Before I went to Ramen Izakaya Goku, the new ramen and small plates spot near the 16th Street BART station, someone who knows about such things described it to me as "the best ramen in the Mission." This struck me as similar to complimenting the tallest midget in the world, but the truth is that geography plays more of a role in how we feel about restaurants than we like to admit. Goku isn't the best ramen in the world, or even in the city, but it may well be the best in the Mission, and that distinction carries some weight in San Francisco.
The restaurant is from the same team responsible for Men Oh Ramen, Shabuway, and Waraku Ramen, and here they expanded the concept to include an izakaya — the Japanese equivalent of a tapas bar. The way to izakaya is to have leisurely small bites and drinks before topping the meal off with a finale of ramen or a rice dish, and the menu here is set up to accommodate that, and more. "Goku is the UN of restaurants," says a bit of weird prose introducing the place on the menu. "It's for everybody, whether you and your friends want to sample and drink for hours, or you're here for a hearty bowl of ramen before running a marathon, or a quick drink before a blind date."
The izakaya was busy on my visits, with a clipboard waiting list and a crowd of Missionites milling around the sidewalk (unlike some other spots, they won't call your phone when your table is ready, so you just have to wait). Once you make it inside, the restaurant is as welcoming as the menu suggests. It's decorated in generic San Francisco hip: One wall is textured concrete, the other is exposed wood, and there are bar seats facing the open kitchen. When you sit down, you're provided with a complimentary bowl of deep-fried noodles seasoned with furikake and cayenne pepper designed to whet the appetite and, I'm guessing, make you thirsty. You can quench it with a Northern California microbrew or Sapporo on tap, or something from the extensive sake selection, including several by-the-glass selections at different prices if you want to do a taste test.
For small bites, order the takoyaki, octopus balls with a gooey texture and crisp fried crust. They're like seafood croquettes, though they did have a tendency to stick to the bottom of the cast-iron mold in which they were served. Slices of soft monkfish liver, the foie gras of the sea, had a pleasant oceany flavor that tangoed with its tangy yuzu dressing. Batons of deep-fried burdock root added a smoky element to the meal. One of the best appetizers turned out to be the Goku salad: greens with a bright citrus dressing, garnished with sweet marinated tomatoes and enough grilled pork to serve as a meal. The most disappointing small plate was the kobe beef ribs, overcooked slices of beef in a sweet sauce and topped with sliced red bell peppers; it tasted like a beef dish from a mediocre Chinese restaurant.
Most diners were nibbling on one or two small plates, but the majority seemed to be at Goku because they had ramen on the brain. Despite the menu's proclamation that it's simmered for 16 hours, the broth lacks the complexity of the best variations, especially the "rich tonkotsu," which was lackluster with its lean, dry chashu pork. But the katkusu pork ramen was a beautiful bowl of soup, with a broth less rich than traditional tonkotsu but with infinitely more depth and flavor, and pulled pork that had a good amount of fat mixed in with the meat. The noodles in both bowls were great — on the chewy side, but not undercooked — as were the house-pickled bamboo shoots.
Once I ventured beyond pork ramen, there were real treats in store. The clam-and-garlic ramen was one of the best Goku offered, with a fragrant, shimmery broth that was faintly evocative of the sea. The clams in it, however, needed to be cleaned better — I bit down on grit on what seemed like every other one. The vegetarian broth was earthy and complex, and came with some of the tenderest tuna steaks I've ever eaten and al dente green noodles that added another layer of flavor.
All of the ramen can be ordered on a sliding scale: cool, mild, medium, extra spicy, Goku ("hella spicy"). The differences weren't enough to be able to distinguish between them. If you're going to call something "hella spicy," it should bring tears to my eyes and make me cough if I take too big of a slurp. The spiciest was semi-spicy at best, even for a wimp like me, and it was barely distinguishable in medium.
Even if you're stuffed at the end of the meal, order the house-made taiyaki for dessert — a fish-shaped pancake filled with a sweet, warm red bean paste that's made to order.
Goku's located on 16th Street, just west of Guerrero, so it'll do well no matter what — and its 11 p.m. closing time on weekends ensures that punters will head there for a stomach-lining meal before getting on BART and going home. Later this year, it's rumored that popular pop-up Hapa Ramen will move into a spot near Hog & Rocks, while Santa Clara's Orenchi Ramen, supposedly one of the Bay Area's best, is coming to Valencia next year. Soon the neighborhood might have bowls that are more than just "good enough for the Mission," but that are good enough for anywhere.