After TWO AND A HALF HOURS, we are finally inside the restaurant! (Occasionally, servers would come out with free cans of green tea and politely thank everyone for waiting, which was appreciated.)
Upon entering, the staff greets you with a cheerful "irasshaimase," a Japanese welcoming custom which you may have been exposed to by some well-intended 80's movie sushi scene, and which feels a world away from the typical "college aloof" Berkeley vibe. To us, Ippudo's irasshaimase showed that even though Ippudo is becoming an international icon, the trendy ramen spot is also still fully attached to its Japanese roots and culture. A very good sign, which portends excellence for our upcoming meal of traditional Japanese ramen soup.
Ippudo has four bowls from which you may choose, after choosing your style of broth (for broths see below). You may choose a basic bowl (with noodles, pork belly, bean spouts, mushrooms, and scallions), tomago (which has all of the above, plus a boiled egg), chashu (all of the above, plus extra sliced pork), or special (which has all of the above, plus both egg and extra pork). The shoyu ramen features a fish based broth, as opposed to the tonkatsu options above, and is only available in one bowl style. Full Menu here: http://ippudo-us.com/pdf/Ippudo_Berkley%20Menu_food.pdf
For our introductory meal at Ippudo, we both went for the Spicy Special - yes, extra flavor please, and with all the extras!
Ippudo simmers their broth for 20 hours achieve the well developed flavors of the pork fat, bone marrow, and caramelized aromatics, as well as its famous milky texture. While Ippudo does not feature the most aromatic nor the most umami of all broths we have tried, its spicy tonkatsu was perfectly balanced and delicious.
Quick public health tip: beware, food adventurers, as ALL ramen is packed with insane amounts of sodium, and not to be approached without consideration and planning for this fact. (Be sure to try to run a 5k before hand, or at least have a low salt day, and then prepared to desalinate over the next few days after!!) So be wary of drinking all of the amazingly delicious broth it due to its sodium content. If you can't help yourself, make sure to hydrate plenty afterward.
The soup noodles in ramen tend to be thin noodles, either straight or wavy. Ippudo's house made thin noodles were just slightly thinner than what we were used to, and delicious. What is fun about Ippudo is that they let you choose the firmness from soft to medium to firm - "yawa, futsu, kata, or bari kata". We opted for "kata" this time around.
Next time, Michael would stick with the kata firm noodles which had a great hearty mouth feel and chewiness (firmer than "al dente," but since the noodles are fresh they are not crunchy like an undercooked dry noodle would be - just nice and meaty), while Cygridh would opt for the "futsu" or maybe even "yawa", which is what most readers will be more used to. Cygridh was also not expecting this thin of noodle (pretty close to angel hair thin). We have, however, had this thin noodle before at a Japanese chain ramen shop Ajisen, which is our favorite one-$ ramen, at Westfield mall.
In keeping with its observation of authentic Japanese tradition, Ippudo also offers the "kaedama". Thus, if you let your server know "kaedama, please" just before you finish your first serving of noodles, your ramen chef will bring out a second serving of noodles for you for $2.00. (This was very tempting, but by the time we got there, we could not eat another bite. We must also apologize, we were way too stuffed to try any red bean or lychee ice cream for dessert.)
All in all, we found Ippudo's fare to meet expectations of expertly prepared ramen, earning it a well-deserved spot in our Top Three Bay Area Ramen List!
(For all those who are curious, our Top Three list goes:
#1) Mensho Ramen, San Francisco $$$
#2) Katana Ya, San Francisco $$
#3) Ippudo Berkeley $$$$
Feel free to comment with your faves, and let us know where to go next!)