On this Easter Sunday I joined a band of Google folk on a trip to Orochon Ramen. Orochon is famed for the fire in their "Special #2" ramen. If you can finish a bowl in under thirty minutes they immortalize your pain with a photo on their wall. Naturally, that meant we were shaping up for a spicy evening.
At 6:15 PM the crowds began to sort out carpools at the Shea house and then set out for our adventure. I had the pleasure of tagging along with Mike, who graduated from UCLA back when I was in the first half of my graduate journey, and Jackie, I fellow climber whom I never have climbed with but rather met during my 2009 summer internship at Google. After a few adventures navigating the freeways of downtown Los Angeles we arrived ready for battle just as the other cars pulled in.
Our timing was well fated, with an opportune four consecutive unoccupied tables on the patio ready for seating. The ramen house has a common wait time of about thirty minutes and won't typically seat large parties. We had planned to split into two groups upon arrival but were pleased to find that we could all set together without at wait!
And then came the moment of truth. Who dared try the "Special #2" thirty minute challenge. I knew that I was in the company of some heavy weights. The composure with which KiYun can consume crazy amounts and intensities of food and drink has never ceased to amaze me. Dan does not flinch away from popping peppers that make me grimace. My other peers I was not so sure of. In light of the competition I decided to play it smart by ordering in the middle of the spice scale so as to enjoy my dinner and the show. But after a few comments questioning my masculinity I folded. Johny Cash, here I come.
Only Jackie had the sense to order regular ramen while the six boys ordered the "Special #2" with instructions for management to start the clock when all the bowls were served. We chatted it the cool night as we waited for ramen on the patio.
"Is it really that spicy?"
"Probably not. I order as hot as they'll go at the curry house next to us and its not that bad."
"Did you see that YouTube video of the guy who eats the hottest pepper in the world and has an allergic reaction? Brutal! That would put damper on the evening."
While waiting we decided to add a bit more excitement to the evening. We decided to pick up the tab for whoever finishes their spicy ramen first, independent of the time limit. In the case that no one could finish we would pay for Jackie's dinner. Now we had to race both the clock and each other. Shaping up to be fun times!
We waited. It grew cold and we nervously joked about how nice the super spicy ramen would feel warming us up. The line for ramen grew and just started to pass our table when the six bowls of "Special #2" were placed before us at precisely 7:30 PM. And the show began.
The spicy ramen came in a normal ramen bowl, but was filled to the top resulting in a good 1.5 or even 2 liters of broth with a vivid red color. Crazy. Ample numbers of chopped spicy peppers rings floated in the ramen along with the standard pork, noodles, and green peppers. We smirked, if jalapeño rings were the best they could do this would be a wash, or worse yet a waste of time and money. Grinning at each other we tried the broth.
Ample sweat, a few tears, and a sudden out brake of coughing and nose blowing revealed that this was not simply ramen with red coloring and jalapeño rings. We were facing some serious and complex burn from the broth. Strategies quickly emerged.
Clint and Leon readily admitted defeat and sat back to slowly enjoy what they could eat of their ramen while watching the show. Dan decided to tackle the broth first since the noodles and other solids would then be a cinch to finish. KiYun and I flipped that logic, arguing that eating the solids first would be easy and facilitate a quick minute of burning gulping to finish off the broth. Mike took a balanced approach that set a steady pace spooning broth along with with one or two noodles at a time.
Sweaters and jackets came off. Piles of napkins, used to wipe freely running noses and sweaty faces, mounded higher onto the table. We were only five minutes in.
Mike had turned red and looked like he may approaching a medical emergency. Sweat poured down KiYun. I was keeping my cool but falling behind. Dan spooned away at his soup.
The tables turned ten minutes into the session. Mike, having lost some of the pallor that had initially overtaken him, settled into his zone and steadily ate a large spoonful of broth with just one or two noodles at a time, time and time again. KiYun and I found ourselves with no solids left and a truly intimidating bowl of broth before us. I tried drinking directly from the bowl a few times. The first gulp was good, but then fire would follow during the second gulp without mercy. This sudden onset of flame once sent a mouthful of burning spice down the wrong tube and leading to a rather violent bout of coughing and hacking as my lungs rejected the intruder. Dan, who so far had made great headway through his ramen, began to slow.
Fifteen minutes in I realized I was out. The broth was too much for me. I had made a great showing and decided to resign honorably rather than muddle through to defeat and more lost taste buds. With pressure off I spent the rest of dinner enjoying, very slowly, my ramen broth. Many offer spicy food that has replaced good flavors with simple burn. I find this to be a senseless exchange. But spice that brings ample flavor can be a true treat. I give Orochon credit for creating a soup that, while burning with spice, is full of flavor when consumed in moderation. Dan soon followed my lead, leaving KiYun and Mike battling against the clock.
Twenty minutes brought Mike contemplating a pile of solids sitting in a very shallow pool of broth in the bottom of his bowl. If he maintained his composure he would succeed. KiYun faced a formidable half bowl of broth menacingly looking glaring back at him.
Five minutes later the official restaurant time keeper found Mike sitting (relatively) comfortably before an empty bowl. Mike had beaten the Orochon challenge. Photos were taken, congratulations from fellow patrons were given, and then we noticed KiYun.
A grim look of determination had overtaken his sweaty face looking down at the last third of his broth. Only one minute left. With a half shrug and half grimace he grabbed the bowl and began to drink. A truly amazing feat. With but seconds left on the clock he finished the broth muddy with the settled spice, popped the last few peppers into his mouth, and relaxed into his seat a winner. A second round of congratulations erupted, more photos, and a second round of hand shaking ensued. Having shown this incredible endgame we quickly conferred and decided to cover the tab of both Mike and KiYun.
With burning esophagi, heart burn, and stomachaches we happily wandered away from our dinner at Orochon. A Pink Berry on the way to the cars demanded our attention for a quick half hour of reminiscing over tart frozen yogurt, creating a civil and soothing end to a delightful Easter.