San Sui Tei
Walk in and you’ll notice an open kitchen situated just a few feet away from the bar and seating area. Oil crackles loudly in a wok; the heat and smell waft through the air. The space is low-key and snug, but what it lacks in glitz and ostentation, it makes up for in its down-to-earth warmth and food, made simply and purely. Owner and chef Fanmin Yu sums it up succinctly, “What you see, what you get. This is my formula.”
It’s easy to miss, but you’ve probably loitered outside Little Tokyo’s San Sui Tei while waiting in line, stomach grumbly and patience wearing thin, for Daikokuya Ramen. It’s an inconspicuous, family-run Japanese restaurant on E. 1st Street, and it’s more than just an alternative to braving the crowd a few doors down—it’s a stand-out spot in its own right.
“The meaning of San Sui Tei in Chinese: ‘san’ means mountain, because our lives feel like we’re climbing a mountain. ‘Sui’ translates to waterfall. And ‘tei’ is a place where you can take a break after you climb a mountain,” says Yu. “This is a place where people can sit to take a break. Most customers feel like they are coming home.” There is always the question of authenticity whenever a non-native chef recreates traditional fare, but Chinese-born Yu has the experience to back it up. Yu worked at ramen shops across Japan for many years before bringing his culinary experiences to the States, when he opened the first San Sui Tei in Temple City. The restaurant eventually made its way to Little Tokyo, where it is now in its 10th year of operation.
The menu boasts a range of Japanese dishes, from rice bowls to sushi rolls, but in a neighborhood densely packed with seemingly endless options for ramen, San Sui Tei holds its own. Pork belly is cooked and stewed for eight hours, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth pieces of meat low in fat and highly tender. Broth is cooked for at least 24 hours, sometimes up to two days. Yu’s recipe reduces the fat and the oil typically found in heartier soup bases, opting instead for lighter broths with unique flavors. Spicy chicken, for instance, boasts a unique broth that marries both spice and flavor evenly. You can feel a tingle on your tongue with every slurp, right down to the last spoonful.
Yu serves up generous bowls of noodles topped with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and boiled egg. He gives a quick rundown on how to best enjoy ramen: don’t mix the noodles; instead, enjoy every component of the bowl one-by-one. Savor the flavor of the broth before adding in condiments. Pepper the soup with the house black sauce, a smoky liquid made of garlic, sesame, and green onion. Savor broth once more. Dig in. Enjoy.