I remember the first time I encountered a bowl of ramen. The year was 1986, and I was sitting in a New England movie theater, watching the opening scene of Tampopo, the wonderful Japanese comedy about the sensual joy of food and the complex art of making an excellent bowl of ramen. This is what I saw:
The scene is a spoof, but it obviously pointed to something very serious, and I knew at that moment that I wanted real Japanese ramen to be part of my life. Even though I was in New England. Even though it was the 1980s, and sushi was still considered a novelty. Somehow, I wanted to have ready access to tasty ramen like the delicious-looking stuff I saw on that movie screen.
It took a few more years until I had the opportunity to actually eat a proper bowl of ramen, and I had to go to Japan to do it. But it was worth the wait. Good ramen is superlative soul food: Delicious, hearty, soothing, and so much more.
Yet Japan is far away, even when you live in San Francisco.
A decade ago, you had to drive waaaaay down to the South Bay to get a good bowl of ramen. More recently, San Francisco has enjoyed something of a ramen boom, as general awareness of the Joy of Ramen has slowly permeated our local food culture. For a while, Katana Ramen, downtown, was the only ramen gig in town. Then, a few more ramen places opened in the Richmond. Then, ramen came to the hipster zones of The Mission, north of 18th Street. Your Bernalwood editor tried most of it, and much of it was pretty good, so that in due course, my ramen cravings could be satisfied with only a short car trip across town. We even had a ramen pop-up for a brief while on Cortland, though it was only available one day a week, and it didn’t last for long.
Yet there has not been a place where I could well and truly live the ramen dream that has beguiled me for these many years: To be able to get a decent bowl of ramen, within convenient walking distance from my home, without too much fuss, pretty much whenever the mood hits me.
Coco Ramen opened a few months ago at at 3319 Mission Street, in a former head shop next door to Crazy Sushi, near 29th. Your Bernalwood editor has eaten at Coco Ramen three or four times since then, and I’m here to tell you that it’s it’s a big win for Bernal Heights.
Let’s get the caveats out of the way: No, Coco’s Ramen isn’t the best ramen in San Francisco. Yes, it’s connected to Crazy Sushi, which means the owners and staff are all Chinese. No, they don’t really have much in the way of idiosyncratic regional styles or exotic gourmet ingredients.
None of this is really meant as a ding. San Francisco is currently flush with fancy-schmancy ramen, yet Coco Ramen is simply a very solid neighborhood ramen joint; equivalent to a something a Japanese commuter might be quite content to find near the local train station. Simple. Reliable. Convenient. Affordable. Spiritually rejuvenating.
Here’s a bowl of Coco Ramen’s tonkatsu broth:
The broth is rich, fragrant, and flavorful, which is the most important thing. The noodles are springy and properly cooked. The smoked egg is excellent. The chashu roast pork slices are a weak link, but not terrible. Overall, pretty good!
Coco’s Ramen enjoys a very respectable four-star rating among the crankypants critics on Yelp. One reviewer ate there a few days ago, and he gets it just right:
I’m not a ramen snob but do frequent the good spots like dojo, parlor, santoukas, and orenchi. That said the ramen here is pretty good. They aren’t that fancy but do offer no/regular/black garlic options and have a good assortment of toppings. Their soft boiled egg is great! The braised pork belly is awesome too. One qualm I have is that, seeing as the owners are Chinese, there are clearly some Chinese rather than Japanese flavors, especially in the braised pork belly. It tastes like a traditional Chinese clay pot pork belly (which I love) but seemed a bit of a misfit in the ramen.
The chicken karaage likewise had a Chinese popcorn chicken taste to it.
Price was fine at $11.50 a bowl average.
Overall: 3.5 stars. Rounding down for the odd tastes, but still very delicious!
Boom. Exactly. The ramen at Coco does not disappoint, but the results from the other dishes on the menu can be uneven. The gyoza is quite good. The yakitori not so much. Grilled shishito peppers are meh.
But who cares! The point is, I can now walk out of my front door, and 10 minutes later find myself sitting in a perfectly cozy little ramen joint, ordering a perfectly respectable bowl of ramen, with no driving or airfare required, for lunch or dinner (any day but Tuesdays).
It took three decades for all these pieces to fall into place for me.
But now Coco Ramen is here in Bernal Heights, and my humble dream is fulfilled. Good ramen. In my neighborhood. Pretty much whenever I want.