Soup Ninjas

Ramen Gaijin plugs a hole in North Bay dining

You can eat very well in Sonoma County, but until recently you couldn’t find a great bowl of ramen. That injustice has been rectified by chefs Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman.

The duo opened Ramen Gaijin five weeks ago. Right now, it’s a bimonthly pop-up in Sebastopol’s Woodfour Brewing Co. It’s open every other Monday. Williams is Woodfour’s sous chef, and Hahn-Schuman helped open the restaurant and works as consulting sous chef at SHED in Healdsburg.

Thanks to word-of-mouth buzz, they go through about 150 bowls of ramen a night. They plan to expand their schedule and, if all goes well, open a restaurant of their own.

Now, when I say ramen, you know I don’t mean five-for-a-dollar packages of noodles with the little foil spice pouch inside. Real ramen, made from slow simmered, fat-enriched broths, springy noodles and fresh toppings like pork belly, pickled bamboo shoots and seaweed, exists on a higher plane of deliciousness.

“It’s like soul food but on a whole other level,” says Hahn-Schuman.

Japan is the heartland of ramen where regional styles and variations flourish. More recently, non-Japanese chefs have tackled the craft of ramen.

Gaijin means “outside person” and refers to anyone not born in Japan. Ramen Gaijin is a fitting name for Williams and Hahn-Schuman’s venture because they are clearly non-Japanese and have created a menu that interweaves Japan and Sonoma County with local sourcing.

“We’re trying to offer an authentically Sonoma County bowl of ramen,” says Williams.

The menu changes with each pop-up, but there are two ramen offerings and a few Japanese accented salads, rice dishes and dessert. On my visit, they were sold-out of the applewood smoked mushroom and miso ramen, a vegetarian option enriched with spinach, corn, Tokyo leeks, wakame seaweed and half a ginger-, mirin- and soy-sauce-marinated egg ($13), so I went for the sublime shoyu ramen ($13).

Shoyu, or soy-sauce-flavored, ramen, is a ramen-shop standard, but soy sauce doesn’t begin to explain it. It’s based on a double broth: a dashi stock made with dried seafood and seaweed, and a chicken broth made with Valley Ford–raised chickens fed a special diet to fatten them up for the stock pot. Ham hocks go in, too, for good measure.

Each bowl gets a careful ladle of pork belly fat, a blend of viscous, salty-sweet soy sauces and sprinkles katsuobushi salt. Then come handmade, alkalinized noodles made from toasted rye flour. On top of that go squeaky-textured wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, leeks, wakame and one of those delicious eggs. Oh, and few slabs of beautifully caramelized pork belly.

The luxuriously thick broth stops just short of too salty but goes way past delicious. The noodles are flawless; they remain springy and chewy to the end. Mix in the various toppings, and you’ve got something very special. Sonoma County’s food scene is now complete.