Kotetsu Ramen

meter-okKotetsu Ramen is a bit of a contradiction. The food is high quality, it’s authentic, and everyone seems to love it. On the other hand, this place is questionably located and largely incomprehensible. I’m sure I’ll figure out what I think of it by the end of my review, but as of right now I’m on the fence.

“Reminder: Lunch” my smartphone declared at me. Well that’s odd. I hardly need help remembering to eat, so the notification must be for… Ah yes, I was supposed to meet my friend Kevin for lunch. “Are we still on for today?” I texted to Kevin, pretending to remember our lunch meeting. “I think it’s your turn to pick.”

“Let’s go to that ramen place we talked about last time, Kotetsu” came the reply.

” It seemed more like fried chicken fat that accidentally included some meat “

I looked up the address, jumped in the car, and started off down the street… and three minutes later I arrived. Well that was quite a bit closer than I thought it was – Kotetsu Ramen gets a thumbs up for convenience at least, assuming you live exactly where I do. Unfortunately, the convenient location just so happens to be a 1970’s strip mall that adorns the side of El Camino Real the same way an old piece of spinach adorns one’s teeth. The mall is not bad or scary really, it’s just ugly. If you’re ever in the market for an abandoned 1988 LeBaron station wagon with wood-look paneling, you’ll often find one or two specimens here.

I met Kevin in front of Kotetsu at 11:25am, right on schedule. “We need to wait out here, they don’t open for another five minutes” Kevin said, the “closed” sign on the door backing up his statement.  Actually, no – scratch that. The sign didn’t say “closed”, it said “close”, without the “d”.

I am confuse.

I am confuse.

Close. Hmm.

Did this mean “close by my house” or “please close this door”? Or was it a misspelling of “clothes”? My eye began to twitch slightly as my brain attempted to process this information and came up with nothing. To my relief, a nice man opened the door from the inside, removed the grammatically dubious sign, and invited us in.

Don't mind me. I'm just some guy taking pictures of you while you eat. Pretend like I'm not here.

Don’t mind me. I’m just some guy taking pictures of you while you eat. Pretend like I’m not here.

The inside of Kotetsu isn’t huge, but it’s well laid out, nicely lit, and absolutely immaculately clean. It really is a nice place to be. A lot of restaurants could learn a thing or two from Kotetsu and keep their dining areas a bit tidier. There’s a distinction between “not dirty” and “obsessively clean”. Customers (e.g., me) can tell the difference, and that’s one thing that really sets this restaurant apart.

The service at Kotetsu was as crisp and flawless as its cleanliness; within 2.8 seconds of being seated we had glasses of ice water and a competent waitperson at our beck and call. I opened the menu and started to browse through it… and immediately I knew I had a problem. Quite a lot of it was written in Romanized Japanese, which is Japanese words written using the English alphabet. This was a bit of an issue because, as you may have guessed, I don’t know Japanese. I gave Kevin a helpless “Please tell me you can read this” look, but he returned it with a shrug that conveyed “What, and you think I’m supposed to be able to?” Super.

I began carefully scrutinizing the menu, scanning for words I recognized and attempting to identify food items from the pictures. Let’s see… ramen…. ramen…  ramen…. Yes, those are all words I know but they are not helpful. Ah, here’s pork… and this one here says chicken. I decided on the least alarming thing I could identify, a chicken plate something-whatever, and Kevin ordered a ramen thing that seemed likely to include pork.

This is the plate of items I must have ordered.

This is the plate of items I must have ordered.

Our meals arrived quickly, and they looked fairly delicious. Well mine did anyway, but Kevin’s frightened me. To be perfectly honest, this kind of food really isn’t my cup of tea. Despite this, it was clear that the preparation was high quality and executed with the utmost care by expert hands. I wasn’t overly thrilled, but I’ll try anything once. My dish did indeed turn out to be not unlike chicken – fried chicken to be exact – and it included mayonnaise, some kind of potato salad, and assorted vegetable bits. The chicken was crispy, light, and had very good flavor, but it was extremely fatty. It seemed more like fried chicken fat that accidentally included some meat instead of the other way around. Kevin seemed to think that fatty chicken was just the style of the particular dish I ordered, which is possible, but I didn’t love it. I made my way through most of it and it grew on me as I ate. It’s still not my thing, but I can see how some people might appreciate it. The potato salad (if it actually was potato salad) was excellent.

"Yes, I'll have the partially submerged meat flower with kelp please."

“Yes, I’ll have the partially submerged meat flower with kelp please.”

Across the table, Kevin was enjoying the heck out of his ramen. It certainly did seem to have plenty of pork – large, flat pieces of it adorned the inner edges of the bowl in an epic fan of meatiness. The cuts of pork contained a fair amount questionable gristly bits throughout, and each was rimmed in a ring of fat. This dish was certainly not anything I would ever order for myself. It was becoming quite apparent, however, that I was the odd one out in the restaurant as far as my opinions went, as everyone else within eyesight really seemed to be chowing away with glee. Indeed, Kotetsu’s ratings on Yelp are consistently high, which tells me that this is a very good restaurant that simply doesn’t serve anything I like.

Coming up with a rating for Kotetsu Ramen is tricky. Objectively I give them decent marks for overall quality of preparation, cleanliness, flavor, and what appears to be a high degree of authenticity – let’s say 8.5 out of 10 pounds of fried chicken fat. On the flip side of the coin, I dislike the location, the menus need a lot of work to make them useable by a wider audience, and I just don’t personally care for the style of food (the latter of course is not the fault of Kotetsu). I’d be willing to go back to this place with the help of a translator, and if I can find a dish I like I have no doubt it will be made very well indeed …whatever it is.

Kotetsu Ramen
2089 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95050
(408) 557-0822
Kotetsu Ramen on Urbanspoon

That's a bowl of stuff alright. Enjoy?

That’s a bowl of stuff alright. Enjoy?

Sizzling Stone

meter-goodThis week I visited one of my regular South Bay lunch spots: Sizzling Stone in Milpitas. The name pretty much describes exactly what this place is about – hot rocks with stuff cooking on them. More specifically, your lunch is served in a heavy duty stone bowl that’s roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun.

If you asked me to describe Sizzling Stone in five words or less, I would reply with “Chipotle meets Chili’s in Seoul.” As you walk up to the main glass-fronted counter, you are presented with a bewildering array of menu options on a large board on the back wall. Ignore it. Instead, simply tell the friendly waitstaff you want a bowl and begin pointing vaguely at the ingredients you want in it. There are noodles, three kinds of rice, a ton of veggies, a few meat options, and about a billion other toppings to choose from. When you’re done assembling your masterpiece, they take the bowl and throw it directly on a burner as-is. While you wait for your lunch to heat up, grab some sauces, a bit of extra kimchee, and find a table.

When they say "hot lunch" they aren't kidding.

When they say “hot lunch” they aren’t kidding.

“It’s like the Running of the Bulls, only you’re fleeing from dilapidated 1990′s minivans”

Your bowl will arrive at your table a few minutes later at several thousand degrees Kelvin. Add your sauce, stir it up, and enjoy (carefully). The very best part about this place is how customizable the food is. You can go totally healthy or totally bad-for-you. You can go spicy, garlicky, saucy, or none of the above. Even the pickiest eaters are guaranteed to find something here that they will like, and adventuresome types will have a good time as well. Prices are about $11 per person including a drink, which is on the medium-to-high end of the lunchtime value scale. Mostly you’re paying for the presentation.

This next point isn’t really the fault of Sizzling Stone itself, but I’m obligated to report that navigating the Milpitas Square shopping area to get to this restaurant is freaking terrifying. It’s like the Running of the Bulls, only you’re fleeing from dilapidated 1990’s minivans festooned with Hello Kitty plush toys. The parking lot – which appears to have been designed by M. C. Escher on mescaline – is specifically constructed to lure you down dead end aisles so that you can get trapped by someone learning how to park their car for the very first time. Your best bet when this occurs is simply to leave your vehicle wherever it happens to be at the moment, just like everyone else has. When you are done with your meal, odds are you will find yourself blocked in by a half primered Del Sol with a compact disc hanging from the rear view mirror. If you escape this pit of automotive hell with fewer than three or four dozen door dings, consider yourself lucky.

In spite of the parking lot issue, I rate Sizzling Stone a respectable 87 Third Degree Forearm Burns out of a possible 115. This place is certainly worth checking out if you’re in the area, but I’d recommend getting a rental car first.

Sizzling Stone
510 Barber Lane
Milpitas, CA 95035
(408) 324-1107

Sizzling Stone on Urbanspoon

I give Sizzling Stone high marks for its clean, modern interior.

Neat, clean, and noodly. This is my kind of place.