about the long lines, slow service and less-than-impressive ramen. I had a few friends echo the same sentiments to me, but I chalked them up to growing pains.
So after giving Shiba some time to ramp up its kitchen staff and find its rhythm, I recently visited to try their ramen. Both times I went (once on a weeknight after work and another on a Sunday afternoon), the stand inside the Public Market wasn’t crowded, and while you do have to wait a bit for your order, it wasn’t overly long.
Shiba has eight types of ramen but not all are offered at the same time. From its lunch to dinner service, they rotate between three or four specialties, whether it’s the “white bird” (tori paitan or creamy chicken broth base), spicy (aka tantanmen), or “white pig” (their version of the popular tonkotsu or pork broth). There may also be classics such as miso, clear (shio) or butter corn.
Both times I was there I didn’t see the “dry” (tsukemen) ramen on the menu; this ramen is served without broth. But maybe that’ll be offered more frequently as the weather warms.
I first tried the spicy ($11), which had ground pork with a nice soft-boiled egg (I love when the yolk has a nice orange hue), creamy sesame tonkotsu broth, bok choy, green onions and togarashi pepper threads. The broth was creamy but not overly so, and the heat from the spice was subtle, almost sneaking up on you by surprise and hitting you at the end. The noodles were cooked just right and had a nice consistency that made it pleasing to eat.
On my second visit I tried the “white bird” ($12) just because it sounded so unusual. But instead of the chicken chashu, of which they were all out, I had it with regular pork chashu. I teasingly challenged the counter person that I was really getting the “white pig” then, but she explained that the broth is still chicken (as opposed to pork-based tonkotsu) and presentation-wise the “white pig” would come with a drizzle of black garlic oil, which the “white bird” does not.
Either way, it was a decent bowl of noodles. Again, the broth was good, but nothing spectacular, and the noodles were cooked just right. Both the egg and pork chashu slices were satisfying.
For sides, there are only a handful of items. I skipped the Shiba wings ($6.50 for five chicken wings), and tried the spicy cucumber ($3), which lacked crunch as you bit into the marinated cucumbers; and the pork gyoza ($3.50), which had an impressive thin delicate skin. I would skip the cucumbers and go again for the gyoza, maybe even trying the vegetarian version that looked pretty with green skins.
The last bite
Shiba Ramen lives up to its placement as a food court ramen joint for everyday people. It’s nothing surprising or trendy, and in many ways mirrors another popular food court ramen joint (Ajisen at the Westfield San Francisco Centre) in quality, but that’s exactly the point. If you don’t want to deal with hip ramen eaters and just want a satisfying bowl of soup noodles, then Shiba Ramen is the spot.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
Shiba Ramen is at 5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville. 510-985-8309. Open daily for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5-8 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Sunday). Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.