By Valerie Wu
Japanese restaurant Ramen Nagi has opened in Palo Alto, the first U.S. location of the acclaimed ramen chain.
Located at 541 Bryant Street, which formerly housed the Zucca European Restaurant, the new Palo Alto branch is the latest undertaking of the Ko Hospitality Group — Ramen Nagi’s US business partner — and the brand itself, which currently has over 35 locations across Asia.
Founded by Chef Satoshi Ikuta in 2004, Ramen Nagi started in bar space that Ikuta borrowed to run a guerrilla ramen restaurant. It became more popular after Ikuta won a contest for a spot in Tokyo’s famous Tachikawa Square Park. Since then, the brand has become established for its varied flavor profiles and customizable menu.
According to statements from the Ko Hospitality Group, the decision to expand to the Bay Area comes from a preference for its unique culinary landscape and a desire to enter the U.S. market. A San Jose location is set to open later this summer.
As the president of Ko Hospitality Group, Stanley Ko has played a key role in bringing Ramen Nagi to the United States.
When asked what distinguishes the brand from others, Ko said, “Ramen Nagi doesn’t cut corners.” The restaurant is well-known for stewing its pork broth for over 20 hours, as well as creating special bowls to retain heat and produce “quality ramen.”
“The ramen-making process really takes a lot of time and effort. Bay Area residents are very cosmopolitan and multicultural, and I think that when they’re exposed to authentic ramen, then they’ll acknowledge that and be appreciative of it,” said Ko.
Many of the restaurant’s customers have echoed these positive sentiments. Annie Shiau M.S. ’01 described her overall experience at Ramen Nagi to be “great” and expects it to become a regular with locals.
“The concept’s both unique and interesting, and I think [Ramen Nagi] will definitely connect students one bowl at a time,” said Shiau. “It’s a great addition to the neighborhood.”
Adrienne Hamrah, who dined at Ramen Nagi during its soft opening, said, “Ramen Nagi strikes a balance between original ramen and creative fusion flavors. The core techniques are very authentic in the way they make the soup base and the consistency of the noodles … to me it’s one of the best ramen spots in the Bay Area right now.”
But according to Hamrah, one challenge that the restaurant could address is the service, as she felt “rushed” during her dining experience and that bowls were cleared “aggressively” at times to make room for incoming customers.
Hamrah said that while it wasn’t uncommon for this to occur with most ramen restaurants, it left her with an impression that it was difficult for the restaurant to manage its long line of patrons.
Whitney Francis ‘19 also stated that she was less likely to visit a restaurant with a long wait time, no matter how “authentic.”
“Thirty minutes is fine with me,” she said, before adding, “any more than that and I don’t think I could take it.”
Yet Francis believes that the mission of Ramen Nagi — which in the words of Ikuta, is to “connect the world through ramen culture” — can help educate Stanford students about Japanese culture.
“I want people to know that Japan isn’t just sushi and anime, and authentic ramen’s a part of that,” said Francis, who is half-Japanese and a member of Stanford’s Japanese Student Union. “Food is always a good way to connect people, and Japanese culture is really about good food. It’s in the taste and flavor. That’s how we bring real Japanese values to Palo Alto.”
For Ko, the hope is not only to bring existing traditions, but also to create connections between them and the neighborhood at large.
“The reception so far has been great. Everyone’s been very warm and welcoming,” Ko said. “It’s an honor to meet and serve the community. What we really want to do is fulfill everyone’s expectations and make Palo Alto residents proud.”
Contact Valerie Wu at vwu.19 ‘at’ presentationhs.org.