So, when you survey the Laguna beach culinary scene from a 50,000-foot level, what’s missing in this patchwork quilt of foodie greatness?
Well … noodles, of course.
Ramen noodles, to be specific.
At least, it’s what three longtime Thai chefs surmised when they began looking for a new roost for their Ramen business.
“Laguna Beach has just about everything but ramen noodles,” says new Gu Ramen Laguna Beach Taps & Tapas Co-Owner Kitiphong Thongdetsakul (call him Kiti for short).
“We spent six months looking for the right space in Laguna Beach,” Kiti continues. “We knew Laguna had to have our noodles.”
Business Already Cookin’
Apparently, the three owner/chefs are right on the money. Just a few days after their “soft” opening (they didn’t even have an exterior sign up) at the corner of Thalia and Coast Highway, the place was packed at 3:00 in the afternoon. Even the three chefs seemed a bit surprised as they trotted between chats with me and the kitchen to complete ongoing orders.
“For me, it’s a big smile every day,” says Co-Owner Wicha Thossannsin with said big smile on his face. “The foot traffic was great just hours after we opened.”
Born and Bred for Restaurant Life
These three chefs are certainly seasoned in their craft.
Each grew up in various parts of Thailand with parents who owned restaurants before finding their way here to continue the cooking tradition. Wicha finished his business degree first, then attended culinary school in Thailand for three years before moving here to take up the sushi and Thai food cause. Kiti began working with his parents in their restaurant at the age of 14 before they all emigrated here and set up their own Thai restaurant.
And Nat Pispratuang, their longtime sous chef, had also been up to his elbows in Thai culinary before being brought on to each of the other two restaurants the initial partnership (Wicha and Kiti) owned.
Now, the three are brothers-in-law, and three family cooking dynasties have somehow merged into one.
A Perfect Ramen Bowl is All About the Broth
With a very successful Thai restaurant in Whittier (Gu Thai Uptown) and a second Thai/Sushi restaurant in Tustin (Kitajima), Sous Chef Nat had turned to perfecting his Ramen recipe, which is always a closely protected recipe only shared through a lineage of family members.
Admitting to initial stock of “pork bone, chicken bone, vegetables and spices,” Nat says he began simmering the broth at much longer stints than what is normally done. “I decided the 18-hour mark was the sweet spot. I don’t know of anyone simmering their broth for anywhere close to that length of time.”
Nat seems to be on to something as this is an incredibly rich and deep broth. When an order is placed, only then is the broth combined with freshly made ramen egg noodles or special request udon noodles, a more thick noodle made of rice.
Twelve ounces of broth and at least six ounce of noodles, and that’s just the beginning of this simmering bowl of crazy goodness. Choose your spice level and then a toping option of pork belly, spicy ground pork, or curry lollipop chicken. Additional toppings can be ordered on the side and vary between bamboo shoots, egg, corn, bean sprouts, spinach, naruto (fish cakes) and more.
Your steaming order arrives in a bowl the size of a mixing bowl. Let me assure you, my friends, this is no Top Ramen that you and I both survived on as college kids. This is so good you feel almost … well … gleeful. While I watched several high schoolers and hungry surfers slurp down the entire bowl, I managed to scoop through about two cups before I had to call it a day. (You’d better believe I brought the rest home with me.)
Inventive Tapas You Can’t Miss
My lack of hunger could have been due to the fact that I partook in the backside of the menu, too – Gu Ramen’s Japanese Tapas. Together, the three chefs have innovated or carried over from their other two restaurants a round up of truly inventive small plates. These range in style and spice, from Firecracker Shrimp to Pork Pot Stickers, Deviled Eggs, Thai Spicy Hot Wings, Soft Shell Crab, Fried Green Beans and more. It’s a cornucopia of Japanese and Thai goodness.
Sous Chef Nat wanted me to try his two favorites, and they became such favorites of mine that I’m not sure I’ll test anything else on the Tapas menu.
The Sensei Ahi Tartare is a healthy serving of fresh poké loaded on a crispy rice cake and topped with green onion and toasted sesame seed. The taste and texture opposites make for a beautiful meld. I gave up on dainty chopsticks or forks and ate it by hand.
The Buta Belly Slider … that’s just another wow factor here at Gu Ramen. Nat slow cooks the pork belly for at least six hours, and then loads the tender slices onto a melt-in-your-mouth pretzel bun. He adds dollops of their own spicy Ranch sauce and Japanese Teriyaki sauce and tosses in fresh lettuce and carrot wisps for the crunch factor.
Happy Hour, Too
Minus the missing exterior sign (which might be in place by time this article airs), Gu Ramen is off to a fast and very steady start here in Laguna.
As if they need to encourage people to try their unusual and tasty fare, they’ve also established a happy hour from 3 – 6 p.m., every day of the week. During Happy Hour, all 20 tapas are $2 off, draft beers are $5, super mugs (34 ounces!) are $9, house wine is $5 and house sake and cold sakes are $4.
You know, I’m not sure I would have ever thought to myself, “Gee, we need noodles in this town.” With Gu Ramen opening its obliging doors, however, I can’t imagine how we lived without them all this time. Thanks for changing up our world, chefs.
Gu Ramen Taps & Tapas is at 907 S. Coast Highway, 949-715-0825
Hours are 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.