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Genki Ramen

March 21, 2007

For some reason, despite the mostly clear and relatively warm weather we’ve been having in the Bay Area the past several days, Short Exact has gotten into a bit of a noodle soup fix lately. First, it was a Hong Kong noodle soup with those excellent shrimp dumplings. Next up was the Northern Vietnamese-style chicken pho. Having already covered two different nations’ takes on the noodle soup, we turn next to a famous noodle soup of a third nation. Of course, that nation is Japan, and the soup is ramen.

There is an interesting little shop on Clement Street in the Inner Richmond called Genki. This shop is a combination of a crepe place, tapioca milk tea joint, and a convenience store, and it even has a few tables, just in case you would like to eat your crepe at a small cramped table sitting in the middle of a busy doorway. We’ve dropped by that store from time to time for the tapioca milk tea (though we still haven’t ordered a crepe), and so when we first learned that the folks at Genki were going to open a new restaurant devoted to ramen, we knew that we’d have to try it sooner rather than later.

The Genki Ramen restaurant (essentially one long block away from the crepe store — on Geary, not Clement) exhibits a noticeable increase in style over the crepe store on Clement, opting for a more modern design, with TV screens encircling the room to entertain you while you eat. We found the service here to be reasonably helpful and for the most part attentive (our tea cup was mostly kept warm and filled) — perhaps on the inexperienced side, but we were expecting that for a new restaurant. The menu, on the other hand, is more interesting. Most Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area will offer sushi, even if that is not their true specialty, usually because it seems that many people equate Japanese cuisine with sushi. So it is very refreshing to see that Genki Ramen does not offer any sushi, but instead concentrates on ramen and other aspects of Japanese cuisine. Of course, there are several options for ramen (ranging from the traditional chashu pork ramen to crab leg ramen, tempura ramen, chicken karaage ramen, and many others), but there is also a collection of about two dozen grilled robata items of all varieties (fish, meat, and vegetable), in addition to yakisoba noodles, okonomiyaki, and other dishes. However, this entire menu is only available at dinnertime. At lunch, only the ramen and a few small side orders (such as gyoza) are available. Prices for a bowl of soup here are definitely above average (most soup bowls are in the $8-9 range), but the portion sizes are also quite hefty; sharing a bowl of ramen with a friend, combined with a couple of side orders, made for a filling meal.

Actually, we had the opportunity recently to make two separate visits to Genki Ramen: once at dinner, and another time at lunch. Our first visit was at dinner, and we ordered the mabo tofu ramen:

tb_genki_ramen_mabo_tofu.JPG

All in all, this was quite a decent soup. The flavor of the broth was robust, hearty, and spicy, in just the way that you would expect from mabo tofu, although it was also not nearly as subtle a broth as we prefer for ramen. Still, as you see in the photo, the soup is swamped with tofu, and also many bits of some pretty unremarkable pork. The noodles were good though, in that they retained that nice toothsome quality for at least most of the meal. Also interested in sampling the robata, we tried the lamb chop:

tb_genki_ramen_lamb_robata.JPG

The lamb here was very nice: perfectly cooked, the meat was moist and flavorful. It was served with a subtly teasing mint dipping sauce that tasted good on its own, but oddly enough did very little to enhance the lamb. The pairing of lamb and mint is common, but it did not add much to this dish. Still, our first taste of Genki’s robata menu definitely piqued our interest.

Our second visit to Genki Ramen occurred roughly two or three weeks after the first visit, and this second visit was at lunch, so we ordered the lunch special, which consisted of a bowl of ramen and a small side. We chose the shrimp tempura ramen (which also included some pieces of yam tempura),

tb_genki_ramen_tempura.JPG

served with the side order of a pair of gyoza:

tb_genki_ramen_gyoza.JPG

Just as ramen is the Japanese take on Chinese noodles, gyoza is the Japanese take on the Chinese dumpling, and it gets it name from the Chinese word jiaozi. These gyoza were decent: light and flavorful, if somewhat inexpertly constructed. The main event, though, was of course the tempura ramen, and unfortunately, this bowl was not as successful as the soup we ordered at dinner a couple weeks earlier. To be honest, we were a bit worried about how tempura sitting in a bowl of broth would turn out, but we were curious to see what the kitchen would turn out for us, without any interference. Our silence was really a test of the kitchen, to see how well the bowl was arranged, or to see if they would think in advance to put the tempura on the side. However, the tempura was not put on the side, and while the pieces sitting on top of the noodles outside of the broth had a good crunch, the tempura that were partially or completely submerged in the broth immediately took on a mushy, rather unappetizing texture. Unfortunately, about half of the provided tempura fell into the latter category. The tempura itself was not very flavorful, and the batter was way too thick — so the tempura sitting in broth essentially produced tasteless globs of an excessive amount of batter. The noodles were pretty good; they turned too mushy in the middle of bowl, but they at least started off with a good al dente chewiness. The broth? Also pretty good. It did the job and was reasonably tasty, but it was not especially complex. All in all, we didn’t like this ramen as much as we did the mabo tofu, and if we ordered it again, we would definitely ask for the tempura on the side, to curb the mushy batter tendency.

In general, we prefer ramen to be endowed with more serious and traditional Japanese flavors than what Genki is serving. We won’t discount a restaurant simply because it isn’t authentic, but the catch is that there has to be something convincing on the creative/fusion end to make the cuisine more interesting and substantial. Unfortunately, Genki Ramen has not yet followed through with this. The ramen is decent, and you could definitely do worse than Genki, but outstanding ramen is really all about the subtlety, right down to a complex broth; even the way that the ingredients are arranged in the bowl makes a difference. Genki’s soups are tasty, based on what we have sampled, but they are not yet performing at this level. That being said, there is potential, and this is a relatively new restaurant (just a few months old, as of writing this review), so we will continue to follow it from time to time. If nothing else, the general lack of decent ramen in this part of town (which we visit pretty regularly) will most likely bring us back in the future, and we’re hoping to see some improvement as the restaurant settles into its operation with more confidence.

RATING:

COST:

3944 Geary Boulevard (near 4th Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Phone: 415.752.2663
Hours: Daily, 11:30 am – 11:00 pm. (Note: Genki opened just a few months ago, as of writing this review, and in this period of time, the restaurant hours have already fluctuated a few times. It seems that the restaurant might be settling into these hours, but to be on the safe side, you may want to call in advance to double-check.)

Cuisine: Japanese
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond

How to get there: Muni bus lines 1, 2, 4, 31, 33, 38, and 44.

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5 comments

  1. I haven’t had a good crab leg ramen in ages.

    When ordering tempura ramen, ask for the tempura on the side. A number of places serve it this way by default. That way you won’t end up with soggy fried shrimp.


  2. Yeah, I do address this point in the post. I was going to order it on the side, but I was interested to see how it turned out without my saying anything at all. Really, I did it just as test to see how carefully they would arrange the bowl. I’ve had tempura ramen before where the bowl was arranged well enough so that this wasn’t too much of an issue, even with the tempura in the bowl and not on the side. Unfortunately, Genki didn’t pay too much attention to the bowl-arrangement part. (Soggy fried shrimp would also be even less of a problem if the batter on this tempura weren’t too thick, as well.)

    Your comment made me realize that my original wording in this post was a bit unclear, so I’ve reworded that section to be a bit clearer.

    That being said, tempura ramen is not my favorite thing to order anyway. I ended up getting it this time mostly because I was with a somewhat unadventurous friend.


  3. Ahhh … living in the country is grand in so many ways but living in the city is too. I envy the restaurant choices you have and I’ll have to remind myself not to read your blog before I eat lunch. I’m now starving and there’s nothing interesting in the fridge to eat so I’m off to the store but wishing I was dining with you. 🙂


  4. Timethief, what a pleasant surprise! I’m sorry to have exacerbated your starving state, but I hope you find something tasty at the store 🙂 Thanks again for the visit.


  5. How dare they dunk the tempura into the soup! If they do, they need to serve it immediately so it doesn’t get soggy like cereal that has been marinating in milk.



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