By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was a hot February afternoon due to Santa Ana conditions. The last thing in the world a friend and I craved while driving into the East Village for lunch was ramen.
But we stuck to a plan I had made days earlier to eat at Beshock Ramen & Sake Bar. Soon after arriving, we found ourselves slurping vigorously from bowls filled with broths and noodles that tasted heaven-sent.
“Beshock” is derived from the Japanese word “bishoku,” which translates to “gastronomy” and “the beauty of food.” The restaurant/bar opened four years ago and is co-owned by sake sommelier Ayaka Ito, whose mother runs a Beshock kitchen in Japan.
Indeed, our meal lived up to the restaurant’s name.
Even the vegan gyoza containing a filling of minced veggies that I felt needed extra garlic—or maybe some ginger—were lovely on the taste buds with teeny drops of hot chili oil applied. Their crimped pea-green casings and seared underbellies were pillowy on the palate and pretty on the eyes.
A simple seaweed salad came with the right measures of rice vinegar and sesame—just enough to tame the bitterness of the ocean greens by turning them sweet and nutty. If you’ve grown tired of these Japanese salads in their waterlogged form, you may find redemption in this one.
Often when dining with this particular friend, a near-vegan, I encounter meatless dishes I might normally skip over. Like the vegan sushi roll we ordered. The last time I ate vegan sushi was at a popular San Diego joint that relegated its oxidized avocado and excess day-old rice to the roll.
Here, the ratio of rice to a filling of pickled carrots, daikon radishes and cucumber was an optimal 50/50. There were also small cubes of fresh avocado woven into the swirl. The flavors were layered, and the textures were simultaneously soft, crunchy and creamy. I didn’t miss the fish at all.
On this workday, we didn’t imbibe on Beshock’s ambitious sake selection, although we asked for taster portions of the house-made sake sangria. Pinkish in color, it revealed a bouquet of apples, oranges, watermelon and bananas—a perfect come on to those warm Santa Ana breezes outside.
The main event involved two different ramen: A vegan version with the add-on of black garlic oil for my friend, and tan tan pork broth for me.
Justly so, the former has garnered media accolades and was named ‘best vegan ramen’ a few years ago by the nonprofit organization Vegan in San Diego.
The broth carried a fantastic depth of flavor and a medicinal pith you suspect could effectively obliterate a bad head cold. Floating within the bowl were seared veggies (cherry tomatoes, peas, baby corn and broccoli), plus chunks of soft tofu and droplets of chili oil. There was a delightful milkiness to the liquid as well, achieved from white soy paste, but mimicking the fat and bone marrow inherent to pork and chicken ramen. Let this be the standard bearer to vegan ramen everywhere.
A notable sesame and chili-pepper base defines the tan tan pork broth. The spice level was exactly to my liking—ranking just below 5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
By default, it comes with spicy ground pork, bok choy, green onions and bits of chilies. The avocado and half of a hard-boiled egg I requested as add-ons melted in my mouth and added further richness to the broth as it rapidly diminished. It was ramen at its best—not too salty, not too fatty, yet loaded with long flavors.
I regretted passing up the addition of pork chashu when reading the menu more closely afterward. It states the pork belly is cooked in the rich tonkotsu broth for a couple hours and then flame-torched to enhance the umami effect. It’s not that my ramen needed any help. But a fine slab of pork belly with a charred finish certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
Beshock uses noodles from the owners’ proprietary recipe, which is executed by an outside vendor. Depending on what ramen you order, they fall into medium or thick categories. The latter came in my friend’s vegan ramen while the medium noodles complemented mine. They were plentiful in both cases.
Which prompted me to shamefully request a fork for maximum intake.
Oddly, these fingers can navigate a keyboard from taking piano lessons; write in cursive as gracefully as the Catholic nuns who taught me did; and make convincing hand shadows of birds and other creatures. But I’ll be damned if they can properly maneuver a pair of chopsticks.
Fortunately, the staffers here are cool and easygoing, as proven when a server said reassuringly when handing me the fork, “We don’t pass judgment here.”
Minutes later, nary a noodle resided in my bowl.
Beshock Ramen & Sake Bar
1288 Market St. (East Village)
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $4 to $15; sushi rolls, $6.95 to $18; bowls, $6.95 to $14;
ramen, $11 to $12.95
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.