NOTE: For restaurant reviews in San Diego Magazine, I visit at least twice, sometimes three or four times. There are many reasons for this (a cook might’ve called in sick or hungover, staff may be moody due to personal or political reasons). “Rapid Review” is an impression of a restaurant after just one visit. Not as in-depth. But I believe it still has value. After all, most people form their impression of a restaurant after one visit.
You can feel the ghosts in here. Hillcrest used to be the place for restaurants. That was a while ago. Now it dips them in high rent and eats them alive. Restaurateurs have fled in droves to North Park, Little Italy, to the corner of Anywhere and Else.
It’s a great, historic San Diego neighborhood and spiritual center for San Diego LGBTQ culture. It just needs a couple wins.
Can HiroNori be that win?
Co-owners Hiromichi Igarashi (Hiro) and Tadanori Akasako (Nori) worked at ramen joints in Japan and in the US before opening their own little shop in Irvine in 2017. It blew up. The long lines of customers at the flagship location suggest their ramen is either second-coming caliber, or the good people of Irvine are just overjoyed that something good is happening in Irvine. Now they’ve got locations in Orange County, Long Beach, and Santa Clara.
For their first San Diego spot, they chose a tiny storefront on Fifth Ave that formerly housed an L&L and a Naked Pizza. Like everything in this world, it’s next to a Starbucks.
HiroNori will have to be special to survive. Reportedly their noodles and broths are made in a factory in L.A. That’s not encouraging. Factories in L.A. are fine for making shoes and pop stars, but “craft ramen”?
I start with their crispy chicken. It’s not terribly crispy, but the meat is lavishly plentiful and moist. Make sure to squeeze the lemon on it (essential), and dip it in a fairly excellent spicy sauce—a thick, fresh puree tasting of habaneros. Their pork buns are fine, a little boring and a little sweet with the sauce on the pork belly, although the actual buns—that magical Chinese sorta-bread that tastes like a savory marshmallow—are spot on.
I start mentally writing their obit and then—oh god, I find it. That special thing. The reason for the lines in Irvine. If this part of the city is a vampire, the shoyu ramen is their crucifix. There are four major kinds of ramen: tonkotsu (pork), shio (salt), miso (fermented bean paste), and shoyu (soy sauce). Tonkotsu is almost always the main attraction at ramen shops. And HiroNori’s tonkotsu is very nice. But shoyu is the star.
What makes HiroNori’s so special? Has to be the high quality of the soy sauce they use in their base. Ramen is all about the broth, and ramen broth is all about the base—called tare in Japanese. The base is a signature blend of sauces and seasonings (usually soy, sake, mirin, garlic, miso, etc.). The tare is the heart and soul of ramen, its big bang of flavor. And HiroNori’s tare uses a soy sauce that’s barrel-aged for two years.
In the US, we basically know two kinds of soy sauce—regular, and low sodium. That’s like knowing “red wine and white wine.” Soy sauce can be infinitely complex depending on length of age, whether oak or steel barrels, etc. After WWII left the country with an abundance of steel, many Japanese soy sauce makers started aging in steel tanks. Something is lost with metal; wood barrels are alive, harbor beneficial microbes that develop a richer, more flavorful soy sauce. The practice of aging in wood vessels, called kioke in Japan, is making a comeback.
I ask a HiroNori representative how theirs is aged. She refuses to spill secrets, but does send a photo of wooden barrels. I have to believe this is the secret. Because whatever soy sauce HiroNori is using in their shoyu is intoxicating, deeply flavorful stuff. They mix that with chicken broth (and a little pork broth), add chashu (charred pork belly), scallions, spinach, bamboo, and kaiware sprouts. I wouldn’t doctor it too much. It’s just about perfect as is.
I don’t care if they craft it in an LA factory or in a drug lab. This ramen’s delicious.
HiroNori Craft Ramen, 3803 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest