Ramen restaurant falls short of authentic Japanese cuisine

Kodaiko Ramen & Bar offers takeout, which is considered an “essential service” during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since returning from my summer exchange program in Japan, I’ve been craving a quality bowl of ramen. So I was excited to hear that the owner of the highly rated Sacramento sushi restaurant Kru, Billy Ngo, was opening a ramen restaurant in downtown Sacramento (718 K St.). 

Situated at the edge of Downtown Commons (DOCO), Kodaiko Ramen & Bar is the prime location for a bite before catching the latest event at Golden 1 Center. 

On a brisk Saturday evening, senior Yumi Moon and I braved the downtown parking to visit Kodaiko.

The restaurant is basement-level with only a sign on the door and a neon bowl of ramen announcing its presence. Yumi and I felt as if we were descending into a set from the 2013 movie “The Great Gatsby.” The dim lighting, exposed brick and creative murals on the wall accentuated the modern, cool atmosphere. 

“I feel like this is the place I would come to if I was to eat out with my coworkers,” Yumi said as our hostess seated us. 

To start, we ordered the korokke takoyaki ($10) and Brussels sprouts dengako ($8). Yumi and I were both excited about the takoyaki, a doughy octopus ball usually eaten during Japanese festivals, but when they arrived around 10 minutes later, we were surprised.

The takoyaki was filled with potato and “disappointing.”  (Photo by Emma Boersma)

“You’re not supposed to deep-fry it, so I’m a little confused,” Yumi said.

Despite the breach in tradition, the crispy shell made for a pleasant biting experience. 

The inside, however, was extremely disappointing. 

“They don’t have octopus,” Yumi noted. 

Actually, they did: a few small slices of tentacle buried in the obscene amount of potato. This was not the takoyaki we knew and loved, nor was it a new take on a favorite. It tasted like a large french fry — and not in a fun way. Yumi and I agreed that it was not worth $10.

Next, we tried the pan-fried Brussels sprouts, which arrived just after the takoyaki. They were served alongside a dish of peanut sauce and seemed to have no fun (or not-so-fun) surprises — which, contrary to the takoyaki, were their downfall. While the Brussels sprouts didn’t taste bad, they definitely didn’t taste like an $8 dish. In fact, they were so simple, I could’ve cooked them myself — and I’m a terrible cook. As with the takoyaki, Yumi and I agreed they were not worth the cost.

The Brussels sprouts tasted like something one could make at home and was not worth its price. (Photo by Boersma)

Before we could reluctantly finish off the Brussels sprouts, our ramen arrived. 

Yumi ordered the tonkotsu-gyokai ($11), or pork and fish broth, with the ajitama ($2.50), or seasoned, soft-cooked egg. 

I got the spicy mushroom paitan ($11.50), a vegan broth primarily made with cashew cream, and a scoop of house-fermented sambal (an Indonesian chili paste), as well as the ajitama. 

Again, I was displeased about the price. Typically, $11 for a bowl of ramen seems reasonable, but at Kodaiko, basic toppings such as nori (seaweed) were omitted in favor of odd ones such as leafy greens. Some toppings, such as chashu (pork belly), were an extra $4, which, including my ajitama, would’ve brought my bowl to $18, an abnormally high price. 

But seeing my beautiful bowl of ramen made me hopeful that the cost would be worth it. 

Boersma digs into the takoyaki. (Photo by Yumi Moon)

After stirring the aesthetically separated oil into the broth, Yumi and I eagerly dug in … and were immediately let down. 

Rather than characteristically chewy, the noodles were soft, something especially important considering that they sit in hot broth. Although our waitress explained that the noodles were not made in-house (rather, they were shipped from Los Angeles), it seemed to us that Kodaiko had committed a huge faux pas. 

“I feel like that’s the whole point of ramen,” Yumi said.

I agreed: Soft ramen isn’t really ramen. 

The noodles can make or break any bowl of ramen, especially when the bowl is as pricey as this one, and unfortunately, these noodles didn’t make the cut. 

The spicy mushroom paitan’s vegan broth was surprisingly rich. (Photo by Boersma)

Next, we broke open our egg, which was soft-boiled and gooey on the inside.

“It’s a little overcooked,” Yumi said, “but I feel like it doesn’t hinder the taste.”

Usually, because of its sweet taste and soft texture, the egg is my second favorite part of ramen — next to the noodles, of course. While Kodaiko nailed the texture, it missed the taste, and the egg was underwhelming for its price.

Following the egg, Yumi and I sampled the broth. According to our waitress, the broths are house-made, so we were expecting great things. 

The first thing we noticed was its thickness. The broth was rich and heavy, which Yumi said she “was digging.” 

On the other hand, it lacked a strong flavor, particularly Yumi’s pork and fish broth. Yes, it was salty and fatty, but it lacked a strong punch of pork, for example, to keep the palate engaged. Also, the fish was overpowering for a few mouthfuls before dying down to nothing.

Moon takes her first bite of her ramen. (Photo by Boersma)

My vegetarian broth, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Like Yumi’s, mine was rich and fatty despite lacking actual animal fat. Although I encountered the same want of flavor, I was so impressed by the vegan broth’s richness that I didn’t care. 

I did care, however, about the spiciness. The sambal (Indonesian chili sauce) I had mixed into my broth offered not an extra layer of flavor but an uncomfortable kick to the back of the throat. 

“That’s not the kind of spiciness I’m looking for when I order spicy ramen,” Yumi agreed. “I like it when I taste the spiciness, not when it hurts my throat. I only drank a spoonful, but it’s hurting my throat.”

Luckily, this issue is easily solved by ordering the non-spicy version. 

But even my impressive vegan broth couldn’t salvage the ramen.

“I don’t feel satisfied with this meal,” Yumi said. “I only finished it because it was expensive, and I don’t like to waste food.”

I couldn’t help but agree. Usually, after a bowl of ramen, I feel warm and content. Instead, my stomach hurt from the spice, and I had no satisfying flavor on my tongue to justify it. The noodles filled me, but not because I enjoyed eating their limp forms. In fact, I might’ve enjoyed myself more slurping some instant ramen at home.

The tonkotsu-gyokai broth lacked a strong flavor. (Photo by Boersma)

Yumi agreed, adding, “The more I eat it, the more I think that the ramen I’d buy at the store would be better than this. There’s nothing special about this.”

Perhaps it was our fault for having such high expectations. After all, we had both been to Japan, the birthplace of ramen. Perhaps comparing a Sacramento ramen place to a Japanese one is like comparing a high school athlete to a professional.

So although Kodaiko is by no means traditional, authentic Japanese cuisine, for the general Sacramento demographic, it’s a winner.

To end on a good note, Yumi and I ordered the warm chocolate mousse ($8), which, according to our waitress, is made in-house. It comes with blood orange sorbet and is sprinkled with chocolate cookie crumble.

This was absolutely our favorite dish. The mousse was exceedingly soft — almost pudding-like in texture. 

“I didn’t think that sorbet and chocolate mousse would go together, but I honestly really like it,” Yumi exclaimed.

Moon is pleasantly surprised by the pudding-like mousse. (Photo by Boersma)

The light fruitiness of the sorbet clashed perfectly with the rich chocolate of the mousse, and the cookie crumble offered a juxtaposing crunch.

If you have high expectations of Japanese food, avoid this place. But if you want a hip place to chat with coworkers or friends, Kodaiko is highly recommended.

— Emma Boersma

Originally published in the March 17 edition of the Octagon.