San Jose Ramen Yokocho Fest 2014
|Ramen Yokocho Fest 2014, San Jose Convention Center, South Hall, San Jose|
The Ramen Yokocho Fest started in 2013 with the goal of becoming the largest Ramen festival in the United States. They've quickly expanded in their two years and have often been met by jaw-dropping crowds at every venue they've booked, reflective of both how popular ramen has become, but also indicative of the quality of ramen shops that participate, including some of the top ramen shops from Japan and the United States.
2014 was their first stop to Northern California and their visit to San Francisco in July at the J-Pop Summit was met with estimated crowds of up to 100,000 visitors and many complaints of 3 hour long lines, shops running out of noodles, and more.
For their visit to San Jose, the organizers instituted several changes that they hoped would keep the crowds but lead to a happier experience for ramen lovers. These changes included a flat $5 admission charge, a larger indoor/outdoor venue, and ramen express lines tickets (to skip long lines) and VIP admission tickets (with earlier admission) at tiered prices.
The South Hall of the San Jose Convention Center is actually a separate building adjacent to the main Convention Center (blue and white building at 435 South Market Street). Fortunately, it's huge at 80,000 square feet and they've used the inside for memorabilia vendors and dining table and consolidated all the ramen vendors outside.
The San Jose Ramen Yokocho Fest actually runs for two weekends in October (Oct 3-5 and Oct 10-12). The Friday event is particularly interesting because it's scheduled for 4:00 - 9:00 pm, but VIP admission gets you in 1 hour early. The Saturday and Sunday event schedule is from 11:00 am - 9:00 pm.
Due to time constraints, our only ability to attend was going to be the first Friday and we'd have to be done by 4:30 pm at the latest. As the event has had some crazy crowds, I didn't think I'd be able to go for a 4:00 pm opening and be done by 4:30, so I bit the bullet and got some VIP tickets (discounted).
With a 3:00 pm early arrival, I knew that time would still be tough and the clock was ticking as I searched for parking nearby. With over 90 degree weather outside, I headed to the South Hall and imagine my surprise when no one was at the ticketing area at 2:50 pm.
A further hiccup was presented when the San Jose Health Department decided to do a last minute check and delay the opening. It was past 3:00 pm and I wasn't happy. Luckily for us, the organizers tried their best to keep us out of the heat, provided free refreshments, and let us walk around the venue. By 3:15 pm, everything was a go and the Ramen Yokocho Fest was on!
Ramen Tatsunoya was my first stop and the Kyushu, Japan ramen shop has been a favorite of every ramen fest so far. I was first in line and who did I happen to see, but the ramen master himself featured in all the posters.
I ordered two bowls of their Kurume Tonkotsu ramen and it was the best choice I made. Two very nicely sized bowls came out and each was beautiful with thin noodles, rich and creamy tonkotsu broth, and very tasty pork pieces. This was my favorite bowl of the entire event as everything was great.
Next up was Tsujita Tokyo. Though they have a very popular location in Los Angeles, the staff here were from the Tokyo location. I was looking forward to their signature Miso Tonkotsu Ramen. My ramen partner actually ate the pork slices before I could take a picture so I can't comment on those. However, while I enjoyed the thicker noodles, the miso broth wasn't my favorite. It seemed a bit bland and overall was disappointing. Again, given the conditions they cook in here (gas burners, small tables, cramped quarters), I saw more than one ramen chef sample and resample their broth and noodles, so cooking here can be a challenge. It's also why the longs can get long. Most seemed to take pride in their product and not just rush out a bowl to get a customer on their way.
Shin-Sen-Gumi was our next stop and their Hakata style Ramen is very popular in Los Angeles. The noodles for Hakata style are a thinner noodle and while I usually like thicker noodles (like Orenchi in Santa Clara), they tasted great here just like they did for Ramen Tatsunoya. Broth was similarly excellent and I think Shin-Sen-Gumi was probably my second favorite here. Very good.
Kohmen Ramen was our next choice and I hadn't really heard much about them. Like Ramen Tatsunoya, their were direct from Tokyo, Japan and their Jukusei Tonkotsu Ramen was popular enough in Japan to lead to several locations.
The pork slice was large and delicious and it was interesting how different everyone made their pork but how good they all were. The broth was the standout for Kohmen and it was rich, but not creamy like the other tonkotsu broth. It was almost a sesame or soy like taste, but it was great. Another great choice, especially given they have no U.S. locations.
JINYA RAMEN BAR
|Jinya Ramen Bar, LA/Tokyo|
Jinya Ramen Bar was our last stop and for the longest time the Tokyo based ramen shop with a popular destination in Los Angeles didn't open. We had finished our other bowls and their windows were still closed. As it was almost time for me to leave, I stopped by one last time before general admission and asked if they were going to be serving soon. Luckily, they smiled and prepared a bowl.
Their Spicy Tonkotsu broth was a refreshing change from the others. Great pork slice (again) and nice ingredients with some of the best presentation of any of the vendors. We were pretty full, but given the variety and flavors, we still liked Jinya.
Overall, we had a great time at the San Jose Ramen Yokocho Fest. Despite the early hiccups and the over 90 degree heat, we still were able to sample every vendor I wanted to try and get out of there by 4:30 pm. Given our goal, I'd consider that a success.
|Happy Ramen Overload!|
While VIP tickets and, especially, the Express Lane tickets were not necessary for most, it's nice the organizers are slowly but surely learning from their experience. It's not easy to throw an event like this and they're powered by a lot of volunteers (who don't necessarily know the answers to questions or where tickets are).
The most important thing though is that the ramen vendors are the real deal. They take pride in their product and each was super friendly. All the ramen shops I had today would compete with anything we have in the Bay Area and several, Ramen Tatsunoya and Shin-Sen-Gumi, would compete for the #1 spot locally. While I might have had to buy a VIP ticket, I did get an experience I'll remember and two bowls from Japan-only hotspots and three bowls from So Cal favorites. Given my price of admission was much less than airfare to LA, I'd consider the San Jose Ramen Yokocho Fest a BIG THUMBS UP.
|Ramen Yokocho T-shirts!|
Let's hope the turnout (despite the weather and fear of crowds) is high enough they return. Next weekend's event features a new set of ramen vendors and I wish those who go either weekend, happy eating!