Noodles in style
Modestly priced Blossom Ramen in El Segundo is one of the prettiest eateries in the area
I never expect character in a modest strip mall restaurant because most have a very sensible business plan of getting people in and out as soon as possible. That involves not making the furniture too comfortable or the décor too interesting, and possibly getting a subscription to a music playlist called “Mildly irritating jazzy pop music.” There’s a balance to be struck – the food has to be good enough that people will come back, but they’ll either eat and leave so others can take the table or get food to go so that the table is available.
Somebody didn’t tell the people at Blossom Ramen about this strategy. They turned a small space between a barbershop and an ice cream parlor into a hip, colorful showcase of modern Japanese design. The small dining room has fake cherry trees in bloom between the tables, an anime-style mural covers one wall, and the walls and napkin holders have repeating motifs of ginkgo leaves in gold. It’s a dazzling space, and I wanted to like Blossom Ramen as soon as I saw it.
Happily, their food makes this easy. The ramen menu isn’t complex, just noodles in soup with five different broths, plus six side dishes. Drinks are a separate order of complexity, as there are over 50 different options, some obvious and some not. It’s easy to figure out what you’re getting when you order jasmine tea or strawberry lemonade, less so an “Orange Speechless” or “Strawberry Revival.” There are no descriptions of anything, so you’ll have to ask if you’d like to know exactly what’s in a Hokkaido milk or Tea 9 milk tea. Ordering here is supposed to happen at a self-serve kiosk, but if you have questions (and almost everyone I saw during our visit did), the staff are happy to help.
The staff will also let you keep a ticket open so you can start with appetizers and order your mains later. We started with karaage chicken, fried gyozas, seaweed salad, and kimchi. The karaage was the usual chicken fried in cornstarch, but with garlic mayo topped with Japanese chili pepper seasoning instead of the usual soy and vinegar dipping sauce. I wish they hadn’t added the chili peppers topping because chili pepper powder was already on our table, and this made the sauce off limits for those who don’t enjoy spicy stuff.
The fried gyoza and seaweed salad were decent but unexceptional, but we weren’t a fan of the kimchi served here. Japanese kimchi, referred to as “kimuchi” to distinguish it from the original, is generally less spicy and lacks the fresh, citrusy tang of the Korean version. This example was a bit hotter than I expected in a Japanese place, which really put the lack of balancing bright flavor into focus.
We didn’t order our ramen until the appetizers were already on the table, and we were actually startled by how quickly they arrived. We shouldn’t have been, because ramen stock at specialty restaurants is kept on the boil, so all that has to happen is to add fresh noodles that cook quickly and whatever vegetables and meats complete the bowl. At serious traditional ramen shops like Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata in Gardena, you’re given a choice of the broth thickness and noodle hardness, but Blossom isn’t that fussy. The broths are rich but not the gravy-like thickness that is an option at some specialists, and the noodles have a springiness that will please just about anyone.
The base for three of the broths is tonkotsu stock, made from slow-boiling pork bones overnight. We had one plain tonkatsu ramen, with a milky, thick richness that is everything about the meat but the chew. This is combined with noodles, bean sprouts, wood ear mushroom, onion, red ginger, and Japanese-style chashu pork. As with the kimchi, the Japanese have adapted a Chinese style to their own tastes when it comes to the pork. It doesn’t have the red rim of caramelized sauce that you’ll see on Chinese roast pork, the hint of five spice seasoning, or the slightly chewy texture.
Their signature house broth is the black garlic, which is that stock simmered with mild garlic. Some people who order the black garlic broth do so because they want a spicy garlic bomb, but that’s not what is intended. The garlic has almost no sharpness, but is a musky, fragrant background for all the other flavors. I wouldn’t recommend ordering this just before a business meeting or heavy date because you will smell like garlic afterwards, but the flavors are far from challenging.
Surprisingly, the same is true of the “Fire Kazan” ramen broth, which is described as a “ghost pepper chili bomb.” It’s barely a firecracker, rather than a bomb, unless you eat the whole dried red pepper that arrives perched on top of the garnish of shaved green onion in the middle of the bowl. Some of the dry red togarashi pepper seasoning that is also on the table is sprinkled on top of the soup. If you mix that in, you’ll get something that might cause you to break a minor sweat, but it’s nowhere near as powerful as advertised. It’s good anyway, so I was happy we ordered it.
The red miso ramen is described as spicy too, but is even further from it. Miso has a tangy umami, courtesy of the fermented soybeans. The dash of chili oil in the broth adds another dimension, but the chili is a polite spiciness and doesn’t take over. Order this without the pork and it’s a fine vegetarian meal. Another vegetarian broth based on truffle-infused vegetable broth is also offered, but there were only four of us and nobody ordered that one. I’m going to go back for it, because we enjoyed the others so much.
It took us a while to order drinks because of the variety of options, some of which are quite unusual – I had never seen a drink in which coffee and orange juice are mixed together, and I’m curious. Not curious enough to order coffee in the evening, because I’m a morning coffee person, but I do need to try that. The patient staff member who helped us decode the menu advised us that many items are very sweet because that’s how most Japanese prefer them, but they can be ordered “half sweet.” I tried the lychee fruit tea and found the rather heavy black tea flavor and sweet fruitiness an excellent combination, but was less impressed by the Thai tea lemonade. Thai iced tea and tea with lemonade are both just dandy, but something about this just didn’t come together. The “orange speechless” turned out to be made with jasmine tea and orange juice and was a much better combination, the floral and citrus complementing each other nicely.
Blossom Ramen is one of the finest fast food experiences I can name in the South Bay. A dinner for four with starters and beverages ran about $25 per person. That’s not as cheap as the burgers and junk food that are most of your other options, but the food is better and better for you, the staff is friendly and helpful, and you can enjoy the décor during your brief wait.
Blossom Ramen is at 130 E. Grand Avenue in El Segundo, near Chase Bank. Open 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily. Parking lot. No alcohol served. Wheelchair access good. (310) 648-8558. BlossomRamen.com. ER