“When an ex fashion guru turns chef, one could only expect skillfully hand-crafted dishes in the form of couture cuisine,” begins the press release for a new Bernal Heights ramen shop. “It’s showtime! Cuisine couture, it’s all the rave!”
The chef in question is Junya Watanabe, a former fashion designer and the owner of RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen, a San Diego-based chain of ramen restaurants whose two-year-old San Francisco outpost at 3282 Mission Street closed earlier this summer.
After a four-month hiatus, the shop will reopen on Monday, November 23, under new ownership and a slightly new name: “RakiRaki by Junya Watanabe.” Among other changes, Watanabe says, the ramen shop will be the first in the Bay Area to serve “mochi ramen noodles” — noodles with mochi powder added to the dough to make them extra-chewy.
“It’s the difference between real Italian pasta and supermarket pasta — kind of like that, only more chewy,” Watanabe says.
Does all of that add up to “couture cuisine”? As it turns out, before Watanabe opened the first RakiRaki in 2012, he had a 20-year career as one of the founding partners of Tadashi, a successful Los Angeles-based fashion design firm. (He’s not to be confused, however, with the fashion world’s best-known Junya Watanabe, the legendary designer of Commes de Garcon fame — “it’s a really common name in Japan,” Watanabe says.)
His restaurant is the kind that likes to deal in superlatives. The gyoza aren’t just any gyoza; they’re “super jumbo gyoza” — very big and very crunchy, Watanabe promises, “like you’ve never seen before.” The ramen isn’t just mochi ramen; it’s “super-thick mochi ramen noodles,” listed in air quotes even in the restaurant’s own promotional materials.
After retiring from the world of high fashion in the early 2000s, Watanabe says he spent several years traveling all over Japan — by rail, as was his hobby — specifically to visit ramen shops. He’d chat up the owners, he says, and ask if they’d agree to teach him their secrets if he signed papers promising never to open a shop in Japan. Eventually, he says, a few of them agreed. “They all had a special way of making it and some ‘essences’ they use. So what I did was I put them all together — all of their secrets in my ramen.”
The base broth of RakiRaki’s signature ramen is the creamy, pork-intensive tonkotsu style — a rich, but clean-tasting, version that takes 11 hours to make, Watanabe says. And he has six different tares, or concentrated sauces, that he adds to the soup. Ramen, in many ways, is just like fashion, Watanabe says, in its focus on perfection — on getting every detail right from the “first glance,” which in the case of ramen includes the smell and the sight of the steam rising from the bowl.
In Watanabe’s view, it’s in those details that the initial San Francisco incarnation of RakiRaki fell short. The chain’s first restaurant outside of San Diego, the Bernal Heights shop opened in 2018 as an independently operated franchise shop — one that Watanabe says he never had time to really oversee. And so, it never gained much traction, and once the pandemic hit, business really dropped off. The restaurant closed entirely in June, at which point Watanabe felt he needed to do a full reboot and take the reins himself — hence the “by Junya Watanabe” rebranding.
Watanabe believes the mochi noodles, which he first introduced at all of his San Diego ramen restaurants in August, will be a game-changer. A couple of years ago, one of his mentors in Tokyo had started adding mochi powder to his ramen noodles, the chef explains, attracting lines that stretched around the block. So Watanabe decided to bring that style of ramen to the U.S., adding tapioca powder to the recipe as well, to create noodles that have a “crisp chewiness” — that retain their al dente chew even after a long soak in hot soup. “Usually after you leave the noodles alone for 10 or 15 minutes in the broth, they just kind of die,” Watanabe says.
When it opens next week, the new RakiRaki will have an abbreviated menu for takeout only, including a few different ramen options, and the hardier, chewier mochi noodles will travel especially well, Watanabe says. Eventually, when indoor dining starts up again in San Francisco, the restaurant will add some of the other ramen styles it’s known for, including tsukemen.
During the restaurant’s initial takeout-oriented phase, however, Watanabe expects that the biggest hit won’t be the ramen at all. Instead, he expects customers to gravitate toward a new $25 bento box that consists of all of the chef’s most popular non-ramen dishes: a cut sushi roll, chicken karaage, takoyaki, the gyoza, and garlic-ginger marinated edamame. “It’s kind of a lot of food to eat unless you’re a big eater.”
Update: Wednesday, November 18, 4:55 p.m.: This article has been updated to note that RakiRaki by Junya Watanabe has pushed its opening date up Monday, November 23. The restaurant will be open for takeout and delivery from noon to 9 p.m. daily.