In terms of running a food truck, Mari Komura and Michelle Lam are young and inexperienced — and it's working heavily to their advantage. Their venture, Shake Ramen, which debuted last week, is a welcome and refreshing addition to the street food scene in Los Angeles. They serve a riff on abura soba — soupless ramen (literally "oil noodles" in Japanese) — a street food commonly found amongst the open-air yatai stalls of Japan but rarely seen stateside. It's a handy, fairly obvious solution to the difficulties of making ramen a viable on-the-go food — simply get rid of the hot soup, but keep the rich flavor of the broth.
Komura and Lam, who are in their early 20s, met as students in L.A. and quickly became friends. They eventually bonded over a mutual love of food and began discussing a venture in which they could combine elements of what they missed from their respective home countries: Komura hails from Japan and Lam comes from Hong Kong. Komura visited Lam and was impressed by the strong, vibrant street food culture. "When she [Komura] visited Hong Kong," Lam explained, "she was impressed by the Hong Kong street food; putting noodles and toppings in small plastic bags."
Instead of using plastic bags, though, Komura and Lam came up with the idea of serving the noodles in boba tea cups and investing in an automatic cup sealer. Noodles go in the cup along with a choice a sauce (shoyu, shio, or miso), protein (pork belly, minced beef, or tofu) and other accoutrements (cabbage, corn, green onion, bean sprouts, an entire soft-boiled egg). The cup is sealed with a plastic lid in the machine, air-tight, and then it's up to the customer to shake it vigorously, like a Korean dosirak lunchbox, before puncturing the lid with the end of a chopstick and digging in.
A Shake Ramen cup ($5.95 for a small, $7.95 for a large; photos in this article show the small size) is, first and foremost, all about the noodles. And the noodles are excellent — firm and springy, with a nice, earthy flavor. They're chewy without being cumbersome, and make a great vehicle for the other condiments. The noodles glisten lightly with the sheen of the accompanying sauce. The shio option (there are three choices, remember: shio is the most traditional way to go, literally meaning "salt") is outstanding, tasting slightly of chicken and seaweed, with a very mild pork flavor.
As satisfying as a bowl of ramen without swelling the rings off your fingers with all the sodium from the soup
The shio sauce thoroughly covers the noodles but does not overwhelm it, like a well-issued salad dressing does for its greens. A chunk of pork belly is tender and flavorful, and vegetables are crisp and fresh. Shake Ramen's policy with its toppings (veggies, tofu, tea-colored soft-boiled eggs) is undeniably generous: they're free, and you can have as much or as little of a given item as you like. It's a perfect, flavorful, compact lunch — as satisfying as a bowl of ramen without swelling the rings off your fingers with all the sodium from the soup.
Getting the truck up and running was a challenge — building their truck took six months longer than promised and, once plans were finalized, many aspects of the truck had to be altered to comply with health department regulations. Dealing with permits and parking are a constant challenge, especially around areas like UCLA, which are the epicenters for the customers they're trying to target: students. "It's just unbelievably hard," said Lam. On a Tuesday afternoon, however, a slow but steady stream of curious students sidled up to their bright red truck, adorned with paper lanterns, to sample their wares.
Building their truck took six months longer than promised
Komura is the partner primarily responsible for creating the flavors and recipes that go into Shake Ramen's food. She began working on and off in restaurants in Japan since she was 16, and has, according to Lam, an unerring ability to taste a dish at a restaurant and recreate it at home, like a good session musician can pick up a tune on the spot. If Komura is the one who executes, Lam is more of the "big picture" thinker. "I am more of a theoretical person," she said. "Most of the time when we are doing tasting and experimenting, I would be the one saying, I feel like this is lacking in something sweet, and Mari will work really well in actually putting my abstract idea into real work."