Just Manhattan Beach’s local noodle joint

The Marine Ramen patio at dusk. A gas fireplace wards off the chill.

Marine Ramen isn’t trying to be a destination, and that’s just fine

The building at the corner of Marine and Highland is architecturally strange, but then again anything on this corner would have to be. It is built on a very small lot on an extremely steep hill. The architect decided to cope with this by designing a modest dining room and outdoor patio, plus three tiny rooms stacked vertically in a corner to eke out some more space and an ocean view.

By some quirk of fate, the restaurants that have occupied this space have been bizarrely diverse. They have included a sushi bar run by a mystic who claimed to get recipes from dreams, contemporary Vietnamese, and a French Breton place that had brilliant food but erratic management. Some of these might have been a success in a different location, but all had to face one drawback here – only a few parking spaces in an area by the beach with many apartments

The obvious thing to do in such a situation is to serve something that would be attractive to all those local people as everyday food, which is not necessarily how you would categorize rustic Breton stews or mystic sushi.

American café food has been tried occasionally, but ineptly, and the current tenant has a different idea: the comfort food of the modern generation, ramen and sushi. Marine Ramen opened in August of last year and hit some turbulence along the way, closing suddenly just before Christmas due to staff shortages. After a two-month hiatus they reopened, and are once again serving a short and simple menu of Japanese favorites.

The space is bright and open, with windows anywhere there is so much as a sliver of a view, Ror my money the best space is the little outside patio with furniture in cheerful pastels. A server brings over an iPad from which you make your selection, which speeds the process while reducing the staff requirements. If you have any questions about the food, a disembodied voice will answer from the iPad. Since we weren’t informed the iPad had a microphone and speaker, we jumped in surprise the first time it talked to us. The person on the other end was happy to answer questions, and though we ordered something by mistake, we figured out how to change it fairly quickly.

The starters are all the usual favorites competently made. The shrimp and veggie tempura combo arrived hot and crisp, and we devoured it as soon as it cooled enough to eat. It was small, just two shrimp, two pieces of pumpkin, and a diminutive veggie eggroll, but for five bucks that’s not bad.  The chicken karaage was much larger for only three dollars more and was very good. They use dark meat, which is richer in flavor, the way that Japanese prefer their karaage, and the meat was quite juicy inside the batter casing.

The ten-piece nigiri sushi platter from Marine Ramen. Photo by Richard Foss

I wasn’t as much of a fan of the eel hand roll that had more rice than eel and avocado, but the 10-piece nigiri sushi platter was quite good as an appetizer for two, or main course for one. The portion of fish in each piece was sufficient, and thought had been given to the presentation, which is surprising at a price point under 20 bucks.

We also tried the ramen, of course – tonkotsu pork with the broth on the side and a seafood ramen. Tonkotsu ramen has become a fad item of late, with some places proud of a broth that is simmered overnight so it has a funky intensity. If you’re looking for that concentrated blast of umami that compares to other broths as espresso does to coffee, this is not the place to go. It’s a full-flavored broth that has creaminess and leaves room for other flavors. Since I had it on the side I could dip the vegetables, noodles, and pork into the broth and enjoy each separately. The weak spot was the pork, which was served in one large piece and was not tender enough to divide using the chopsticks,and spoon that were all we had. Using a more tender cut of pork would be the best bet, or slicing this smaller so that it’s easier to eat.

A bowl of Marine Ramen’s seafood ramen in salmon broth. It includes scallops, shrimp, mussels, and calamari with green onions, salmon caviar, and minty shiso leaf. Photos by Richard Foss.

The seafood ramen was in a salmon broth, which I found more flavorful, with an agreeable slight oiliness. There was a good portion of shellfish and shrimp, along with baby octopus that had been marinated in soy sauce for extra flavor. A bit of ikura, salmon roe, added an agreeable salty burst when you hit a piece, and it was generally a well-balanced meal.

Wine, beer, flavored or regular sake, and soju are all offered, as are a few, simple mixed drinks. I tried a mix of low-alcohol rice wine with lime that had a tangy flavor similar to a daiquiri. This arrived with a piece of minty shiso leaf liberally encrusted with Japanese chili powder next to the glass, so I tried a bite of it. Don’t do that unless you really enjoy spicy flavors with even spicier flavors on top of it. I was informed later that this was a garnish and not intended to be eaten, and I suggest they leave it off so other people do not share my experience.

Marine Ramen offers simple, hearty food with few fancy frills, but that may be exactly what this area needs. Someone on their way to or from the beach can stop for a meal or a snack, and I noticed a fairly good takeout business. Given the crazy ups and downs in this industry, it’s impossible to forecast anyone’s level of success, but this fits the neighborhood better than anything else that has been tried here.

Marine Ramen is at 2201 Highland in Manhattan Beach. Open noon – 10 p.m. daily, parking in building and under restaurant, wheelchair access good to most of space. (310) 425-9727. Order at marineramen.com. ER


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