Despite being the unofficial national dish of Japan—sorry, sushi lovers—it turns out that ramen originally hailed from China. The origins are a bit muddled, but there’s no denying its increased popularity from humble street food during World War II to a now-lavish dish that can go for nearly $20 a bowl.

Regardless of its worldwide popularity, there are probably only around a dozen legit ramen shops in the entire South Bay—but the newest entrant, Pot Belly Ramen, is making heads turn on San Jose’s East Side.

Located in a cramped strip mall in the shadow of the forthcoming BART station, Pot Belly Ramen is drawing huge crowds that fill the sidewalk only a half-hour after opening. They are currently only open for dinner (Monday-Saturday 5:30-9pm) and this limited availability might be adding to the phenomenon. The interior is modest, well-lit and arranged as well as can be expected to maximize seating without being too uncomfortable. Fortunately, we arrived early and didn’t have to wait before we were seated.

They have an interesting ordering system. Each patron is handed a clipboard, paper menu and pencil to place check marks next to the items they want. There’s a choice of five different ramens, including add-ons, as well as a changing list of appetizers on the back; with sake and beer still to come. We decided to order their tuna onigiri ($3.50), and it wouldn’t be a ramen escapade without getting some karaage ($7). Now for the soup: the eponymous Pot Belly ($14) and Truffle ($14) seemed like the right call.

First out was the onigiri, and imagine our surprise when the crunchy fried brown rice was topped with what appeared to be canned tuna. After one taste—and suspicions confirmed—I’ll be kind and just say to skip this item. Next up was the karaage, which was executed properly; the chicken was moist, and the light, crunchy batter made for one of the better karaages I’ve had in recent memory. The spicy mayo dipping sauce could’ve been spicier, but that’s a minor quibble.

Finally, the ramens showed up, and both had that signature white, milky broth that comes with a properly made tonkotsu. All of Pot Belly’s ramens—except their veggie, of course—are made using their 12-hour, slow-simmered bone broth. The truffle ramen had a strong smell of truffle oil, which made us apprehensive, but after one taste it was actually seasoned just right. The broth itself was tasty and nuanced, without that kick-you-in-the-mouth porky flavor some ramen broths have.

The noodles they use have a whitish color and not the yellow you’ll find in the typical soba (wheat) noodle; this gave them a spaghetti-like taste and consistency. The pork cheek found in the Pot Belly and the pork belly chashu in the Truffle are both cooked using the sous vide method, which makes for tender but slightly under-seasoned meats. Overall, it was an acceptable bowl that satisfied our craving.

Pot Belly is filling a much-needed niche in an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s fairly devoid of good eats. As a wise person once said, “Life is hard and winter is cold—but we’ll always have ramen.”

Pot Belly Ramen
1710 Berryessa Rd Ste 107, San Jose