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Orenchi: Tops in Ramen

Silicon Valley’s claim to ramen fame now include Orenchi in Santa Clara.

Again with the ramen?” my editor asked last week about my forthcoming review of Orenchi, which you now see before you.

“Yes,” I said. “Again.”

For quality and quantity, I say Silicon Valley’s ramen restaurants reign supreme throughout the Bay Area, and it is my life’s work to sample as much of it as I can and report my findings back to you.

The latest entry in the South Bay’s highly competitive ramen scene is Orenchi, a new restaurant in Santa Clara opened by the same people who own Los Altos’ excellent Sumika, a yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurant. Orenchi’s ramen, particularly the porcine tonkotsu ramen, is superb.

The restaurant occupies a comatose mall at the corner of Homestead Road and El Camino Real, the same mall that’s home to the Avalon nightclub. Empty stores make it feel a bit dismal, but at lunchtime and dinnertime, a corner of the mall comes to life as a mainly Japanese clientele crowds into Orenchi for bowl after bowl of ramen.

Inside, the place is done up with black tables and Japanese beer-babe posters hung askew over brown walls. The black-T-shirt-wearing waitstaff seem to compete with each other over who can yell out the obligatory Japanese restaurant greeting first and loudest. “Irasshaimase!” It’s a rowdy, good-natured place that was packed on both my visits.

Orenchi’s flagship bowl of ramen is called, appropriately enough, Orenchi ramen ($9). It’s made with a tonkotsu, or pork bone broth, and that accounts for the milky-white color and wonderfully rich, pork-fat-dotted richness.

The bowl is loaded with all kinds of ramen goodies—a soft-boiled egg that oozes into the broth, pickled bamboo shoots, sliced green onions, wood-ear fungus, seaweed, sliced pork, a little slick of black oil and a huge kick of flavor that’s made with garlic, sesame seeds and other seasonings.

The broth is already deeply flavorful, but the little dab of oil adds another layer of deliciousness. The flour noodles are cooked just right—springy and chewy.

The two other varieties of ramen ($8.80) available are the shoyu (soy-sauce-flavored broth) and shio (salt-flavored broth). Both are good but not at the same level as the Orenchi ramen. Comparatively, I found the broths one-dimensional. But I still drank them all up. All the ramen is rather salty, so plan on drinking plenty of water.

As good as the ramen is, there are several other dishes worth trying that go beyond the standard gyoza. My favorite was the chilled tomato in dashi broth. A single, peeled tomato sits in a light but flavorful broth. Dashi, a quick broth made with dried bonito flakes, shiitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed, is the foundation of many Japanese dishes and loaded with savory, umami flavors, the so-called fifth taste.

Paired with a tomato, itself a source of umani deliciousness, dashi is a simple but utterly satisfying appetizer. It tasted like chilled tomato soup, albeit chunkier.

Sumika makes a great chicken salad, and there’s a similar version here made with pork, the refreshing Orenchi salad ($8). It includes mizuna, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, red cabbage, sliced pork and little crunchy noodle things all tossed with light but effective sesame-oil-based vinaigrette.

There are lots of other little bites of food to go with beer and sake, such as the firefly squid ($7.50) and wasabi-flavored octopus ($4.30), but it’s the ramen that’s the real star here. So, yes, again with the ramen. Again and again.