Here in Bernal Heights, history and geography have combined to make our neighborhood proudly self-sufficient. We brew our own beer, distill our own bourbon, can our own pickles, write our own books, code our own apps, and conduct our own deep-space exploration missions.
Yet despite our vaunted self-reliance, there has been a conspicuous gap in our plentitude when it comes to the availability of high-quality, locally sourced ramen.
Of course, I’m not talking about the freeze-dried instant ramen bricks that are synonymous with collegiate poverty (and readily available at our Taoist Safeway). No, I’m talking about real Japanese ramen built from a sublime combination of hearty broth, chewy noodles, roasted meat, and tasty vegetables. (Cue: Pavlovian response)
Until recently, my ramen cravings could only be satisfied by leaving Bernal Heights to head west, over the hills, into the Asian culinary wonderlands of the Richmond District. But the other day, while walking past 903 Cortland, I noticed that the chalkboard sign out front said: Ramen
What?!? How could this be?!? And could it possibly be delicious?!?
Frankly, I was skeptical. As a general rule of thumb, a good ramen joint will specialize exclusively in making ramen — because making good ramen is an intense discipline unto itself. Yet 903 Cortland, while delicious, is a general-interest restaurant, and while it does have a distinctly Japanese accent via owner Mutsumi Takehara, it is not even a Japanese restaurant per se, and definitely not a dedicated ramen-ya. Hmmmmmm.
I ordered a bowl of the regular chashu (roasted pork) ramen, and, fearing disappointment, paced around the restaurant anxiously as it was prepared. But when my ramen was served, I felt a wave of relief wash over me, because it looked right. Even better, the steam coming off the bowl smelled right, as it was infused with the savory complexity that is the signature element of a good bowl of ramen.
And it WAS a good bowl of ramen! Quite good, in fact. So good, that I ate the entire bowl, down to the very last drop:
Now, let’s put things in context: No, the ramen from 903 is not the best I’ve ever had. (That honor belongs to an amazing bowl of ramen I ate in Tokyo that was so powerful it actually caused an earthquake.) Nor is it the best ramen that can be had in San Francisco. (Sorry, not telling.)
But the ramen at 903 is damn solid, and given the ridiculous convenience of a trip to Cortland, this means I can now make ramen a more everyday part of my family’s joyful lifestyle, which is a huge victory for the forces of Tranquility, Bliss, and Euphoria.
So, to all ramen junkies in Bernal Heights, I am glad to say that we can now get a very satisfying fix at 903 Cortland, right here on our very own hill. Celebration!
And to all ye who have never before tried real ramen, count yourself lucky that you can now sample it here in your very own neighborhood, without having to endure the hardship of a voyage to the Richmond District or the unpleasant airfare aftertaste associated with a pilgrimage to Japan.
Oh, and if you need a tutorial on proper ramen-appreciation technique, there is no better way to begin your journey than with the opening scene from Tampopo, Japan’s fantastic ramen-themed comedy film from the 1980s. Study the way of the ramen master, and you’ll do just fine at 903:
PS: Oh, and remember the parklet that 903 wants to install out front? The project’s Kickstarter goal was met successfully, raising $12,500 from Bernal neighbors to build the thing. Which means… ramen al fresco! Woa.
PHOTOS: Ramen at 903 Cortland, by Telstar Logistics