Thursday, April 3, 2014

Restaurant Review: Orenchi Ramen

Orenchi - dinner on March 26, 2014, 4-star rating and 2952 reviews on yelp
Outside Orenchi, 15 minutes before opening
I first went to Orenchi back in July of last year and always meant to write up the review but I couldn't find the pictures I took on my first visit. I finally went back there for dinner last week so I have another shot at it. I've actually been dying to write this review because the Orenchi experience is hysterical. It's funnier if you're not a huge, die-hard, I-live-for-ramen sort of person because then you'll think it's as crazy as I do. If you are a fanatical ramen lover, you'll just roll your eyes at me and tell me I don't get it. Fair enough.
Inside Orenchi, 10 minutes before opening
I met my friend Jenny there for dinner. She arrived 30 minutes before they opened and put our name down on the waiting list that Orenchi keeps in the foyer. We were #9. Still half an hour to go before opening and the waiting list was already 9 lines deep. I got there 15 minutes before opening and noticed people already gathered outside as I parked my car. I didn't think it was too bad but then I got inside and there were a lot more people inside the small foyer. And it got even more crowded with every minute that ticked by. As in, standing room only crowded. For ramen. My coworker, Queen of Cheap Eats, was the one who first told me about Orenchi and she's a seasoned veteran of the place. Her advice is to go before they open, put your name on the waiting list then go do your errands or whatever and just come back at opening time. Sound advice and I 'm glad Jenny got there when she did or we would've had to wait even longer. As it was, once they opened for business, it was very orderly as they called the names in order on the waiting list and started seating people. I don't know what time the #1 signup was there and I'm not sure I want to know. They must love ramen.
Inside Orenchi as they start seating people by the waiting list order
The interesting thing about Orenchi, beyond its wild popularity (check out their reviews on yelp, linked above), is it defies all conventional wisdom about owning, operating and growing a restaurant. First, their location sucks. Truly. It's in a dying strip mall next to a Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. There's not much else there so if you go to this strip mall, you're going there for a specific purpose, probably to go to Orenchi. Second, the place is small. One of the reasons there's always a crowd waiting to get in is they can't seat very many people at any one time. So customers wait. And wait. Third, they're only open a limited number of hours: 2 hours for lunch and 3-4 hours for dinner, depending on the day of the week. They're also closed on Mondays. It's like they don't want that many customers.
But the funny thing is, they get a huge number of customers day in, day out. Conventional wisdom aside, if your success metrics include a cult-like following who don't mind your location, your limited hours and wait times plus large crowds every single hour you're open, then Orenchi is any restaurateur's dream. Do you know of any other ramen place that has almost 3000 reviews that averages to 4 stars? It's mind boggling.
How do they do it? What's the secret sauce? For me, it always starts with the food. For any eating establishment to succeed, you have to serve good food. In Orenchi's case, since they're famous for their ramen, you should expect their ramen to be good. And it is. I took snapshots of parts of their menu so you can see their claim to fame, including boiling their broth for at least 18 hours before serving. For my part, while I'm no ramen expert, I will say their ramen is delicious. The broth is amazing and, unlike other ramen places, it's consistently good throughout the whole bowl, i.e. it doesn't get more salty as you keep eating it. The noodles are a perfect chewy consistency, the soft-boiled egg which so many reviewers rave about is perfectly done and the pork topping is delicious (I ordered it as an extra topping). Considering their popularity, their prices are pretty reasonable  - $9 for a standard bowl - and the portion sizes are decent, i.e. I can't imagine eating more than the serving they give you.
I was less thrilled with the appetizers though. The first time I went to Orenchi last year, I had gotten the Karaage. Too salty. The Chicken Karaage from Kahoo is better. This time around, I got the deep fried shrimp spring roll. Too greasy and I was disappointed that they used little shrimp plus fillers (roughage) for the filling instead of prawns or a mostly shrimp mixture. I wouldn't get either again. Jenny got the Wasabi Octopus as an appetizer. I don't eat raw or octopus so I have no idea what it tasted like and I forgot to ask Jenny if she liked it.
Wasabi Octopus
Service seemed pretty quick. Our ramen took awhile to come out and we wondered if it was because we had ordered appetizers and they were spacing out when they'd bring us the ramen. Otherwise, the wait staff moved quickly and were very nice. We sat at the counter to free up a table for the waiting list below us and could see into the kitchen where they were dishing out bowl after bowl of ramen. Before long, the tables were full yet I could see the same amount of people crowding in the foyer waiting their turn. The crowd didn't dissipate.
Deep Fried Shrimp Spring Roll
When we left, there was a good-sized crowd outside as well waiting to be able to get into the foyer so they could wait some more. From my friends who are regular patrons of Orenchi, this is a daily and nightly occurrence. I'm going to confess that while I thought their ramen was good and I'd certainly go back, I'm not such a ramen lover that I'd be willing to wait 15-30 minutes (or more) to get a table every time. The inconvenience isn't worth it to me but clearly, I'm outnumbered on that sentiment. Kudos to Orenchi for building such a loyal following....even though as a non-ramen fanatic, I think it's just a little bit crazy.
Orenchi Ramen with Pork Topping

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