Your best introduction to Mottainai Ramen might be if you slink in exhausted, after a long day of work, needing some comfort. Duck your head through the Japanese curtains that hang in Mottainai Ramen's entryway and you'll be hit by a soothing fog of pork and garlic, as waiters and waitresses shout hearty Japanese greetings and farewells, and somebody lights a wok on fire.
Wait, what? A flaming wok? Indeed: Over Mottainai Ramen's tidy collection of two-person tables and pleasant wooden counters, you'll often catch, in the open kitchen, one of the chefs expertly flipping a wok. They're toasting the miso for a serving of the most unique of Mottainai's three specialties: Sapporo Lover, a pork-intensive ramen saturated with toasted miso. The blast of flame coming up from the wok is one of the chefs lighting a mixture of miso and lard on fire, before stirring in the various toppings.
The Sapporo Lover is a rare provincial specialty; Mottainai serves it in part because one of its three chefs, Tadanori Akasaka, is a Sapporo native. Between the concentrated porkiness of the soup base and the creamy, wonderfully salty funk of the toasted miso, the soup hits you with every form of savory at once.
Mottainai is a word that's hard to translate into English, manager Nobuaki Ishiai says. It means something like, "What a waste — it's still useful." Ramen takes chicken bones, pork bones — the stuff that other people would dump — and transforms it into something lovely, Ishiai says. Using these odds and ends is not only practical, it's essential to the ramen broth.
Mottainai's soups are based on two basic broths: chicken and pork, which are made separately and mixed in different proportions for each soup. The pork broth is made from ingredients such as pork feet, back bones and knuckles that are simmered for at least eight hours, Ishiai says. The result is a gelatinous, mineral-laden silkiness that is the foundation of the ramen experience.
There are three ramen options here: Tokyo Props, the soy ramen; Yokohama Freaker, the pork ramen; and Sapporo Lover, the miso ramen. Each of the three soups is largely faithful to a certain province's distinctive style. The chefs mix the basic chicken broth and pork broth in a slightly different proportion for each dish. And each contains a different noodle to provide not just a different taste but a distinctive texture balance.
Right now, Mottainai has noodles made to its specifications by a local company, but the eatery is in the process of setting up its own noodle machine, brought over from Japan. Not only does the size of the noodle for each type of ramen vary, but each noodle is made with a different ratio of flour to water for just the right density.
Tokyo Props is the classic, minimalist ramen. The broth — more chicken than pork, with a touch of soy — is clean, like the chicken analog of mountain spring water; the noodles are thin and satisfyingly al dente, the bamboo shoots are crisp. The experience is one of quiet contrasts: suave broth, firm noodles.
The Sapporo Lover has the densest broth and thicker, softer noodles, broth and noodles melting into each other, interrupted by the crunch of barely cooked bean sprouts and the chew of ground pork.
The last specialty is Yokohama Freaker, an all-out pork assault of a soup. Mottainai serves its pork ramen with thicker noodles and a bit of chicken oil and chicken broth to round out the porky intensity. The broth turns out to taste even meatier than the actual, you know, pieces of pork.
You can get extra stuff to throw in the soup. The "red bomb" is a big ball of chile and spice pastes; you add bits of it to your soup, to taste. Sautéed corn goes nicely with the Sapporo Lover, the corn adding a crunchily sweet contrast to the savoriness of toasted miso. But wildest is the "white bomb," an invention of another one of the chefs, Natsuki Ishijima.
The white bomb is a golf ball-sized lump of pork back fat and crushed garlic. If you've been haunted your entire life by never having had quite enough pork-fat flavor to satiate your pig lust, order a Yokohama Freaker and dump an entire white bomb into it. This will generate an unctuous, intimidatingly dense liquid that is slightly beyond the border of what should be called "soup."
1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Suite 9, Gardena; (310) 538-3250; http://www.mottainairamen.com.
Ramen $7 to $8; add-ins $1 to $3.
Open Wednesday to Monday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Beer and soft drinks. Credit cards accepted. Shopping center lot parking.