By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Comforting ramen has arrived to La Mesa. So have a couple of unique sakes that are hard to find outside of BLVD Noodles, the neighborhood’s first and overdue Japanese-inspired eatery that opened on the village strip a few months ago.
One of the sakes is a sea-green Bushido on nitro, which imparts a faint, creamy fizz to the Japanese rice wine. The other comes in a can that you have to shake 20 times before it turns into something of a sparkling Jell-O shot. It’s fun and novel.
The colorful establishment is actually full of whimsical surprises. A shelving unit perched near the order counter shows off 100 “lucky cats” in neat alignment and with their paws moving in celebratory gestures from solar power.
Further in, an elaborate mural of a dragon spans a 52-foot-long wall. It was painted adeptly by La Mesa artist “K.J.,” whose monkey mural and ethereal makeovers of globe lights add flair to the charming back patio.
As for the wallpaper that owner Aaron Dean chose for the gender-neutral restroom, I’ll say no more other than it’s fabulously eye-popping.
Dean also owns Sheldon’s Service Station, a restaurant down the street serving healthy, contemporary fare that gained instant popularity when he opened it last year in a circa-1920 building.
For this newest venture, he brought in Chef Reo Goto who worked previously at Sushi Ota and for a ramen kitchen in San Diego’s Convoy Street district.
Goto uses medium-width ramen noodles imported from Japan. And his spot-on broths are available in classic varieties: pork-based tonkotsu; soy sauce-based shoyu; and pork or vegetarian miso.
Before delving into our big bowls of goodness, we encroached on a few crafty appetizers while imbibing on flights of smooth sake. My companion was wildly smitten over the gelatinous canned version parked alongside, choosing peach flavor over berry.
A trio of bao bun “tacos” was crowned with slow-braised brisket that practically melted into its bedding of cucumber-carrot slaw. Sriracha aioli, hoisin sauce and fresh cilantro added lushness and complexity, yet without sending them over the top.
Filipino house-made lumpia makes a surprise appearance on the menu with crispy casings capturing mildly spiced beef. They’re served with seasoned vinegar and sweet chili sauce, either of which breathes life into these otherwise plain-tasting noshes.
White miso mingled superbly with butter, sesame oil, jalapenos and cilantro in a generous bowl of corn shaved straight off their cobs. The light-yellow kernels were like garden candy, popping with sweetness in every mouthful.
My companion opted for the Mesa ramen made with beef broth and low-sodium shoyu. It’s finished tastefully with ginger-onion oil. Floating above the curly noodles was a stockpile of the aforementioned ultra-tender brisket plus wilted spinach, enoki mushrooms, pickled ginger and soft boiled eggs sporting gorgeous orange yolks.
Like the BLVD ramen I ordered, but with tonkotsu pork broth and cha-siu (pork belly) instead, it wasn’t salty or bland — the two common pitfalls of ramen.
His broth flaunted a soothing, fermented flavor brightened by the ginger. Mine was laced with the richness of fat and marrow from pork bones, but without the obnoxious heaviness I’ve encountered in other places. Both were outstanding and needed no help from the chili condiments on our table.
With a passionate chef and artful family-friendly environment in place, Dean has filled a culinary niche on La Mesa Boulevard, sparing foodies the trek into San Diego for sating their ramen cravings.
And he’s sweetened the experience with live entertainment on the back patio from 7 p.m. to close, Friday through Sunday — and happy hour from 8 p.m. to close, Tuesday through Sunday, when bargains on wine, beer, sake and small plates are available.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.