It wasn't quite 5 p.m. when a line began to form outside of RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen. The big wooden sign outside was flipped over to "Open" and within minutes the modern-meets-rustic dining space was nearly full.
It was the ramen burger that got me in the door this time as I was curious see if its cronut-like status still had legs.
Apparently, people are still ordering it with such gusto that owner and Executive Chef Junya Watanabe, famous for his handcrafted noodles, still sports a ramen burger menu with a choice of patty including beef, turkey, pork loin cutlet, veggie and triple-pressed ground chicken.
Near the turn of the millennium, he correctly recognized that ramen could be the comfort food the United States didn't yet know it needed.
So despite a master's in economics and first career in fashion as business partner to popular gown designer Tadashi Soji, he followed his culinary dreams. Years of diligent study even included apprenticeships with some of the Japan's most notable ramen chefs.
It shows. Meshing traditional methods with his own touches, Japanese dishes like curry, ramen and sushi reflect his eye for detail. The ramen burger does, too. He uses alkaline water in the ramen broth (it is also served on every table) to neutralize acid as well as locally sourced produce in his dishes.
I opened the glistening metal menu flooded with photos of gorgeous noodles and wanted to eat all of them.
But I came for a ramen burger and at the direction of my server ordered the most popular: the Beef and Underbelly California Ramen Burger. Thank goodness for bootcamp.
This decadent dish sandwiches a third of a pound of 100 percent certified angus beef, prime X.O. underbelly, lettuce and tomato in a signature ramen bun made with fresh house noodles.
"And while the outside ramen noodle bun is lightly crisped, the noodles are still quite soft and juicy on the inside," Watanabe said. The quality of the meat is excellent but the texture and flavor of the unusual bun makes the dish. These aren't your college noodles.
We'd started with a generous heap of Japanese fried chicken (Chicken Karaage) that lives up to its reputation as one of the best fried chicken options in town especially when dipped in spicy Japanese mayo or house ponzu.
I found myself also dipping the ramen burger in the spicy mayo in lieu of ketchup and mustard. Go big, I figured, even though the ramen burger came with a generous side of skinny sweet potato fries sprinkled with powdered sugar. Filling is an understatement.
Address: 4646 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa
The ramen burger is definitely a novelty item ... something you'd likely not order during every RakiRaki visit and that's OK given what's on the rest of the menu.
Probably my favorite items so far: the Black Edition Hakata Tonkatsu Ramen with flame blistered underbelly. The silky smooth, mild pork bone broth is fermented with organic garlic oil roasted with natural bincho charcoal for 18 hours and the generous double-thick noodles hit the spot any time of day (you can order ramen until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday). The Red Edition is a similar, spicy version but rest assured heat can be tempered with a Kirin Ichiban frozen draft beer (yes, it's like a beer slushy), Ramune or even a glass of wine.
RakiRaki will open a second location in Little Italy that will also feature yakitori and Chef Watanabe has even more projects up his sleeve.
Katie Dillon is a lifestyle and travel writer who believes that one of the best ways to explore a city is through its food and drinks. Follow her adventures on social media at @lajollamom and send any tasty ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org