The name of Chef Tomoharu Shono’s latest ramen restaurant, Mensho, combines the Japanese character for “men,” which means “noodle” in Japanese, with the first syllable of Chef Shono’s name. Store manager Abram Plaut believes it’s a good name for the company, saying, “It sounds nice off the tongue.”
Plaut described his role at Mensho as, “whatever [chef and founder] Shono needs to make sure he’s in a good place with the chefs, or whatever he needs to create.” In 2005, Tomoharu Shono opened his first Mensho location in Tokyo. Since then, he’s served noodles and broth to diners in more than 20 locations around the world.
Born and raised in Marin, Plaut partnered with Shono to launch Mensho’s San Francisco shop on Geary Street and to open the latest location on Piedmont Avenue. Plaut isn’t a chef, but after studying Japanese in college he moved to Japan and became a ramen expert and columnist.
“In 20 years, I’ve eaten at almost 4,000 different ramen restaurants,” he said. “I fell in love with the food scene.”
Plaut said that when he arrived in Japan at the turn of the 21st century, ramen was transitioning from being a fast-food commodity into being a gourmet dish with premium ingredients.
“When you eat ramen in Japan, it’s like comparing fingerprints or snowflakes, in the sense that no two are exactly alike,” Plaut said. He calculates there are somewhere between 25,000 to 30,000 ramen shops in Japan. “As a ramen eater, you can go to eat at a new ramen shop every day for the rest of your life, and you’re never going to eat at all of them.”
In terms of the ramen preparation itself, there are two schools of thought. A traditional approach from shops that have been serving the same recipes for decades, and a more innovative one. Mensho belongs to the latter category. Shono, Plaut said, routinely asks the question, “How can I make this more delicious tomorrow than it was today?” Chef Shono thinks about ways to adjust the noodle recipes or about how to improve the toppings.
The Mensho location in San Francisco is very small. When Plaut and Shono were looking for a location in the East Bay, they wanted the new space to double as both a restaurant and a kitchen where they could make noodles and ingredients for their other restaurants.
“This space in Oakland just worked out perfectly,” Plaut said. “Ramen is very complex, and you need a big kitchen. It was the exact layout we were looking for.”
Each Mensho store has its own unique theme and menu.
“Before the concept is visualized, Shono will go to local markets in each area to see what kind of ingredients are available,” Plaut said. “He’ll go to restaurants that are popular to see what trends are prevalent. That’s something that I think is special to Mensho.”
Located on the same block of Piedmont Avenue as the vegan-and-vegetarian cafe Timeless Coffee, Shono decided to make half of the menu vegan. The base of his vegan soup is made with dried porcini mushrooms, shiitake, kombu and vegetables.
“It’s the largest vegan menu that exists at any Mensho store in the world right now,” Plaut said. “There’s a mix of people from different backgrounds in Oakland, and we thought it would be cool for the neighborhood.”
In addition to creating delicious bowls of ramen with startling flavor combinations—the $22 “Garlic Knock Out” lives up to its name—Shono’s kitchen takes a farm-to-table approach to cooking. Nothing prepackaged is served at Mensho.
“Shono’s showing customers that ramen can be made with fresh ingredients that are locally sourced,” Plaut said. “He prides himself on the open kitchens where customers can see everything that’s going on.”
Another crucial component of the Mensho formula is Shono’s talent for hiring the right chefs to carry out his vision. Plaut said that Shono hires chefs in Japan and then trains them in his restaurants there before sending them to work abroad.
“We have a Japanese chef in San Francisco, our kitchen leader, who ran one of Shono San’s restaurants in Tokyo for two years,” Plaut said. The current chef on Piedmont Avenue worked at Mensho in Japan for more than 10 years.
Mensho, 4258 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. Open Mon-Wed 5-9:30pm; Thu 4-9:30pm; Fri 4-10pm; Sat 3-10pm; Sun 3-9:30pm. 510.393.5229. menshopiedmont.com.