When he was searching for a place for Taishoken’s second U.S. location, owner Yoshihiro Sakaguchi scoured the San Francisco Bay Area for two years for a space where he could make its noodles in-house in an open kitchen layout for diners to sneak a peek.
But that window between the back of the house and the guests serves another purpose. It allows Sakaguchi and his staff to spy on the first reaction diners have when they taste their bowl of noodles.
“Impact is really important,” Sakaguchi said in Taishoken's dining room at 665 Valencia St. in San Francisco’s Mission District. “You pick up the noodle, dip it in the sauce, and the first bite is important. The flavors, the smell and the texture.”
Taishoken’s specialty is tsukemen (pronounced sue-keh-men), which consists of cold buckwheat noodles topped with roast pork and a marinated soft-boiled egg. The unctuous soup, a salty, slightly fishy elixir, is served on the side to dip the noodles into.
The dish itself was invented in 1961 at the original Taishoken, his grandfather’s restaurant back in Japan. It started as a staff meal made of cold leftover noodles in the strainer, dipped in the last dredgings of soup. Customers saw the meal and asked to try it out—thus, a new offshoot of ramen came into the world.
Sakaguchi has updated his family recipe for American eaters. For example, the broth is richer and saltier than the relatively light version in his family’s restaurant back in Tokyo.
He said he still gets a headache when customers dump the bowl of soup into the noodles and has added an instructional guide to the restaurant’s menus that explains the proper dipping technique and order of operations.
Kazuya Tsuda has been the San Francisco restaurant’s ramen chef since it opened in August 2022 and has been working in ramen restaurants around the world for the better part of a decade. As opposed to traditional tonkotsu ramen—which he believes is more focused on the soup—tsukemen is all about the noodles.
Temperature, weather and humidity all play a role in how long the noodles cook to reach the desired consistency, Tsuda explained as he continually tested the texture with his fingers as they boiled. The broth takes two days of simmering in a massive pot before being fortified with fish, soy sauce and other flavorings for tsukemen.
“Sometimes I dream about making soup; I’m like, ‘Let me just get some sleep,’” Tsuda said with slight exasperation. “All I think about is ramen.”
Ever since visiting a New York ramen shop as a study-abroad student, Sakaguchi’s long-held ambition was to bring a branch of his family’s Tokyo restaurant to the United States. He first arrived in San Francisco in 2016 as the manager for Mensho, another Japanese ramen export.
In 2019, he was able to open the first U.S. Taishoken location in Downtown San Mateo. The restaurant was a near-immediate success—until the pandemic hit, forcing the business to cut staff and pivot to delivery and meal kits.
Covid, according to Sakaguchi, has permanently changed the restaurant industry. For one, it has made delivery and takeout a pillar of the business. His team has developed ways to try and preserve the quality of the ramen, like putting oil on the noodles to keep them from sticking in transit. The pandemic has also made him, as an entrepreneur, more resilient and ready to face the next black swan event.
“The most important thing is the business is still alive,” Sakaguchi said.
Compared with San Mateo, San Francisco comes with unique challenges for small business owners. For one, the virtual army of health, fire and building inspectors who often give him conflicting advice. A recent fire inspection forced him to change the material in his signage. Asked why, he just shrugged.
In the last few months, a string of prominent restaurant closures have hit San Francisco’s Mission District, including Gracias Madre, Media Noche and Rosamunde. Many restaurateurs have pointed to steep declines in revenue as diners eat out less and spend less when they do.
Sakaguchi is not immune from those challenges. His sales in San Francisco are only around half of his San Mateo location, and foot traffic and customer rushes are inconsistent. Ever the optimist, he said he’s looking forward to the cold weather.
“We’re a ramen restaurant, so I think the winter’s going to be busy,” Sakaguchi said with a smile.
When Sakaguchi’s parents visited the restaurant for the first time, his mom burst into tears and his father tried to suit up to work the line in the kitchen. He plans to open another location in South Bay next year and a fourth the year after.
What keeps him going is the opportunity to share his family’s pursuit of the perfect bowl of ramen with the world.
“I learn more each time I make it; it’s about always improving,” Sakaguchi said. “You never get there, but that’s the fun.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at email@example.com