There’s a new ramen shop in town: Nikka. It promises exotic new flavor for Santa Barbara, certainly a step up from college students’ beloved instant noodle cups. How much of an upgrade though, is what I set out to find. After all, if there’s anything I love more than ramen, it’s critiquing.
Nikka is a sitdown restaurant and it’s best to call ahead for a reservation, especially on a busy Friday night. Note that Nikka closes its operations in the late afternoon, a common restaurant tactic that allows the restaurant time to clean and restock. With a broth that boasts a 24-hour prep time, those extra hours certainly help Nikka.
The staff is very sharp and attentive, although their hands are tied by the absolute deluge of people you’ll find in the place. Still, that is what you get when you’re the only restaurant of your kind and it’s a busy Friday night.
Unlike the instant noodles you are no doubt familiar with, Nikka Ramen boasts tonkotsu broth, a Japanese staple made with long-stewed pork bone as its stock. Other options include a spicy broth and a chicken broth that allows pork-abstainers to indulge their cravings. The ramen is served with either pork or chicken, though the meat can be removed entirely for our vegetarian friends. Extra ingredients can also be added, for a price. Side dishes include rice and fried chicken.
Ramen is best eaten in ten minutes for maximum freshness, but don’t expect skimpy portions to allow that rapid eating time. For $11 you can get a large bowl full of piping hot tonkotsu ramen, roughly the size of half a melon.
Ramen always has a minimalist and deliberate look to it, with no space wasted. A plain bowl contains a pearly and opaque broth, with the noodles lurking below. Pieces of pork are neatly arranged, tantalizing you with a roasted and glazed skin while baring a tender inside. Rounding out the image of Oriental perfection are the garnishes: a crisp sheaf of seaweed, a sprinkling of green onions, and cabbage.
Good tonkotsu has a creamy taste to it, evident in its milky white color. The broth is a little more bland than others I’ve had before, but still encapsulates the basic tonkotsu flavor. It also does a competent enough job of complementing the meat. The pork belly that came with my ramen, however, was a sizable chunk, the kind that melts in your mouth and has a gorgeous glazed color. Well-seasoned throughout, it was easily the strongest part of the dish.
Unfortunately, the noodles could not match the high standard set by the pork. Noodles absorb flavor, so their flavorless taste was most likely due to broth’s own blandness. Unlike your average instant noodles, they eschew the signature yellow waves for a straight and white shape that somehow manages to be less flavorful than the broth they are immersed in.
While undoubtedly fresher than your average instant pack, Nikka’s soup was not as flavorful as I’d hope. The biggest problem was the broth’s weakness. Most tonkotsu ramens that I’m familiar with have a saltier flavor to them. While this can often be a detriment, leaving you feeling slightly dehydrated afterwards, Nikka’s ramen offers too little flavor. The broth is too smooth; it loses out on the saltiness necessary to really make the ramen pop.
Compared to other local eateries, it will be pricey. While not really a deal breaker for a higher end meal, $12 can go farther than just a bowl of soup. Standard college staples such as the pizza and sandwich shops that dot Isla Vista rarely exceed $10. Indeed, $12 is more than the largest size at most other ramen places. if you have reservations about price it might be better to just pass. Don’t expect Nikka to become a staple of your diet.
In review, I liked the pork, comparatively low sodium, fresh ingredients, and menu selection. The things that I felt weren’t too great were the broth and noodles, pricing, and location. The location is the biggest kicker as it is kind of out of the way. Unless you have a car, it’s going to take an extra bit of walking to get to Goleta as well as more bus planning.
With respect to Nikka, it’s not bad. It certainly is the best ramen place in town. However, this is the place where diehard ramen purists would most likely softly laugh and internally lament over the dearth of comfy Asian cuisine.
Nikka Ramen is located at 5701 Calle Real, Goleta, Calif.