We caused a few waves last week with the second matchup in our Ultimate Battle of the Dishes ramen bracket, during which Tempe's Republic Ramen came out ahead over new kid on the block, Umami. Eventually, Republic will be facing off against Hana Japanese Eatery, which beat out Clever Koi for a spot in round two.
This week, we're heading to the East Valley to see whether Ahwatukee's Sushi Ken or Chandler's China Magic Noodle House will be moving forward in our ramen tournament.
In one corner:Sushi Ken
The Setup: You might say Sushi Ken has cult status among Japanese food fans in the Valley. The restaurant isn't anything special to look at from the outside -- just your typical strip mall joint -- and on the inside, you'll pretty much find more of the same. The staff probably won't be super-friendly (or friendly at all), but if you're here, it's not because you're looking for an exceptional dining experience. No, you come to Sushi Ken for the lengthy menu of Japanese eats. It covers everything from sushi to ramen to hard-to-find desserts such as mitsumame, a cold, sweet jelly served with fruit. When it comes to ramen, Sushi Ken offers 13 different types including tonkotsu, miso, shio, wonton, chashu, and chicken.
The Good: For $8, you get a nice-size bowl of ramen, three pieces of California roll, and a small side of either edamame or a salad, which makes ramen at Sushi Ken a hot deal. We ordered the tonkostu ramen, which came loaded with all the traditional toppings: bean sprouts, memma (bamboo shoots), fish cake, scallions, seaweed, pork, and half of a hard-boiled egg. The highlight of the dish was the char siu pork. It was tender and flavorful, definitely the best we've had so far during our city-wise ramen battle.
The Bad: We've heard some great things about Sushi Ken's tonkotsu ramen (including from some of Chow Bella's own) so to say we had high expectations might have been putting it lightly. Overall, we're disappointed to say we weren't bowled over by the broth, which we found to be mild in the flavor department. We would have liked a little less salt and a little more pork. We were even less enthusiastic about the spicy miso ramen, which tasted like pork broth flavored with Sriracha. In both bowls, we also thought the noodles were cooked too soft.
In this corner: China Magic Noodle House
The Setup: This unassuming restaurant is around the corner from Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket in Chandler, and as you might guess from the name, specializes in noodles. But not just any noodles, hand-pulled made-to-order noodles in the style of the Lanzhou region of northwestern China. You can have them pan-fried or served in soups. Even better, you get to pick which of the five noodle types you'd like in your dish. There are wide flat noodles, hand-shaved noodles, and skinny ones (regular, or choice number three) that closely resemble ramen. In fact, these Chinese hand-pulled noddles, called la mian, are the predecessors to Japanese ramen.
The Good: We ordered the sliced beef with soup noodles, and the best part was . . . the noodles, of course. We'd happily substitute these for some of the too-soft noodles we've had so far during this ramen hunt. China Magic Noodle House's Regular noodles are long and more doughy than ramen noodles you're probably used to eating, offering that chewy texture you can only get with fresh noodles. The beef also was remarkably good, tender, and plentiful.
The Bad: As much as we loved the beef itself, the broth in our noodle soup fell flat. The toppings also were off the mark. We got spinach, cilantro, and scallions but none of the usual ramen accompaniments like memma, fish cake, or bean sprouts. In fact, the dish reminded us a lot of pho and while we do love pho, we're looking for ramen.
The Winner: Sushi Ken
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We weren't thrilled with our first ramen experience at Sushi Ken but are excited to go back and give it another try. With the restaurant's ramen having so many fans, we're open to the idea that we just got a subpar bowl.
And as for China Magic Noodle House, it's worth mentioning that if you're really craving a great bowl of noodles (rather than ramen, specifically) this place is a great option. If we could we'd bring these hand-pulled noodles to other restaurants to drop into some other restaurant's more flavorful broths.
Pop-up collaboration, anyone? We can dream.