Our series continues where we ask novelists to dine out, then write us something that 1) is a restaurant review; 2) is not a restaurant review.
Tsujita’s ramen is meant to be eaten in stages. You begin with the tsukemen, a dipping ramen which arrives in two bowls: one of chukamen noodles, the other of rich tonkotsu pork broth. The dish should first be experienced unadorned: savoring flavor and texture, grasping a few fresh, springy noodles with your chopsticks and dipping them into the soup. When your mind begins to wander, it’s time to move to the next iteration of the dish. A squeeze of lime (Japan’s vinegary sudachi is hard to find in the states) gives the noodles a sharp citrus tang that cuts the fatty broth. The dish blooms as you manipulate slight elements to change its character. Once you tire of that, you may sprinkle the chef’s spice blend onto the noodles, sharpening the dish. And then, once you’re nearly done, the staff returns to refill your soup bowl with water, thinning it from a meaty main course to the culinary equivalent of a denouement.
It’s the kind of pure experience that almost can’t be looked at directly, and so I usually bring a book. Today’s choice is Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls, as richly textured as the meal before me. Cracking the novel’s spine, I splay it against the condiments as I wait for my food to arrive. The scene I’m reading, about two girls shoplifting from a drugstore, takes on the smells and sounds of the noodle shop. The girls wander the aisles under a scent of tonkotsu simmered for 60 hours. While I’m at home, or at work, reading or staring into space, it’s good to know that somewhere, a soup is doing the work of becoming more delicious.
I’m deep in the story. A waitress calls out to the cook in Japanese as the girl shaves her head in the drugstore bathroom, ignoring the cop outside. A bowl of noodles is slid under my nose. The other girl chooses a pack of gum to throw at the cashier, hitting her square in the chest. A bit of broth—rich enough that it could hold a spoon aloft at room temperature like a fatty lake—splashes out with the introduction of a noodle and dots the page with golden brown pearls as I eat. The girls are escorted to police cars.
Fellow solo diners flank me at the bar, most similarly absorbed in small comforts, lowering their heads to meet their meals. “Do you know how to eat this?” the waiter asks the woman beside me. She nods and is left to her broth, speckled with chunks of slow-cooked meat and a seasoned egg which has achieved the perfect soft-boiled give when breached with a set of chopsticks. It’s hard not to watch. But when she notices me, I go back to my reading.
Tsujita slept on a piece of cardboard as he waited for his broth to set up. He tried different materials and formulations. He once climbed into an empty stock pot to find out what it felt like to be soup.
“I would make a huge mess,” says the woman to my left, gesturing toward my book.
The cooling broth makes odd ladybug-shaped daubs of punctuation across the page. “I kind of am making a mess,” I say, without looking up. In the book, the girls sit in the drunk tank, pretending to be prostitutes to seem tough, making up their rates. Twenty-five to touch it, one of them says, and the others laugh and call her a virgin.
“I can’t eat too much,” the woman says. “I have a date tonight and I don’t want him to be able to tell.” She tells me she’s going to his house because he’s cooking something, he’s a great cook, and so she likes to go over to his house for their dates. She should be hungry when she gets there. I picture her on a date with Takehiro Tsujita, the shop’s chef and owner, who once told LA Weekly the story of how he long pursued his dream for the perfect bowl of ramen. At the washoku he helped manage as a teenager in Tokyo, he would get to work in the kitchen once the others had left around midnight. On those late nights, Tsujita slept on a piece of cardboard on the floor as he waited for his broth to set up. He tried different materials and formulations. He once climbed into an empty stock pot to find out what it felt like to be soup. This woman, lit by a single lamp swinging on a velvet rope, might sit at a table while he lined up bowls of ramen and broth, one after another, watching her intently while she ate, rolling a sudachi fruit between his palms.
She pushes her bowl away, leaves cash on the table. A busser arrives to clean her space before she’s out of the building. On my right, one of the waitresses sits down with her own two bowls, wiping up each tiny spill fastidiously with a paper napkin as she eats. My book forgotten, my eyes dart instead to this act of constant watchful cleaning, performed with her left hand while the right works her chopsticks.
The waitress on her break folds her first napkin and takes another without breaking stride on her food. One of the other customers gets her attention. He asks her for something behind the bar and she stands without complaint. I think about how, when I went for breaks at the sporting goods store where I once worked as a cashier, I would regularly hide from people in a room where they kept mateless shoes. Sometimes I would sneak into a tent on the sales floor, curling up on a bedroll. Before I was fired from a different retail job, cashiering again, I used to spend every moment off-duty in the bathroom, my feet braced against the stall door—unless I was eating my lunch, at which point I would crouch by the payphones like a feral dog. By some logic of retail, even simple questions at such a time were an utter affront to reason. A woman asking where to find the diapers may as well have been spiking her child on the tile.
Dining alone, like dying alone, is totally underrated.
When the waitress returns with a beer for the man, he thanks her and she bows slightly as she moves her bowls and re-seats herself to my left, by the wall. I would lift my bowl to touch hers in solidarity if I didn’t distinctly feel how much she wanted to be left to her meal. Dining alone, like dying alone, is totally underrated.
Once all that remains of my soup are a few segmented noodles floating in the broth at the bottom of my bowl, a waiter returns to refill it with hot water, thinning the broth, the last course drawn from previous. I know that slurping is a compliment, a sign of satisfaction. In order to show I’m physically and emotionally sated from each soupy layer of this experience, I should take it a step further: resting my face flat on the bar, listening to the others eat and leave and sit and eat, as I wait for the waitress to finish her own meal, place her warm hand on my back, and tell me it’s time to go.
Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle, 2057 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. Telephone: 310-231-7373. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.