It's no easy feat to stand out amidst the stiff competition of ramen shops on the Peninsula, aka the ramen belt of the Bay Area. But Kazunori Kobayashi certainly knows how to put together stand-out ramen bowls. His small ramen empire in San Mateo stretches over three beloved shops, each with its own signature broth. And there's one bowl that I (and judging by its popularity, all of San Mateo) can't get enough of.
Ramen Dojo specializes in a spicy garlic ramen ($8.95) that doesn't have the piercing strong flavor you'd find, say, in the garlic fries at AT&T Park - it's a subtle roasted garlic flavor, more nutty than pungent. Then there are three levels of spice to choose from (mild, regular, and extra spicy). Mild had a slight buzz but nothing that could truly be considered spicy. But the tonkotsu broth really hit its stride at the regular spice level, which elevated the flavor of the garlic and pork, making it feel lighter than its peers in a way.
Then, each bowl is uniquely enhanced with an umami-heavy scoop of "chicken gravy" that combines cooked ground chicken, chopped shiitake mushroom, and chopped ginger into something like chicken butter that swiftly melts into the soup. It's the ginger that comes off the most, giving a real soothing layer to the broth much like sprigs of cilantro in a bowl of pho. Tonkotsu broth and ginger are great friends. Who knew?
Noodles don't let down the ramen's alluring broth. They have just the right tension and bounce for slurping, and stand up well to the broth's rich flavor.
Mostly standard garnishes include stringy kikurage mushrooms, fresh green chives, two pieces of tender roasted pork, a tiny quail egg, crisp fried garlic cloves, and a thin piece of romaine lettuce. I followed my fellow diners' example and added a scoop of corn ($1) as a topping, but found that it dominated the bowl's flavor, upsetting the ingredients' delicate harmony.
Order some potstickers and seaweed salad after the inevitable wait to go with your spicy garlic ramen (bring a breath mint for "dessert") and you've got arguably the premier ramen meal on the Peninsula. And that means a lot in this neck of the woods.
805 S B St., San Mateo; (650) 401-6568.