The savory noodle soup from Japan called ramen rings both the yin and yang bells of the culinary universe. Its soul is inherently simple and accessible — just a rich broth full of hand-cut noodles appealing to most every palate. But that base also serves as a wonderfully blank canvas for today’s epicurean artistes, with various ramen creations featuring everything from black truffles and otherwise bizarre fungi to braised pork belly, seared foie gras, poached quail eggs, and all manner of obscurely cooked meat.
Altogether, ramen is the perfect fodder for a chef showdown, which is why the Goodland Hotel in Goleta is hosting a battle to crown the “Ramen King of Santa Barbara” for the second year in a row, with a portion of the proceeds going toward No Kid Hungry. Last year’s champions from Sama Sama Kitchen will not be back to defend their title, but the returning participants include the Kimpton-owned hotel’s Outpost restaurant, Finch & Fork, Wildwood Kitchen, The Black Sheep, and The Hungry Cat. There are also two new establishments: Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar and Zimzala, a restaurant from Kimpton’s Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach. Those who opt for the $60 VIP tickets also get a ceramic bowl to take home, made by Santa Barbara street artist Armando de la Rocha.
Here, Zimzala’s chef J.T. Walker gives us his perspective on ramen and the showdown.
Tell me about Zimzala. It’s a California-cuisine-style restaurant, with different mixtures of flavor, including Latin and Asian influences. It opened about seven years ago, and I’ve been here for about eight months.
How do you like working for Kimpton? They are very chef-friendly for their restaurant concepts. They treat us like an actual restaurant, not just an amenity for hotel guests.
Do you serve ramen at Zimzala? Not yet, but we plan on doing a one-day-a-week ramen special in 2017.
Is it popular down there? Ramen and pho are both fairly popular around here. There’s a couple ramen joints within five miles of us. On a Friday night, it’s not unlikely to wait for an hour to eat. There’s such a heavy Asian influence in Orange County with Little Saigon and whatnot. You’ve got pho houses all around here, but ramen is starting to get more of a following.
Why are these Asian soups so popular? A lot of people can relate to them because they’re comforting. With ramen and pho, you get to make your own decisions on what to eat. Are you gonna add kimchi to it or corn? It’s a very personalized dish with great components.
What are you making for RamenFest? We’re doing a mushroom base for our broth so we have a vegetarian option for those who are so inclined. Then we have some great accompaniments like caramelized pork belly for those that want that extra richness and meatiness. The broth is going to take about 48 hours. We’re using porcinis and dried forest mushrooms.
Do you have any words of challenge for your fellow competitors? Nick [Bajal, the Outpost chef] and I have been going back and forth with that, but I swore not to do that in public. I’m not setting myself up for failure; sorry.
Will you get to try the other ramens? I hope so. I’m bringing up a crew, so that way I can sneak away at times!
RamenFest is Saturday, November 5, noon-4 p.m., at The Goodland Hotel (5650 Calle Real, Goleta). Tickets are $40-$60. See nightout.com.