Back to California: The Mission to Reboot Mensho

This week, the ramen story takes us across the Pacific to the USA... Long-time Ramen Beast friends and fans will know that the Beast himself, Abram Plaut, is the cofounder of Mensho Tokyo SF, the Northern California ramen shop helmed by famed Japanese chef Tomoharu Shono. Prior to the pandemic, Mensho’s business on San Francisco’s Geary Street was booming. A line stretched down the block during all hours of operation and Abram and Shono-san were poised for bold expansion — a new location in the Twitter Building in downtown SF, an outpost in San Rafael and an ambitious experiment in South Asia. Like so many in the restaurant industry, their plans were overturned in an instant. In Japan, where restaurants have mostly remained open, Shono-san’s ramen empire — approximately 10 shops and counting — has continued humming. Their mission to bring authentic ramen culture overseas, however, became a twisty saga over the past year.

But at last, there is daylight…

Below is Abram’s firsthand story of a crazy year in the global ramen business.

If you’re new here, this is the Ramen Beast Newsletter — stories and food lore from Japan’s ramen subculture.

"Go back to your country"

These were the words told to me by the immigration officer at New Delhi Airport in the first week of March 2020. I was stunned. I had just touched down after a 9+ hour flight from Tokyo. Why was I in India? Mensho Tokyo New Delhi — our first ramen venture in South Asia — was finally ready to open. This was to be our third trip to India in less than a year, following lengthy prior visits to scout restaurant locations, set up a central kitchen and source ingredients. Now, with the construction of the restaurant finally complete, we were set to open by the end of March 2020. I was now at the airport alone, with my partner, master ramen creator Tomoharu Shono, set to fly in just a couple of days later. We had a full team hired in India, ready to work. One of Shono-san's Japanese ramen chef disciples was already there too, ready to cook and run the restaurant to a Japanese standard. All of the pieces were in place. The situation with the pandemic was slowly escalating in the news, but we had no inclination that almost the entire world was moments away from total lockdown. The check-in process with Air India at Tokyo's Narita Airport had gone smoothly. Yet here I was, being told I could not enter the country. The borders had literally shut down while I was in the air. After an unpleasant eight hours in New Delhi Airport's international terminal, I was able to board an ANA flight back to Tokyo. Little did I know at the time, but I would spend the next full year of my life in Japan without leaving. 

For those who don’t already know our backstory, ramen master Shono-san and I have been in business together since 2013, when we took our first trip from Tokyo to San Francisco together. After a lot of twists and turns, that journey culminated in 2016 when we opened the doors on MENSHO Tokyo SF — an authentic Japanese ramen restaurant — at 672 Geary Street in my hometown of San Francisco. 

Our very first introduction came at Shono-san's original Menya Shono ramen location in Tokyo's Ichigaya neighborhood. Today, Shono has close to ten highly regarded ramen shops throughout Tokyo, but this was his very first namesake shop. I came in as an ordinary diner — if I remember right, it was sometime in 2006 or 2007. His creativity stuck with me. I remember eating visually enticing bowls that were topped with premium ingredients such as lobster and prawns. He had special menu items that would change monthly. I can’t recall anyone at that time who was doing such a wide range of high-quality ramen dishes as he was out of a single shop. He was a trailblazer on the rise.

At that time, I was just beginning to explore ways of taking my hardcore ramen fandom in a semi-professional direction. I was eating ramen constantly, trying to up my game and expand my knowledge. If I had a goal (which I didn't, really), it would have been to be able to go toe-to-toe in ramen knowledge with any Japanese foodie I might meet in a Tokyo bar — hidden shop locations, remote regional sub-styles, legendary shops and masters, contemporary chefs doing interesting new things. I was out eating around Tokyo and Japan non-stop, absorbing as much as I could, and I would continue to do so for the next decade and beyond. Anyway, sometime around 2012 or so, I was introduced to a local food critic for Playboy Japan (which exists as a popular city lifestyle magazine here). I guess he was impressed by how passionate I was about ramen and we hit it off. He then proposed creating a regular column around myself and my friend Brian, who writes the popular Ramen Adventures blog, where we would review ramen together, and he would write about the tastes and impressions of these two foreigners who actually understand Japanese ramen to an extent. Over time, the critic and I became good friends (he prefers to keep a low profile and asked to remain anonymous here); he was something like a mentor to me in the Japanese food world. One day over dinner, he surprised me with a proposition: What if we tried to open an authentic Japanese ramen restaurant together in the USA?

One of Abram’s Playboy Japan articles circa 2009. Pictured to his side on the left is Tsukada-san, master of the Bond of Hearts ramen group — a ramen lord of Nagano Prefecture.

At first, I didn’t really take the idea too seriously. I had absolutely zero intention of getting into the restaurant business. As a background note, my brother graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked with restaurants and in the food industry his entire life. Many of my close friends own bars and restaurants in San Francisco. I've seen up close the grind and personal sacrifices required by the restaurant industry lifestyle. I was loving my life of total freedom in Tokyo and no effing way did I want any part of that business. But, that being said, although I don't particularly like to cook, I love to eat. I’m a true food lover at the end of the day, which I guess is how I got to where I am. I like to think my palette is a good one, and I'm driven by a curiosity to understand what I'm eating. 

Growing up in the beautiful diversity of the SF Bay Area, I've always treasured how rich our Asian food scene is. But after living and traveling in Asia for years, I had also started to notice some of the things my hometown was missing. For example: Despite the overwhelming options for sushi, the ramen scene was almost nonexistent back in 2013 when my Japanese friend first proposed this idea. In the U.S. at that time, if you wanted ramen, you had to go to New York or LA. Anywhere else, it was like dropping off a cliff. Ramen shops were around, of course, here and there; but let’s just say that if a ramen lover from Japan ate at any of these shops, chances are they would not leave satisfied (and they would probably question whether the dish they had eaten was ramen at all). Yet far and wide, where these suspect ramen restaurants did exist, they were usually popular — a lot of them even had waits at the door. 

So as I pondered my friend's proposal, I asked myself, was there potential in the U.S. for ramen? Hell YES, there was. So then I started to picture it... If somehow, someway, by some grace of God, I were able to team up with a legit Japanese ramen master — one of the best of the best — and get him properly set up in San Francisco, there was no way in hell we were not going to crush it. It would be like putting Lebron James into the lineup of a game in Japan's professional basketball league. We would be on a different level than the competition. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this might be an idea worth exploring...   

My food critic friend/mentor came up with two candidates, both of them legit ramen masters whom I already knew. One of them was Shono-san. From the first meeting, Shono’s enthusiasm was contagious. He's young, ambitious, seriously skilled and wildly creative. He wanted nothing more than to bring real ramen culture overseas, especially to a place like California. The three of us took a trip to SF, did a lot of research and eventually found a spot we thought was suitable. It was in an area with a bit of edge (on the border of The Tenderloin and Lower Nob Hill), but in close proximity to downtown and only a five-minute walk to Union Square. It had previously been a tattoo shop, located on the first floor of a multi-story apartment building with historic SF architecture. We would gut it and turn it into a ramen restaurant. We formed a company and signed the lease. We had absolutely no idea what we were getting into.  

I could write a small book about the trials and tribulations that played out over the next 2+ years — the differences between opening a ramen shop in Japan and the United States are like landing on two different planets — but we finally opened Mensho Tokyo SF on Feb. 6, 2016. Our mission from the beginning was to replicate an authentic Japanese ramen experience. This meant we would do things just like in Japan— no reservations, no waiting list, no take-out and no to-go containers. The focus was on high-quality, authentic Japanese ramen — and Shono's talent and versatility ensured that this essential aspect would never be a problem. But we were overwhelmed from the start. The first day, over 100 people lined up and the queue stretched down and around the end of the block. Some people apparently waited four hours for a bowl. I was thrown directly into the flames acting as a host, as I was the only person on our team who could both speak English and had the ramen knowledge to answer customers' questions. Every day from the open, the lines stretched long and deep. Many customers were extremely grateful that Japan-level, legit ramen was finally in the Bay Area (there was no denying that our food was up to Japanese ramen standards). Other people were not happy about some of the rules. Waiting over an hour at night in the cold with panhandlers a constant nuisance is not fun. Once inside, we were doing our best to establish the flow of a real Japanese ramen shop, not the leisurely hangout atmosphere of a U.S. restaurant. Needless to say, I got my ass absolutely handed to me in the months following the open. Our organization was a chaotic mess; I had no idea how to run a restaurant. Shono is a master in the kitchen and a pro at running restaurants in Japan, but this was a totally different ballgame and he was bounded by the language barrier. It was far from a seamless operation. But the ramen was good and ultimately that was all we cared about — the rest would follow. We made it work to the best of our ability. 

After getting things running smoothly over the following several months, we left one of Shono's Japanese managers at the helm and went back to Japan (Of course, it wasn't remotely that simple, but I'll spare you the details of trying to run a restaurant with zero experience while translating for ramen masters who have uniquely Japanese expectations and only speak Japanese). In the restaurant industry, and especially in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, you quickly learn that disaster can strike at any moment. But we knew we were onto something good — for no matter rain or shine, the daily lines and long wait times at Mensho Tokyo SF became consistent and legendary. We were on the map in a big way. 

Once we felt things were somewhat under control, we began gauging interest from possible partners for expansion. With the amount of cash in the Bay Area, it's no surprise that we quickly started attracting some investor attention. Fielding proposals soon became a big part of my job. One day, we were contacted by a robotics engineer for a prominent tech company in Silicon Valley. He was from New Delhi, India, and was only living in the Bay Area for work reasons. Someday, he expected to move back home. He was a die-hard customer. After eating our vegan ramen and lamb ramen in San Francisco almost religiously, he felt an uncontrollable desire — almost a calling, you could say — to bring this taste to India. This taste, he said, was something India was missing. And it was something he said Indians would love. His passion was undeniable, like he had experienced that spark that happens when you eat ramen (real ramen) for the very first time. I understood this. Roughly two years later, we were in business together and ready to turn that vision into reality in New Delhi.

Back to Tokyo

After my rejection at the airport in March 2020, I returned to Tokyo and we waited. The dine-in restaurant industry around the world was getting crushed. In California, Mensho Tokyo SF was forced to close. At first, it was temporary. We reopened briefly to offer mazesoba as a take out-only option amid emergency circumstances. But when our Japanese manager had to return to Japan in July, we decided to board up the shop and wait out the storm until indoor dining was back in business. India, too, was on hold indefinitely. 

September turned to October to December, then January. Then February. In the meantime, restaurants in Japan, thankfully, were still up and running, due to the relatively low local infection rates. This kept Shono-san's Japanese ramen empire afloat, and it allowed me to do what I love — explore new ramen shops — at a rate I had never hit before. Unable to leave Japan and with my business ventures on hold, I ate at over 400 different ramen shops last year, traveling to dozens of remote areas of the country. 

Finally in March 2021, California gave restaurants the green light to resume indoor dining in SF — first at 25% capacity, then 50%. It was time — Shono and I booked our flights back to Cali. When we touched down in SF the vibe was still eerily quiet. Out by the pickup curb at the international terminal, not a person was in sight. I looked down and saw a red, white and blue pill on the ground. An ominous sign? I hoped not.

As I cruised down the streets of SF in the back seat of an Uber, the proliferation of graffiti over the closed up businesses struck me immediately. The city looked like a different world (and the contrast with immaculate Tokyo was never more striking). Mensho Tokyo SF was no exception. Boarded and totally covered. We were going to have to start over and reopen the restaurant from zero. Take down the boards, clean the premises, reset supply chains, rehire staff. All of this during a pandemic. In the intervening years, just before covid hit, we had also laid the groundwork for a new MENSHO-branded ramen shop location in the Twitter building and another  branch of Menya Shono in San Rafael, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Twitter building location was stuck in construction delays (and they still are), but the San Rafael location was ready if we were. It was time to get to work.

The first task upon breaking into our flagship Geary store was how we wanted to deal with the boards covering our shop. We only needed to get into the front door for now, and wouldn't be ready to re-open for at least a couple of weeks. For the time being we decided to just remove the few boards covering our front door and leave the rest of the facade covered. The graffiti was an interesting touch. Well, on our third morning back in town, we arrived at the shop to find that glass of our front door — the only area of our restaurant we had re-exposed — had been smashed. The situation with crime and break-ins in SF right now is crazy. You now see parked cars with signs telling thieves there are no valuables in the car so please don’t break in. Does this exist anywhere else? Anyway, after our front door got smashed (luckily, no one got inside), we felt we had no choice but to put the boards up every night until we were ready to open the restaurant completely. Since it would take us a few weeks to make the necessary preparations to reopen, we were worried about just leaving the empty space exposed each night. So, every night we boarded back up, power drilling the plywood boards back in place.

This was our routine for the first two weeks back in the U.S. — a stark contrast from Japan, where street crime is basically non-existent. We would show up in the morning, use a power drill to take down the boards covering the door, work all day inside the restaurant, then board up again each night. We were starting to make some progress. A few of our old staff came back; the kitchen was slowly firing to life. 

One morning we arrived to find a notice from the city of San Francisco posted on the street outside our restaurant. “YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED THAT IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO REMOVE GRAFFITI ON SAID PROPERTY…”

It was a notice telling us that if the graffiti was not removed from our facade within two weeks we would be fined. Meanwhile, remember the current state of San Francisco: Crack pipes, hypodermic needles and human feces are common sites in the streets. Drug dealers deal openly, and users use freely in the open air. If you're familiar with the HBO series ‘The Wire,’ San Francisco's Tenderloin today is the real-life version of Hamsterdam. The plight of our homeless population is a national embarrassment. But somehow, the city still has time to make it a priority to tell people they need to remove graffiti (on temporary plywood boards, mind you) or risk facing fines? Anyway, we had two choices. Either take the boards down or paint over them. We decided to paint over them, covering the entire facade black. 

The very first night we got tagged, a writer marking his territory. I quickly removed it the next morning. Two nights later, a graffiti artist was back, making a fresh outline in silver spray paint. By noon the next day the facade was matte black again.  We were starting to get a little close to being ready to open. When would it be? How would we do it? Obviously, opening the restaurant with a full ramen menu of seven or eight different dishes at once was not going to be possible. We had a skeleton staff and the streets were still eerily quiet. 

Shono, being the creative force that he is, mentioned the idea of opening with the boards still up. If we couldn’t open the restaurant at full speed anyway, why not just open at our own pace serving a few bowls? Have a super limited menu — and almost have the reopening be a secret. Maybe cut a small window in the plywood to let a little light in. It would be kind of like a secret pop-up. An Ura-Mensho, he said. 

“Ura” means backside in Japanese, and the phrase is often used for pop-ups. In the Japanese ramen scene it’s also common for shops to temporarily change their name when they experiment with new shop concepts or invite another chef to come collaborate on a limited edition menu. Some ramen shops even change names between lunch and dinner service on a regular basis, offering two entirely different menus and eating experiences out of the same location.

We did not announce anything, as we were still unsure when we were going to be ready. Hiring was taking longer than usual given the circumstances (this is another story, but the bottom line is people are getting fat unemployment checks from the government, so it's naturally hard to motivate them unless you can promise quite high pay job with some kind of benefits — which is hard for a lot of businesses that have been battered by the pandemic and are still required to operate at 50% capacity). That being said, we were making progress one step at a time. To start the menu, Shono decided to bring back a version of arguably the most popular dish we served, Toripaitan ramen. Since it would probably be the hard-core fans coming first, Shono decided to make it a little hardcore. It would be a toripaitan / Jiro-style hybrid ramen, topped with pork back fat, fried onions and a pile of vegetables. In Jiro terminology, "Mashi Mashi."

Saturday, March 20th, was the day when Shono decided we could make it happen. Maybe. The chefs were hard at work in the kitchen, everyone else was doing whatever they could to get the restaurant ready. We had a couple of servers in training. By 5pm, there was still prep to do. Around 7pm, Shono said we were close. Then, finally, at 8:30pm Shono said, okay put the noren out. Finally. We were open.

The streets were dead, as almost all bars in the area were still closing as soon as darkness hit. For five minutes, not one of the few people to walk by gave us so much as a glance. Then, after 10 minutes, a lone guy walking by looked up and said… “Wait, are you guys open?!”

I told him we had just opened after more than eight months and he could be the first customer. He froze in shock. Bewildered, he exclaimed “Oh my god, my girlfriend is never going to believe this.” 

We served him and 10 minutes later Shono said, “Okay, let’s close up for the night!” We had served one customer. It felt good to be back. That night we had a meeting and decided the course of action moving forward. The next day we would serve 30 bowls of Toripaitan Ramen “Mashi Mashi” style, out of Ura Mensho, our new secret pop-up. The only form of announcement would come over our IG pages. It would be for the true fans. 30 bowls only.  

It felt so good to see customers lining up again. We were just as happy as they were that we were finally opening. We took photos with the lineup of loyal customers, some of whom I recognized from our first days in business five years ago (shoutout Taqueria San Bruno). We sold out the 30 bowls in a little over an hour, and got back to plotting and scheduling the coming weeks. 

After a few more days in pop-up mode, we finally took the boards down and went back to MENSHO Tokyo SF. Shono-san went straight to work adding menu items. The Jiro-style mashi mashi disappeared, as special menu items must, and we went with a standard lineup of Toripaitan, Vegan Tantanmen and Vegan Tantan Mazesoba, later adding Spicy Lamb Miso and Chashu Mazesoba. 

One of the things that makes Shono a great chef aside from his creativity is his constant drive to improve his dishes. It’s rare that an item is on the menu for longer than a year without it being adjusted for improvements. So while the bowls we serve in SF are very similar to what was served two years ago, quite often there are updates being made considering ease of operation, time, waste, cost, carbon footprint, and of course, most of all, deliciousness. 

An example: Two of the most popular menu items at our store in SF have always been the Toripaitan Ramen and the Vegan Tantanmen. The cooking process for both of these is quite complex. Toripaitan is a rich, creamy chicken soup. Usually this means boiling large quantities of chicken parts that are high in collagen and cartilage, such as the feet and wingtips. This also results in a laborious straining process, plus massive quantities of compost from the discarded chicken bones at the end. Upon our return this year, Shono basically reinvented the recipe, using chicken skin and thigh meat in place of the various bone parts. The recipe was almost an accident, as Shono discovered for the first time that chicken thighs in the U.S. are less expensive than chicken breast, despite the prices being reversed in Japan. The reason? Chicken thighs have more fat, and in the U.S. there is more demand for lean meat (I'll leave it to you to theorize why...). In Japan? The opposite (chicken thighs also have far more flavor). Once Shono realized we could get chicken thighs cheaper than breasts, he immediately starting thinking of ways he could make improvements to the recipe. By boiling large quantities of skin and thigh, he’s created a liquid chicken broth that is just as creamy and umami rich as before, without any wasted byproduct. No bones, no throwaway. The soup is literally liquid chicken.

With the Vegan tantanmen, the soup base is a vegetable broth. Prior to this year, we were making a vegetable soup from scratch, combining it with premium soy cream. However, now the soup that goes into the vegan tantanmen is made from the vegetable scraps of the prior day’s toppings. When the chefs prep the toppings each day (kale, cabbage, green onions, etc.), they save the unusable stuff such as the stems, stalks, roots or off-sized bits for the next batch of soup. This cuts down on both ingredient costs and compost garbage. In regards to the soy cream, this is a premium imported product made to the highest standards in Japan. It’s also made with soybeans from Canada, which are shipped to Japan, processed into soy cream, and then shipped back to the U.S. While this soy is extremely delicious, Shono found he could swap it with roasted sesame paste and achieve a similar taste, creating a vastly smaller carbon footprint (and saving on costs). Another ingenious invention is what Shono created from enoki mushrooms. We go through a lot of enoki, as we have enoki mushroom chips as an appetizer on the menu. For those not familiar, enoki come clumped together at the base. Most people cut the mushrooms midway down the stem and throw the base away. Rather than throw away all that byproduct though, Shono figured out a way to slice the base of the mushrooms into thin strips, he then marinates them in soy sauce and fries them. The result? Vegan enoki chashu (it's delicious). 

Mensho Tokyo SF’s Vegan Tantanmen, a popular local favorite, which Shono invented from scratch for the San Francisco location based on local ingredient availability.

Back in India

As the pandemic dragged on last year, for the sake of our business partners, we began exploring any avenue to somehow, someway open in New Delhi. The lease had been signed and kitchen staff had been hired full-time (including a Japanese Mensho ramen chef to lead the team). The Japanese chef hung on waiting for a few months, but as the situation worsened he eventually threw in the towel and requested his return to Japan. To totally shelve the operation at his point was still out of the question, but dragging on for a year or more without opening (and having to pay rent) would be such a financial hit that it might implode the business anyway. But what could we really do? How in the hell can you open a ramen restaurant without a knowledgeable ramen chef? The idea of video meetings between kitchens was briefly floated, but if you can’t be there to smell and taste the food, how can you really sell food with your name on it? We figured the best (and maybe only feasible) course of action would be for Shono to create recipes using Indian ingredients in Japan, and then have the chefs in India try to duplicate those exact recipes. Clearly this was going to be a monumental task, but we had no other choice. We sourced the exact same ingredients for Shono, got them to him in Tokyo, and he made recipes for the team in New Delhi to replicate. Over video — and via translation — instructions and cooking techniques were implemented. Finally, in February 2021, almost an entire year after we had been scheduled to originally open, it was time. Mensho Tokyo New Delhi was going to open for business.

Initially, the feedback was really positive. Apparently the locals were enjoying it, and the shop looked really good. Some Bollywood celebrities visited the shop and a buzz was developing. Business was humming. But then we started hearing mixed feedback from Japanese customers we had connections with in India. Although the food was good by local tastes, it wasn't really ramen, they said. It definitely wasn’t Mensho. What we eventually found out was that the recipes and menu were somehow being adjusted — they weren't exactly following Shono’s specifications. Not to blame the Indian chefs; they were doing the natural thing: simply cooking the food to cater to Indian tastes. But the bottom line was that adjustments were being made under Shono’s name without his knowledge or approval. As a result, the decision was made to halt the operation temporarily until improvements could be made and proper quality controls put in place. We needed someone on the ground who understands the recipes, tastes and intricacies of ramen. 

After careful game planning, we were able to recruit and hire a new qualified and enthusiastic manager for Mensho Tokyo New Delhi. Even better, we were able to get an Indian chef that graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and has experience working and running kitchens in New York. Because he has a U.S. visa, we were able to fly him out from India and get him training directly under Shono's wing while he's in San Francisco. The goal was for him to be fully capable of running any position in the kitchen of Mensho Tokyo SF by the end of an intense one-month training period. He studied the intricacies of all aspects of daily prep, including noodle-making, with Shono looking over his shoulder. This week, he went back to India, bringing a first-hand taste of real ramen culture with him. This is something we are confident about. We’ve also been following the tragic and deteriorating health conditions in India, with great concern for our partners and friends there. When the moment is right, Mensho Tokyo New Delhi will make its return. 

As for the coming weeks and months, look for Menya Shono in downtown San Rafael to open at the end of April. I grew up in a small town called Fairfax, just a 15-minute drive away from where this new store is. My parents still live in Fairfax to this day; Marin County will always be special to me. To be raised here, experience Asian culture for the first time in my life here, and then come back from Japan in the situation we are in now, I can’t help but feel overjoyed. We still have a long way to go, but we are indeed bringing real ramen culture to places where it previously did not exist. I feel like we are still just getting started… 

- Edited by Patrick Brzeski, produced collectively by the Ramen Beast team.