If you once slurped down plastic cups of the reconstituted stuff when you were broke, you might be shocked to know that nowadays people get very touchy about ramen — not necessarily Japanese people, either. Among the young and the hip, in fact, there are heated debates about where the finest bowl of noodles with pork, miso and soy, or sometimes chicken or veg broth, garnished with eggs, meats, and assorted veggies, can best be enjoyed. In New York, it’s Ippudo — in Los Angeles, Tsujita. For personal and foodie reasons, our family leans toward Ramen Tatsu-Ya in Austin, Texas.
And finally we can sip close to home. Three weeks ago, William Lam, who owns the Saigon mini-empire of restaurants in Santa Barbara and hails from a small village in Vietnam, went way out on a limb and opened a combo ramen and robata (skewered fish and meats) house where Esau’s on Chapala Street used to be. “I just loved Japanese food all my life,” he confessed. “And there was no place to get ramen when I first thought up the idea.”
Originally, the quiet, hardworking restaurateur planned to add the soul-enhancing Japanese soup to his Saigon menus. “But then the landlord [of the Chapala building] asked me if I was interested in opening another Saigon there. I just said, ‘No, I’m going to open a ramen restaurant.’”
The timing was genius. “The first night we opened, I sold out of everything at 8:00,” he said. “We were supposed to stay open until 10! I didn’t really tell anybody; we didn’t even advertise a grand opening. I had to have food for the next day, so we had to close.”
Make no mistake; he was happy. Lam’s ramen (the origin of the soup name is lost, though it’s thought to be Chinese) is meant for a wide taste appeal. “I did a lot of research,” said Lam, who traveled down to Northridge and Hollywood to eat at a number of well-established places. “Most important to me is to make something that everybody will like.” Also, Lam chose not to bring in a Japanese chef. “I’m chef in my restaurants,” he said. “I want to stay on top of everything I serve.”
The results are immediately pleasing, neither too thick nor thin. The broths available include chicken, miso-based, and the traditional fave, pork-bone-stock tonkotsu, ranging from meaty to spicy. There’s also the connoisseur’s delight, tsukemen, which are dry noodles with broth on the side for dipping. Behind the counter, two large pots perpetually bubble, since the stock cooks for 24 hours to reach desired unguency. Lam also offers appetizers and salads.
Lam’s life story is a paragon of the contemporary immigrant’s tale. Born in Bạc Liêu, a small town in Vietnam, Lam’s family moved to Saigon. The North Vietnamese killed William’s father because he worked with Americans during the war, and they seized his mother’s business. William and his brother eventually escaped on a boat with 28 other people who ran out of water after two days but were eventually hauled to Malaysia by Thai fishermen. After two years in a refugee camp — “We lived in a tent all that time” — Lam was sponsored by a New Jersey family.
Lam followed his sister to the West Coast, working in her dry cleaner and eventually owning stores. Then one day his mother asked him, “Why don’t you just start a restaurant? It’s what you like.”
Lam’s Saigon restaurants present a simple, clean, and elegant aesthetic, and Sachi, which means “happy,” is no different. Lam has the eye and heart of an artist, but he runs the small chain of eateries with his wife, Van Vo, based on sheer hard work, acumen, and no vacations. And adaptability, for he’s not sure that the current menu is fixed. “I like to look at the plates when they come back to the kitchen,” he said. “I like to see what people leave behind.” He then modifies what and how much to serve.
Lam knows that people want more than Top Ramen from a cup, that these kids today are sophisticated about soup. “No matter what you serve, you have to ask yourself if you would eat it; then it will be good enough to serve,” he said, applying the Golden Rule to good eats. “You have to do the right thing for the people who come in.”
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, Sachi Ramen & Robata is located at 721 Chapala Street. Call (805) 845-1806.