Mere weeks after the William Tell House trucked their $27 lobster tots to Outside Lands, Valencia Street has one-upped the notoriously expensive music festival with an even more decadent crustacean-centric menu item: a $35 bowl of lobster ramen at Taishoken, of which only 10 are made each day.
The Japanese chain’s second U.S. location opened with welcoming cries of “irasshaimase!” on Thursday in the space that used to be Mau, a new companion to its thriving predecessor in San Mateo’s ramen-laden downtown.
Specializing in tsukemen—a style of chilled noodles from Tokyo that come with warm broth on the side—Taishoken is a moderately upscale, dinner-only affair with a wider range of cocktails and sake than most of its peers.
Ramen inspires cult-like devotion, in part due to its rarefied air of craft and the two full days of simmering required to transform pork bones into tonkotsu broth. Mensho Tokyo in Lower Nob Hill routinely sees long lines, and there was that J-Pop festival in Japantown some years back where people waited up to two hours for an honest bowl of soup.
Well, at San Francisco’s current minimum wage of $16.99, a worker would need to toil for just over two hours in order to afford Taishoken’s most upscale offering, a broth whose exact composition is a jealously guarded secret. Therefore, by the ironclad laws of social media backlash, this mysterious lobster ramen would have to be absolutely incredible, right? Because otherwise ladlefuls of scorn would be coming to a street people are already primed to hate.
And it is thoroughly excellent, a buttery, four-utensil dish (chopsticks, soup spoon, lobster cracker and one of those two-tined seafood forks that evoke both a pinkies-up tea party and a root canal). The broth’s umami element is rounded and soft, the egg is nice and custardy, the noodles don’t go limp as quickly as the menu warns and there’s just enough scallions to cut any residual richness. You won’t need a bib with a lobster on it, and you may not even need the fork, because the tail has been expertly halved for easy access.
Above all, this lobster ramen exhibits restraint. It doesn’t feel like a vulgar con the way gold leaf or truffle oil can be. If anything, the shrimp dumplings under the shell are too low-key and papery, almost as if to have something conspicuously ordinary to keep it all grounded. Granted, you could probably hunt around the aisles at FoodsCo for a dented can of Dinty Moore beef stew marked down to 79 cents and experience a roughly equivalent level of caloric satiation. But this is not a gilding-the-lily situation. It’s almost bizarrely un-showy; it’s just good. Whether it’s $35 worth of good, though, is up to you.
Knowing what restaurants have endured these past two-and-a-half years, your heart does sink a little thinking about the Mission’s other ramen spots, like nearby Ramenwell, Menya Kanemaru (until recently, Orenchi Beyond) and the stalwart Cha-Ya. If the short-ish line of ramen devotees that developed outside Taishoken an hour before its grand opening is any indication, it’ll do fine. But you know what the neighborhood really needs? More places to get dumplings.
665 Valencia St., San Francisco
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]