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Call it what you want; its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Takeshi Murakami romantically named it Foo Foo Tei (風風亭) “The Wind Pavilion.” The Zip Code belongs in the glitzy Hacienda Heights’ numerology; but the venue is at 15018 Clark Avenue, near Turnbull Canyon, a half-rural half industrial commune. Drive by at more than 15 MPH and you’ll miss it, as we have done a number of times. It has limited parking; a “B” rating; a totally unpretentious décor like a hole-in-the wall in an early Showa Tokyo backstreet. But, Ah...the food, THE FOOD! …and how they treat you!

The menu’s forte is RAMEN…all thirty-some varieties of it, supported by over thirty more traditional a-la-carte choices, and at least forty hoshimono appetizers, plus assorted drinks.

—I can modify each listed ramen with a couple of variables, says Chef Murakami; and if you press me, I’ll throw a fourth variant with exotic ingredients like lobster. Just ask me. Let’s see, that would be more than 120 plus specialties.

I ask him if he could also make my favorite, yaki soba, crispy noodles.

—It might make the place too greasy, too messy… rather not.

Well, that was then…More about it later.

In the traditional restaurant listings, Foo Foo Tei rates “four-and-a-half stars.” However for many critics, its fare, style and hospitality merit a top 5+. It’s always packed, and the wait for service may hang between fifteen and thirty minutes. “Mostly young people,” observes my wife. A vast collection of manga and paperbacks, risqué included, lessen the austerity of the vigil. (Oh, well, anything to keep waiting clients cheery.)

So, you got your seat, and your eyes wander about the room, a modular place you can change to fit any incoming crowd: Hmm! The din of chats in Chinese, Viet, Tagalog and even Spanish, is enhanced by a modicum of slurping. The latest Japanese pops, playing uninterruptedly, break through the occasional silence.

Chef Murakami sports a white coat and samue—Japanese work clothes—to keep his substantial body mass in comfort; and to protect his Japanese image his outfits are simply outstanding. I asked him why he chose ramen. It happened during his university days, in Tokyo. He began as a fast-order cook, but his teacher soon recognized his capabilities and suggested to choose a specialty. Still interested in serving dozens of people, he chose noodles. Through his association with other Asian students, he began experimenting with ramen, and decided to give it a creative try with recipes his teacher and other Chinese and Vietnamese chefs taught him. The list of his specialties at Foo Foo Tei shows his accomplishments. You can order from the simple “miso” or “shio ramen” to the complex “Menudo ramen,” a purely Chinese concoction, which with a little hominy added could pass for Mexican. (That’s “variants”, for you.)

Was ramen a delicacy given to Earth by one of our ancient deities? No way! The Chinese pulled it out somewhere, sometime, perhaps under the name of lamian (拉麺), hand-stretched noodles. By 1657 when Tokugawa Mitsukuni of the Mito branch became involved with the history project Dai Nihon shi (Great Japan History,) ramen was already in Japan.1 However, we don’t know whether Mitsukuni ate it to save time, or to relieve boredom during his history-writing marathon. Under the name shina soba, you’d find it onlyin a Chinatown restaurant in Kobe, Tokyo or Yokohama. Later, other places began offering it too. And in time, and through political correctness, it acquired the chuka soba (中華そば) rubric.2

Ramen’s first popularity leg happened during the Taisho Era (1912-1926). The impatient and time-conscious Edoko must have pushed it into the realm of fast-foods, as they did with sushi. And, as Edo goes so does the Nation, soon every Japanese region threw its hat on the ramen ring. By now, there are about 80,000 ramen-ya in Japan…and growing! The 1987 film Tampopo gave us a good picture of Japanese ramenia… and may have triggered a similar addiction here at home.

No longer is the dish constrained to a bowl of noodles swimming in chicken or pork stock, and covered with the traditional kombu (seaweed), onions or katsuobushi, bonito flakes. Chefs have imprinted on it their own signatures adding tonkatsu, fried pork; shiitake mushrooms; beef bones, and shrimp in chili sauce. Regional specialties now include Yokohama’s Ie-kei; Hakata; Kitakata; Sapporo; Nagasaki’s champon; Tsuke-men—dipping noodles; and the blistering Curry ramen; Shin-shin and Tan-tan men, served with a stand-by firemen’s brigade on guard.

In 1958, lightning struck the ramen scene. Mr. Momofuku Ando (1910-2007), founder of Nissin Foods, flooded the market with his star product Chikin Ramen (チキンラーメン) that became an instant success. Dubbed later Topu-ramen:Top Ramen, and ultimately Capunuduru: Cup Noodles, the product attained the distinction of being considered in a serious public opinion poll, as the Japanese best invention of the 20th Century.3 At least, in economic terms, the public is right; in 2008, people devoured over 8 billion individual packets of the stuff. Nissin Foods, with offices in many countries, including one here in Gardena, grosses yearly an estimated $2.7 billion dollars.

Once you launch a successful product, someone—or a bunch of someone’s—will challenge it with a competing clone. So, now you’ll find instant noodles from Korea, China, the U.S, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and heaven knows where else under different names.

It is natural to think that packaged ramen be something mainly for the Asian-Pacific palate. So how come tortillas, frijoles and tacos, common fare for the Mexican people, have surrendered their sombrero to the honorable Japanese invader, Maruchan-Nissin’s rival?4 Since wagging tongues have already dubbed Mexico “Maruchan Nation,” you can imagine the vexation of the original creators of the instant noodle.

Given the popularity of ramen, and the traditional practices of our modern generation, it is not surprising to find that a ramen Museum has already been created. It is the Shin-Yokohama RaumenHakubutsukan5, a food amusement park operating at Kohokuku, in Yokohama. What’s really surprising is that in 2004, ramen hit New York, with fury. Now top Japanese ramenya chains keep opening elegant eateries all over Manhattan and environs. And since early 2007, ramen has been doing its thing in-of all places – Paris! Cheap food? Stop dreaming…How about $15.00 a bowl in Manhattan?6

Going back to ramen in Los Angeles, you can find here (2009) three-hundred and eleven eateries offering many specialties. Naturally, the list includes Chinese, Korean, Hawaiian, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese places using the noodle. However, at least five Italian, three Fusion, four Mexican, and one Salvadoran places have also jumped on the ramen wagon.

I’ve seen several members of our East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center visiting Foo Foo Tei, and knowing how food-fussy some of them can be, I deduce that they found the place easily, and are happy with its fare. Like many others, they also take home their nokorimono—doggie bag—of course to practice mottai nai, help the green movement, or merely enjoy it later at home, at TV time. That noodles may get a bit soggy matters little…less work for the hungry jaws. Like many college students and harried homemaking engineers have already done, you’ll find that ramen can be a life saver, sometimes literally.

And what about Yaki-soba at Foo-Foo-Tei? Way back in the Showa era, the tsuma and I used to lunch at a little Chinese place near Asagaya station, where they made the best yakisoba in, the world. Since then, I’ve tried to find something similar, without success. Perhaps my constant badgering led Murakami-san to relent. One Sunday last November, coming back from Mass at Maryknoll, we found a brand new menu listing yakisoba. So give it try! Crisp, broad, golden brown wide noodles form the base, topped by an incredible mix of vegetables, seafood and meat, in thick gravy that thrills your palate. Asagaya, you are now second best.

To get a better hold on the noodle, go to your public library and choose at least one title on ramen and its lore. For example: Ron Kozak’s The Book of Ramen; Toni Patrick’s 101 Things to do with Ramen; Andy Raskin’s Ramen Book, or Eric Hites Everybody Loves Ramen…or simply pick Murakami-san’s brain blank. And, if so inclined, just “google” ramen, and you’ll get a lot of fun with its 10,900,000 entries.

Butter corn ramen at Asa Ramen, Gardena (Photo: Vicky Murakami-Tsuda)


1.See “Ramen”- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

2. Please beware, because when asking for “chukka soba” you may be served a delicious dish of crispy fried soba, as it happened to me when I ordered it at a Chinese restaurant in Asagaya,

3.BBC News & Japanorama, April 9/2007

4. According to the Daily Journal, Maruchan, headquartered at Irvine, CA. commands an impressive 85% of the Mexican packaged noodle market.

5. “Raumen” is the term chosen by the museum creators to identify the product.

6. Adam Goldman; Associated Press-7-11-08.


*This story, now updated, first appeared in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in May 2009.

© 2009 Edward Moreno

california food Hacienda Heights noodles ramen restaurant