One of LA’s Best Ramen Bowls Is Totally Vegan
Its wildly tasty broth—thickened with sunflower seeds—and its sinewy, pork-like oyster mushroom nubs are so good that it just might make you give up pork.
A great bowl of ramen knows no dietary bounds.
Rahul Khopkar knows this as the chef behind the four-month-old, 16-seat Ramen Hood stall at Grand Central Market in downtown LA. And you may soon confirm this yourself as you slurp his stupidly decadent, glossy, umami-filled tonkotsu broth, complete with a perfectly runny egg yolk and eggy noodles—which happens to be 100-percent vegan.
You can thank Khopkar's stint at noma for this eerily pork-like but animal-free ramen.
Its wildly tasty broth is thickened with sunflower seeds. Its sinewy, pork-like brown nubs are actually flash-fried, roasted fat-stemmed oyster mushrooms.
And the runny egg yolk? Direct spherification by way of sodium alginate.
"When I was at noma, there were 24 courses on the menu and 19 of them were vegetarian, so cooking here isn't that different—it's all about how you think about things," Khopkar says as I slurp his spicy ramen and try to keep myself from doing backflips because it is so damn good. "It's all about approach: When you limit yourself, that's when you can really come up with new and different things."
Khopkar credits this philosophy for helping him to develop the unique formula for the ramen. "Being at noma forces you to look at things differently. They limit themselves to what is readily available around the restaurant; and in a similar way, we limit ourselves by only cooking vegan food."
He may have just created the perfect broth for LA, because it's a way lighter, plant-based tonkotsu-style broth that I can see Goop eventually ripping off.
Khopkar knows all about the benefits of a plant-based diet, but he is is not a vegan or vegetarian, and it doesn't sound like he aspires to be one. "There are certain things that I love too much that I would never give up," he tells me when I ask if he would ever consider turning vegan. In fact, some of his favorite ramen spots in the state—including Tsujita Annex in LA and Ramen Dojo in San Mateo—are 100-percent not vegan.
He fell into this gig after receiving a call from his old boss, Ilan Hall of The Gorbals, one night after a 16-hour day at noma. "I've always wanted to open up a ramen shop but I never thought it was going to be vegan," he says as he decides to have a bowl with me. "I've eaten a bowl every day this week."
Khopkar is baffled by the fact that tonkotsu—which is such a heavy, porky, caloric style of ramen—has become so trendy in sunny, sexy LA. "I think shio-style ramen would make so much sense here, yet you can't find one good bowl of shio anywhere in this city." He may have just created the perfect broth for LA, because it's a way lighter, plant-based tonkotsu-style broth that I can see Goop eventually ripping off.
The creamy vegan broth is the byproduct of a sunflower seed risotto that Hall used to have on the menu at The Gorbals. First, Khopkar makes a vegan mushroom dashi. Then he makes a creamy base made with cooked-down onions, roasted sunflower seeds, white miso, and nutritional yeast. Then, he blends both in a blender and adds a little sesame and chili oil.
The most impressive part of Ramen Hood's ramen, however, is its freakishly realistic vegan egg. "Surprisingly, it took us only three iterations to get it to the point where we are happy with it," Khopkar says. The tender whites are made with local soy milk and agar agar, which is poured into an egg mold. The runny yolk is made out of beta carotene, nutritional yeast, B-vitamins, sodium alginate, and black salt. The yolks are frozen, and Khopkar makes a fresh calcium chloride bath every morning to form a skin around every orb. Finally, he dips each into hot water to temper them and keep them from melting at room temperature.
Still, Khopkar is not completely happy with them. "We are thinking about changing the egg yolk to be even higher fat content, but it is a little tricky."
Despite its animal-free menu, Ramen Hood has many regulars who are not vegan—and they seem to love it as much as traditional ramen. "It's funny," Khopkar says. "We've had a couple of people who lived in Japan come and tell us that this is the best bowl of ramen that they've ever had, but I have no illusions that that's true because I've been to Japan and eaten ramen there."
Khopkar says that being a meat-eater gives him an advantage when developing vegan ramen. "It is all about making people who aren't vegan eat it, like it, and not miss the meat component of the dish."
I didn't miss it—nor the food coma that comes after eating a whole bowl of real tonkotsu ramen.
And based on the empty bowls laying in front of every other person sitting at the bar, no one else misses it, either.
This story was originally published in March, 2016.