Walk into Ramen by Omae, a ramen shop across from an El Torito in a Sherman Oaks strip mall, and "Michelin star" may not be the first phrase that comes to mind. But that seems to have been the key factor buzzing around this newcomer. Chef Takeshi Omae, who trained at Le Cordon Blue in London and cooked under culinary superstar Masaharu Morimoto, was twice awarded a Michelin star for his Tokyo restaurant, Omae XEX, yet there is little that draws attention to this award at Ramen by Omae. Tables here are sparse, a liquor license is non-existent, and the quiet clanging of woks in the kitchen serves as a comfortable white noise. A slurp of Omae's signature burnt ramen, though, soon gives away his culinary prowess—depending on the bowl that lands in front of you.
Before I get to the ramen, it's important to mention that Ramen by Omae carries the ramen burger, the somewhat elusive, Frankenstein mash-up first introduced by Keizo Shimamoto in Brooklyn. Here, there is no two-hour line dominated by 20-somethings looking to acquire some kind of foodie badge of honor; there is still, however, an air of mystique when you order it in a Sherman Oaks strip mall. The mystique doesn't last long. Wrapped in parchment paper already soaked through with grease by the time it hits the table, the burger is a bland patty bookended by inch-thick ramen "buns." There is melted cheese, onions and a few lettuce leaves, but that's it in a nutshell—and it's not very good. Four of us took a bite, said "eh" and left the rest of the burger untouched. Better to stick to the starters, like the savory wok edamame marinated in spicy miso.
When it comes time to order a bowl of ramen, there are two paths you can take depending on how involved you want to be. The menu features six dedicated bowls that you can beef up with extra meat, wantans or noodles. You can even go full throttle by adding "The Works"—extra meat, wantans, seaweed nori, black mushrooms, cabbage, green onions and an egg—for $14.95. The other path is complete customization: Choose a broth (pork, chicken or veggie), flavor (salt, soy or miso), noodle (yellow thick or white thin), egg (hard or soft) and any extra toppings. It's certainly a way for picky eaters to make sure they're getting what they want. The problem is, of course, that endless combinations mean inevitable disappointments. The best bowls were ones already created: a shrimp and veggie tomato miso was a surprisingly close cousin to gumbo—and a delicious one at that. The shrimp can be scarce but the broth is hearty and filling, a product of all the tender veggies packed in it. An even better choice? The heavenly burnt Kogashi miso with pork broth. Burnt miso ramen, for the uninitiated, is made when fermented bean paste is set ablaze in a wok before being added to Omae's signature broth that has been simmering for 48 hours. The result is a thick, smoky broth that clings to everything in the bowl, like the kikurage mushrooms and generous slices of pork. It was by far and away the favorite at the table, and I wouldn't hesitate to order it time and time again. What didn't work was an "Original" bowl with The Works; the pork broth was overpowering, perhaps because there was so much extra meat added to the dish. A chicken broth ramen was less memorable, but could it have been better with a different combination of veggies, meat and noodles? Perhaps, which is the risk you have to take when curating your own bowl.
A couple tips to ensure the most enjoyable ramen experience: choose the yellow thick noodles over the white thin, and the soft boiled egg over the hard. The thicker noodles hold more flavor (and are just, you know, better), while the soft egg gives the broth a fantastic, robust consistency once it breaks open. Ending the meal with Omae's mochi is another must. Oh, you don't like the texture of this Japanese dessert? Get over it. The mochi here are excellent, available in flavors like green tea, mango and red bean (a personal favorite). They're not Michelin-worthy—but they're good enough, which sometimes matters just as much.
What to Eat: Spicy miso wok edamame ($3.50). Pork burnt Kogashi miso ($9.75). Shrimp veggie tomato miso ($9.75). Mochi ($3).
What to Drink: There isn't any alcohol here, but you can have all the green ice tea you want. Seriously. Our waitress came by every three minutes (if I'm exaggerating, it's only slightly) to refill both our water and tea in a never-ending flow of beverage service. You will not leave thirsty (the tea is good, too).
Where to Sit: This is the kind of place you can dine alone in and feel completely comfortable. There are only a handful of tables pressed up against the walls, and the kitchen-adjacent bar is perfect if you've just come for a solitary bowl of ramen.
Conversation Piece: Chef Omae is working on another project in Vegas—an upscale, 12-seat omakase restaurant called Japanese Cuisine by Omae. Whatever man, he came to the SFV first.