Even if you’ve never been on a train in Japan, chances are you’ve heard something about the country’s robust, fastidiously efficient railway system. Japanese trains have long been portrayed in pop culture, from manga to American blockbusters like Bullet Train and indie films like Lost in Translation.
Japan’s impressive rail lines are also a source of delight for tourists—from the unique jingle at each subway stop in Tokyo to the Pokémon character trains that whimsically traverse the islands—as well as a source of envy for people living in cities with dysfunctional public transit like San Francisco.
Fortunately, the Bay Area recently received a delicious consolation prize. JR Ramen Station, a semi-automated restaurant designed to simulate a Japanese train station, is now open and sliding steaming bowls of tonkotsu through cubby holes near Brooklyn Basin in Oakland.
The Standard paid a visit to JR Ramen Station this week and at first blush, we can’t deny the novelty factor of the fast-casual concept. Upon walking through the door, diners are greeted by a television screen displaying an actual Japanese subway map and train arrival announcements playing on a loop—as if you’ve already boarded a train bound for Ramentown.
Otherwise, the restaurant space itself is designed to feel like a train station, with signs pointing to “Ramen-eki” or “Ramen Station” posted throughout the narrow hallway. Two sets of vending machines offer an assortment of Japanese soft drinks and Hello Kitty-branded snacks. The pickup windows emulate Japanese to-go restaurant culture, as well as old-school American automats. From start to finish, there is virtually no human interaction.
The conceit makes sense. Japanese train stations—and specifically ones servicing the high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen—are also celebrated for their delectable to-go meal options. The central station in Tokyo boasts a convenience store selling bountiful bento boxes, some that warm themselves using a built-in heating mechanism. Suffice it to say, Amtrak’s dining car pales in comparison to the food options Japanese train riders enjoy.
But the train station aesthetic does present some questions. The restaurant is branded with a “JR” that’s nearly identical to the Japan Railways logo—presumably an intellectual property lawsuit waiting to happen. We spoke to Bill, a worker servicing the vending machines, who told us he believed the owners are actually from Hong Kong.
Plus, the location, inside a nondescript strip mall called Estuary Cove along Oakland’s semi-industrial Embarcadero, is not likely to draw a ton of foot traffic.
We spoke to a couple of customers who said the train station simulation felt cold and institutional. Christina Taylor, a Monterey resident visiting Oakland, said she passed by the restaurant several times this week and the signage piqued her curiosity.
“It’s not what I expected,” she said. “I don’t want to say sterile, but it does miss a kind of homey, familiar vibe. Interestingly enough, that doesn’t veer you away from trying it.”
Our thoughts exactly. We stepped up to the iPad point-of-sale system and ordered a bowl of black garlic tonkotsu ramen, a nourishing broth made from simmered pork marrow. JR Ramen Station also offers classic and spicy tonkotsu options, as well as a vegetarian shoyu broth.
This is where things get interesting. The iPad spits out a receipt with an order number on it. Minutes later, that number flashes over one of the pickup windows, at which point the fourth wall of automation is momentarily broken when a human arm slides a bowl of ramen into the cubby hole. Finally, a distractingly American-sounding robot voice directs you to “please take the meal.” Bon appetit: Lunch is served.
The black garlic tonkotsu was surprisingly flavorful—the bone broth rich and the pork belly tender. It came with thin noodles, mushrooms, green onions and, of course, the perfunctory half of a soft-boiled egg.
Another customer, Kevin Jang, said this was his second visit to the restaurant.
“I give it a 7 out of 10,” he said. “It’s a bit underwhelming compared to Marufuku and other local places.”
It’s true: The ramen doesn’t quite hold a candle to Bay Area ramen destinations like Mensho or the Ramen Shop in Oakland. Also, the point-of-sale system can be finicky; during our first visit to the JR Ramen Station last week, the iPad interface was on the fritz, and we walked away hungry.
On the upside, this ramen vending machine also won’t break the bank—at least not for those used to paying Bay Area food prices. Where JR Ramen Station’s shoyu costs $15.50, at the Ramen Shop, you’re looking at shelling out $25.
Combine that relative bargain with the dystopian novelty of the place, and JR Ramen Station is likely to lure in train nerds and ramen fanatics alike almost as quickly as the next bullet train crosses the four islands of Japan.