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Tonkotsu or Shoyu? Interview with Kirimachi Ramen

In the heart of San Francisco, you find the soul of Classic Tokyo Style Shoyu Ramen.

Born in Indonesia, Leo found his way to San Francisco where he encountered Ramen. Kirimachi Ramen started as a pop-up in 2012 on Broadway street in North Beach: a tiny 30-seat restaurant serving only Tonkotsu Ramen.

The original shop got some publicity and cult followings. For two years, Leo and his wife Febry served one bowl at a time until they moved to the current location at Embarcadero: Bigger and close to many downtown offices and lunch crowds.

When asked about the intimacy of small Ramen shops in Japan, compared to the current bigger location, Leo says, “Personally, I like to see people eat, interact with them and learn how they eat.

In Japan, I think Ramen is food for common people. When the shop is smaller, chefs can focus more on Ramen. Originally, I wanted to open a shop similar to Japanese style, and we couldn’t find any place in San Francisco. It was either big or, well, bigger. So, we just have to approach my customer differently.”

Surely, at Kirimachi Ramen, they approach differently. He makes broth from scratch and noodles from scratch. Leo also offers “customization” which is written on the menu.

“Lots of customers don’t read the menu, but we actually offer choices – less salty or more salty Softer noodles, and so on. They can tell us when they order their Ramen.”

Every day, Leo and Febry get ready to pump out Ramen noodles starting to prep around 8 AM, making broth to serve lunch at 11:30 AM, and continuing on dinner till 7 PM. In the afternoon, Leo tackles the noodle-making machine located at the corner of the restaurant, behind stocked bags of flour.

Not too many Ramen shops in San Francisco make their own noodles, let alone, have a noodle-making machine inside the restaurant. “What’s that machine for?” happens to be the most frequently asked question from customers, according to Febry.

Before he started Kirimachi Ramen, Leo worked as a manager at hotels and also a waiter at a sushi restaurant. He even has MBA. “I always wanted to make Ramen and that is why I started a Ramen shop.” Leo is self-taught. He never worked at a Ramen shop, though, he did attend a one-week Ramen class in Tokyo and learned how to make broth and noodles.

“When I taste food, I can remember the taste. I really like Ramen, so I tasted many Ramens in San Francisco and Japan and can remember what I liked.” During the pop-up years, Leo and Febry made frequent trips to Japan to taste and study Ramen including the Ramen Museum in Yokohama.

There are three Ramen shops I really like in Japan. Taishoken is pretty old-school Shoyu. For Tonkotsu, there is a shop in Fukuoka with no MSG. I like Tsuta in Tokyo, which got one Michelin star. I like their style of soup. I went there before they got the star, waited in the line for almost 5 hours.”

When I tasted Leo’s Yuzu Shoyu Ramen, it was similar to Tokyo style Shoyu Ramen they used to make a few decades ago.

“People like Tonkotsu in San Francisco, so we make Tonkotsu, but my favorite is Shoyu, like the one at Taishoken,” Leo says.

(Kirimachi Ramen Kuro Tonkotsu, 2013)

(Kirimachi Ramen Yuzu Shoyu, 2016)

He says consistency is one of the most important aspects of being a Ramen chef. “The broth and the noodles, we make everything from scratch here.”

They even had their Ramen bowls custom made by a Japanese artist, Thomas Arakawa, who is based in San Jose.

“I had a specific size and color in mind and couldn’t find one at the store and then, I found a bowl by Thomas. It was perfect. After we got the bowls, we found out that the bowls kept the soup warm longer than the ones sold at a store.”

When I asked Leo “What’s next?” he told me about the Ramen class.

“We are teaching people how to make Miso Ramen so that they can make it at home.”

3 Embarcadero Ctr San Francisco, CA 94111

(415) 872-9171

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