Shoki’s Ramen, Gyoza & Koji in Sacramento opens for dinner in two hours, and Yasushi and Kathy Ueyama are crying in the kitchen. Not because their tear ducts had been assaulted by the onions bobbing up against slabs of pork and chicken inside a cauldron of boiling broth. Because the husband and wife co-owners know this — their third Shoki’s iteration, the first of which opened in 2007 — will be their last.
The reality is as bittersweet as it is liberating for the 63-year-old Yasushi, who’s spent most of his career learning how cook Japanese cuisine that caters to the American palette without completely parting from the haute kaiseki culinary style he studied while living in Japan. But after three decades of growth, failures, losses, and successes, Yasushi is doing things his way — and on his own time.
“This,” he says through Kathy, who translates, “is my house.”
That means Yasushi makes everything on Shoki’s menu from scratch to avoid having to compromise his vision or high-caliber expectations. A majority of his ingredients are locally sourced and organic: Solano Farms mushrooms, River Dog eggs, Rancho Llano Seco pork, Mary’s Free Range chicken. At Shoki’s Ramen, Gyoza & Koji, quantity is not only inferior to quality — it’s its arch-enemy, which is why the ramen shop will operate on limited hours for the next few months. After closing the R Street outpost in May 2021, Yasushi needs time to reacquaint himself with the kitchen and ingredients.
Shoki veterans who followed the Ueyama’s from their first shop on 24th Street to its second on R in Midtown to its third at the current 21st Street address before it was forced to close after a fire in 2019, will recognize the “Tan Tan Men” ramen. The earthy, soy sauce-based broth carries a hint of chili heat that warms gradually rather than puncturing with spice. By the time the soup reaches guests, it’s been cooking for seven hours.
But Yasushi noticed Americans treating the soup like a mere heating agent, discarding the painstakingly crafted liquid once they finished their noodles, bamboo strips, and pork belly. So he tinkered with his recipe, aligning it with kaiseki style by layering subtle flavors to create a single, complex one. Yasushi is careful, for example, not to allow his vegan black sesame seed-based broth boil because the high heat destroys the sweet aroma of the vegetables he uses to make it. “He hopes it will encourage people to drink all of their broth, all the way down to the last drop,” Kathy says. “He spends a lot of time on it.”
The new Shoki’s ramen bowls also feature an add-on that appears out of place at first glance: a slice of sourdough (Yasushi loves Village Bakery in Davis) smeared with homemade garlic paste. It’s a twist on the classic bread and soup combo — and the tang of the soudough and garlic notes of the spread taste like the continuation of a conversation started by the ramen, which contains the same flavors. Yasushi also makes his own koji, a fermented rice that forms the base of miso, shoyu, and sake.
Yasushi hopes diners will appreciate the dishes and techniques behind them — but has gained enough wisdom from past Shoki restaurants to know not to expect it. “He also realized that he can’t force his passion onto someone, or how you should eat a certain way,” says Kathy, a high school Japanese teacher by day who joins Yasushi in the evenings to work at the restaurant.
As one of the earliest ramen joints to open in Sacramento, Shoki’s has earned a dedicated and doting fan base, many of whom clamored onto the online reservation list for the restaurant’s soft opening on April 27 — and on every available date since. Ietetsu Ueyama, Yasushi and Kathy’s 18-year-old son who manages Shoki’s social media, says that most of the online reservations sell out within the first few minutes of going live.
Just before the first dinner shift, guests congregate outside the restaurant, taking selfies and humble-bragging about enduring long wait times on the last day at the now-closed R Street location, two years ago. After finalizing the newly laminated menu with Ietetsu — each time Yasushi gets inspired by an idea, they have to create a new one — Kathy opened the door and beckoned customers inside the 1,500-square-foot space.
They opted for a design that reminded them of home, with thoughtful touches to honor the places they’ve come from. White tiles that cover the top half of the walls are brushed in geometric shapes that subtly reference origami. The bottom half is sage green, a shade they immediately fell in love with while visiting a co-op in Oregon. Some of the wooden furniture in the alleyway patio came from the Ueyama’s backyard; Kathy jokes that some of the stains likely came from their ramen, too. And above one of the dining counters is a tableau of works by local artists who paid homage to Shoki’s over the years, as well as a painting of a samurai from Yasushi’s grandfather, who was an artist. When he presented the gift to Yasushi, he told him the samurai’s name: Shoki.
While the crowd listens to Kathy introduce the new menu, Yasushi is busy in the kitchen, swaying to the jazz music he loves cooking and entertaining to. Each time he emerges from the swinging door, balancing trays of steaming hot bowls of lovingly tended-to ramen, a hush falls over the room. Diners regularly ask him to sign their t-shirts or pose for a picture, to which he normally politely declines, but this night is different. When one guest shyly asks, he obliges and poses, clad in pinstripe Dickies and a white towel wrapped around his neck and tucked into the front of his shirt. Probably to sop up the sweat while he works. Or the tears.
“He’s very sensitive,” Kathy says. “I think that’s why his food is so delicate.”