I was seriously thinking of not going in. I stood outside for a minute or two, but decided to give Jinya Ramen Bar a shot anyway.
A little background. Our good friends ate there after it soon opened in Bellevue in March, along with so many other eager rameniacs that the two of them had to sit at the bar. They ordered Tokyo Yatai Ramen, which had several problems, among them being a soft-boiled egg (tamago ajitsuke) that was too salty, chicken chashu (which my friend called an “abomination”) that had a chemical taste and subpar marinated bamboo shoots (menma). Furthermore, another friend went twice, the first visit not being particularly impressed with the noodle quality, the second visit worse than the first. With reviews like these from people whose opinions I value, it was all I could do to forgo my reluctance. But, in the interest of evaluating a highly regarded ramenya, I walked in.
I was seated immediately. There was only one other couple toward the back and a lone diner at the counter. Jinya has a minimalist interior, like most Japanese restaurants. Along the back wall is the open kitchen, the counter artfully decorated with alternating red and black ramen bowls. Each table has a quartet of condiments: ichimi togarashi, red pepper paste, gyoza sauce and something called seasoning sauce, which was quite salty and garlicky.
I ordered the Jinya Tonkotsu White, the restaurant’s signature ramen. Besides, I love tonkotsu. It arrived ten minutes later, nicely presented in a black bowl. Two squares of toasted seaweed (nori) were nestled along one arc, an egg half-peaking out of the broth along with two slices of roasted pork belly, spinach, green onions, fried onions and slivers of cloud ears (kikurage). The tonkotsu broth was practically perfect, milky, thick and seasoned properly. It also coated the mouth with gelatin, which feels sticky on the lips, indicating the hours of extracting it from pork bones. The thin noodles were likewise perfect, exhibiting the best kansui property of being springy without the use of eggs. The egg had no excessive saltiness, which my friends noted from their visit. The yolk was ever so slightly congealed yet managed to ooze its bright yellow yolk out into the broth. Finally, the pork belly chashu could not have been better roasted, supremely tender and unctuous. In short, this was a ramen that can take its place among the best (☆☆☆½).
Could the same be said for the other ramen that are not pork-broth-based? I doubt whether my friends who tried them will ever come back after their terrible experiences.
You may have caught the fact that I was immediately seated with only a handful of customers inside. This does not typically happen at a highly regarded ramen restaurant. Kukai Ramen still has enough customers throughout the day that waiting to get seated is still pretty common. My only explanation for Jinya is that the rocky start took its toll. It’s possible that problems did not get fixed fast enough that the damage became almost irreparable.
“Did you like the ramen?” the waitress asked when I was done.
“Yes, I did.”
“Would you come back?” she followed.
“Yes, I would.”
“Please bring your friends and family.”
Did I detect some concern? There absolutely is no excuse for a restaurant of Jinya’s caliber, having garnered many awards and citations for its excellent ramen at other venues, including a glowing review from Los Angeles food critic-extraordinaire Jonathan Gold, to have had quality-control issues from the start. None, whatsoever. Management clearly dropped the ball. It will take time to repair its reputation. Jinya can only hope it’s not too late because other ramenya are moving in.
At dinnertime, the patronage was way up from what I experienced above. There was a slight wait of ten minutes before my wife and I got seated.
I had expected Jinya Tonkotsu Black to be almost ebony like the Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna, but there was hardly a resemblance. The tonkotsu broth was as light-colored as the Tonkotsu White (see above). The difference was in the broth, which is entirely pork-based for the Black, while the White is derived from pork and chicken. Not surprisingly, it had a noticeably porkier flavor with a touch of gelatinous stickiness and more flavor from garlic chips. The broth was quite good, milky and lower in sodium than, say, Kukai’s. The thin, straight noodles were perfectly textured, firm and springy, qualities that lasted a surprisingly long time. The roasted pork belly slices were the tenderest in recent memory with an equally impressive pork flavor. Fried onions, nori squares, kikurage and green onions rounded out the condiments. The notable shortcoming in the ramen was a half-congealed soft-boiled egg that was very salty, which my friend KirkJ also criticized when he ate here. This makes me wonder if there is any quality control on making ajitsuke tamago, which was perfect during my last visit. Nevertheless, the tonkotsu black was an impressive ramen (☆☆☆½).
The egg in my wife’s Hiyashi (cold ramen) wasn’t salty at all, but had a milder flavor more suited to the tare sauce. Cut in half, her egg too was partially set. The noodles were thicker and curly with substantial chew. The remaining ingredients included pork chashu, cooked spinach, cucumber, bean sprouts and ginger. The hayashi ramen is on special for the months of June and July, along with a non-traditional cold ramen soup with diced tomatoes, cilantro and lime. Like my pork belly slices, the chashu was equally tender, cut into cubes. Made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sugar, the tare sauce was sweeter than it needed to be. Otherwise, my wife said she’d order this dish again (☆☆☆).
Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008