Yes, Bakersfield finally has its own izakaya.
No, that’s not a car model. It’s a small Japanese pub with food, and Hon Ramen, our first, opened in the space downtown that has been home to a few sushi places in recent years. They still have sushi, which we spurned on our visit to sample the oriental equivalent of small plates and soups that mark such establishments back in the home country. They originated as a way to serve snacks to people drinking sake, sometimes standing up, sometimes on mats, and one feature Hon Ramen has continued is pictures of the food on the menu, which one of my companions confessed is an attractive feature to her.
“You see what you’re getting,” she noted, though in my mind I recalled countless U.S. TV commercials, particularly for fast food, where the photography art is far superior to the culinary art.
These places can be like a working man’s pub, an Irish pub, even. And the menu here has the standards you can expect are present on the list of 11 appetizers, such as the karaage ($6), edamame ($3.50) and yaki gyoza ($7) that one of my companions ordered. Another ordered the vegetable ramen ($11) — lots of good veggie choices here — and I settled on the beef sukiyaki bowl ($10) as well as panko shrimp ($5.50) from the appetizer list.
Let’s start with those shrimp. Panko is a word tossed around far too much, and I’ve sampled panko fried items that weren’t close to tempura or near the airy/crispy/light textural impression good panko is supposed to leave. The three shrimp were the most perfect panko creations I’ve sampled in a decade, and I tried to convince my companions they must sample it as something this exemplary may never pass our way again. No one debated it.
The edamame, the standard boiled soy beans, inspired a debate. One companion thought edamame always had fishy notes. I thought it always had a generic vegetable taste that is perfect with a cold draft Kirin ($4), which I had ordered. The other companion listened but said nothing, and managed to work through the rest of the edamame, which has become a passion of hers.
As will the karaage in the future, a marinated deep fried chicken cut into chunks and strips that was a huge favorite of the late Anthony Bourdain. Think unprocessed chicken nuggets with a light batter, and the version here is super crispy, the marinade a subtle mix of rice wine and soy sauce that does not overwhelm the natural chicken flavor. The gyoza was similarly impressive, with a stuffing of ground pork, chicken and vegetables inside noodles that were perfectly crisp on one side and moist on the other. Potstickers for the ages you might say.
My bowl featured slow-braised beef sukiyaki with lots of caramelized white onions and mushrooms on top of steamed rice, with pickled carrot strips and another staple of izakaya joints, deep-fried tofu patties, sometimes called agedashi. You can get those on the appetizer menu if you wish, as well as another izakaya staple, tsukemono (house-made pickled radish and tomato). There were chopped green onions on top of my bowl to finish it. It felt like a complete meal.
My companion chose the vegetable ramen of the four choices due to a growing affection for vegetable broth, which we’ve found so useful in our kitchen. It didn’t disappoint. The veggies were carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, onions, mushroom and more fried tofu. The thin noodles were al dente. The three other ramen bowls are made with a pork broth, and I'll bet the one with spicy garlic will grace our table in the future, if we can avoid all the other food we were impressed by on this visit.
For the record, we didn’t stand or sit on mats. There are plenty of conventional tables and booths to the right as you enter. There are a lot of TVs on the wall, a blond wood shiplap treatment that seems inviting and alcohol prices are working man reasonable, drafts $4 and large bottles $8 to $9. Wines by the glass are $6 to $10.
Hon Ramen is different than so many other Japanese restaurants we already have, and can be recommended for a fine dining experience.