Ramen Renaissance in Oakland: Interview with Sobo Ramen’s Stella Loi

Ramen1Like many JET alumni, I got spoiled by fantastic ramen while in Japan. Living in Kyushu allowed me to experience many variations of the island’s milky tonkotsu pork broth. When I returned to the States, I discovered that really good tonkotsu ramen was hard to find. That’s all changing now though. The Bay Area has seen a veritable ramen boom in recent months, with a new restaurant seemingly opening every week. Among the best is Sobo Ramen in Oakland’s Chinatown. I sat down recently with the restaurant’s owner, Stella Loi, to learn more about the culinary magic she creates.

PB: Stella, you know that I was addicted to tonkotsu ramen when I lived in Kyushu. So I was really surprised to find your restaurant in Oakland! What first got you interested in ramen?

Stella: I’ve always loved good noodles and have had an interest in food from different regions since I was little. Ramen is comforting to me and very tasty, so when I first tried it, I fell in love. Ramen to me has a very special connection to me and whoever is enjoying it. It brings me gratification when people finish the bowl and drink the soup up to the last drop!

How did you decide to open up a Japanese-style ramen shop in Oakland?

When I wanted ramen, I would have to drive very far to get it. All of the great ramen joints I enjoy are in the South Bay or in San Francisco. There was a need for a ramen spot in the East Bay. Judging by our customers, a lot of them have never had ramen in their whole life!

I believe it. It’s so hard to find really good, authentic tonkotsu ramen in the Bay Area, especially. But yours is so good. It tastes just like the ramen I ate in Japan. What’s your secret?

I don’t really claim my soup is authentic because I am not Japanese, but I admire the Japanese spirit. Making tonkotsu is no secret at all; it just requires a long process of cooking the pork bones and using fresh ingredients. If I say there is a secret, then the tastiest ingredient, which should be a part of every dish, is love…and it costs nothing!

Ok, so you know I love tonkotsu, but you have so many other delicious things on your menu.

Yes, our shoyu and miso broths are very good, too! The shoyu is made with chicken and fish, which gives a sweet and simple tasty flavor. Our miso is a vegetarian ramen, and the spicy miso is a combination of tonkotsu broth with a kick. We are also working on a new noodle and vegetarian broth. Stay tuned for those.

I have a feeling JET alumni are also interested in your happy hour specials….

We have some great drink specials! We have a delicious yogurt sochu that comes in four flavors: strawberry, peach, melon, and plain. And, of course, Sapporo on draft and hot sake as well.

As you know, all of our alumni lived in Japan. What was your experience there?

I’ve always liked to learn about different cultures. I admired the ramen chefs’ enthusiasm, and that is my inspiration to make ramen.

Do you have any special messages to pass along to our alumni?

I hope everyone can come join us and share my joy and love for ramen!

Interested in trying Sobo Ramen for yourself? The restaurant is located at 988 Franklin Street in Oakland’s Chinatown. Check out their website at www.soboramen.com.

Mark Frey, JETAANC Vice President, East Bay
Kumamoto, 2002-06

Oakland Ramen Nite! – April 18
Join JETAANC and OFSCA at Sobo Ramen for a great night of food, drinks, and fun! Come early for their great happy hour specials! Please register here so we can make an accurate reservation:
http://oaklandramennite1.eventbrite.com/

Sponsored by JETAANC and Oakland-Fukuoka Sister City Association (OFSCA). Note that this event is in lieu of JETAANC’s April East Bay Networking Nomikai.

2 blocks from 12th Street BART station; parking garage onsite

For a print version of this article, click here.