We stopped by the new-ish Naga Naga Ramen in Old Pasadena this weekend to see how it would stack up to the San Gabriel Valley ramen stalwarts, like Ajisen Ramen in Temple City.
The most intriguing points on the menu were non-traditional ramen fusions, combining the basics of the Japanese noodle dish with other culinary influences like tom yum (Thai), kimchee (Korean), and tan tan (Moroccan). Naga Naga has actually trademarked this portion of their menu as “Revolutionary Ramen.”
I don’t know if that’s the adjective I would employ, but the Tan Tan Men ($7.95) — with pork slices, ground pork, shredded cabbage, Chinese pickles, curly yellow ramen in a hot and sour soup — was exceptional. It’s listed with a bold-faced “!” to indicate (or shout?) spiciness, but I found the blend of peppers and spices to be fairly mild, and I have a very heat-sensitive palate.
In the name of balance — most certainly not an “eyes-bigger-than-stomach” thing — I also ordered a cold dish. The Cold Noodles ($7.50) come with ham, imitation crab, egg, cucumber, carrots and enoki mushroom slices over curly ramen in a sesame soy sauce. The sauce, a light hint of sesame that complemented every ingredient, really made that dish. I enjoyed combining the elements into different flavor combinations — a bite of faux crab, egg and mushroom here; now some ham, cucumber and noodles there. It was a simple, healthy and exciting dish that didn’t become boring after three bites.
The standout was actually an appetizer: Naga Naga Tofu. I was mildly alarmed when the dish arrived and it appeared to be … well, alive. Paper-thin meat shavings were wiggling and dancing along the top of the dish. It seemed to emulate the way sea anemone sway in the manipulating currents at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was so amused by this phenomenon, I decided to capture it on video (you can view it below). It was likely caused by heat waves emanating from the high-temperature hot plate and mixing with the freezing-cold, air-conditioned dining room. (That was my rationalizing, anyway. Please, no “Soylent Green” references.)
I wondered if they keep the room temperature so low in an effort to produce that delicious steaming effect that makes every bowl of ramen look so darn slurpable. (In any case, bring a sweater, or order something “!”)
The tofu dish itself was delectable: moist, savory, egg-based, almost like breakfast. In fact, I’d recommend it for breakfast. The delicate meat shavings reminded me of the reason I adore Southern-style grits: the bacon bits, obviously.
Naga Naga Ramen is located at 49 E. Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena. Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (626) 585-8822
(Photo and video by Evelyn Barge)