Ramen Shack, one of Orange County's most celebrated new restaurants, is closing after a year of operation, with chef-owner/Ramen Burger creator Keizo Shimamoto explaining that staffing shake-ups and personal health issues were, in part, to blame for the shutter. July 30 was the last day of operation for the San Juan Capistrano ramen shop.
The shop's closing was not on the mind of its owner in June 2022, when the Ramen Shack collaborated with Heritage Barbecue to host a one-day Ramen Burger event. People waited more than three hours to try the central collaboration dish: a Ramen Burger filled with cold-smoked, half-pound, ground brisket patties.
Heritage Barbecue’s pitmaster Daniel Castillo and Shimamoto served 500 burgers made with Shimamoto’s signature ramen noodle buns and secret Shoyu sauce, garnished with arugula and scallions. The crowd wrapped around the corner that day: Some people anticipated the wait and brought lawn chairs and umbrellas. Many took selfies in front of the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano across the street. It seemed like almost everyone visiting downtown Capistrano that morning was there to try the Ramen Burger/Heritage Barbecue creation; there was a celebratory vibe to the event, the scene almost like a stadium tailgate. Amid the revelry that day, Shimamoto didn’t know that, in less than two months, he would be closing Ramen Shack.
The Ramen Shack served its final bowls over the weekend, just over a year after its opening. On July 29, Shimamoto let his followers know on Instagram that his shop would shutter at the end of the month. That morning the restaurant opened early, at 10:30 a.m., and a few regulars took seats at the bar. His dedicated followers showed up for one last bowl to slurp on-site; more people ordered extra ramen to-go. Though the kitchen was slammed and tables were backed up, no one seemed upset. In fact, the tsukemen with thick tonkotsu dipping broth and the signature shoyu ramen were selling well. One regular diner brought Shimamoto a box of Cream Pan croissants and Castillo walked in carrying a sizable portion of slow-smoked brisket. Castillo took a seat at the bar and Shimamoto prepared him a bowl of dry noodles coated with a sweet soy-chili sauce, fresh arugula, and a sizable slice of brisket. It was an off-the-menu special, just something he came up with on the fly, but for a few early diners who tried the dish, it was a reminder of why the Ramen Shack will be missed.
Shimamoto, like many restaurateurs, faced staffing and supply chain issues. In March, his sous chef left and he couldn’t find the right replacement. He also worried that his ramen wasn’t consistently up to his standards. Shimamoto’s viral sensation, the Ramen Burger, his original claim to fame, was only offered as an occasional special at the noodle shop; it wasn’t a permanent item that could act as a boon to the restaurant’s other business.
“I’m afraid to say too much,” says Shimamoto, who created the Ramen Burger in 2013. “Unfortunately, I’ve decided, along with the partners, that we’ll close the Ramen Shack. It’s been a rough start to the year. We had a lot of good momentum at the end of 2021. Of course, with omicron coming back and affecting business in January, it’s hard to keep going. Then, I had some health issues starting in February.”
Shimamoto had been experiencing chest pain. An X-ray, CT scan, and other tests determined the issue was in Shimamoto’s lung, but the diagnostic evaluation is ongoing. “That’s been weighing on my mind,” he says. “It’s been mentally stressful because there is a lot of unknown. I’m trying to be strong for my family and make sure they’re okay.” He shared the news with his family (Shimamoto is married and has three young children) but kept his health issue a secret from the public. “I didn’t know we were going to close Ramen Shack [in June],” he says. “But with all things considered with my health and how business is going, it just seems right to shut it down now.”
Shimamoto’s business partners will keep the space in San Juan Capistrano but will change the concept to a Filipino/island breakfast restaurant called Breezy. The team behind Shootz, the fast-casual Hawaiian-style street food restaurant, is scheduled to open Breezy in mid-August.
Shimamoto, meanwhile, is transitioning out of the kitchen to focus on his family and his health. “For me, it’s like my love for ramen has led me to some pretty cool places. Things that I would never imagine.” His apprentices went on to open restaurants of their own like Menya Hosaki in D.C. and continue to credit Shimamoto for showing them how to craft ramen. “But also now, I have three kids and a family and I’m trying to raise them properly so I can be more in their lives,” says Shimamoto.
He will still work with ramen in one way. On July 28, he announced that he’ll bring his expertise to Way of Ramen, a noodle-centric podcast and YouTube channel, where he’ll showcase different bowls and techniques. Though he’s stepping away from his restaurant in San Juan Capistrano, Shimamoto doesn’t believe this is the end of the Ramen Burger or Ramen Shack. “We’re not ruling out the possibility of bringing it back in the future,” he says. “We’ll just see how that goes.”