.Tsuruya is a Simplified Ramen Oasis

And a new start in Berkeley for Joe and Ayako Sein

From 2019 to 2021, Kimberly Gamble ran Lucky Bird near UC Berkeley. When the students, teachers and staff disappeared during the pandemic, she decided to try out a new menu and rebrand as Cousins, an Asian street food restaurant featuring her grandmother’s handmade noodles. Despite the updated concept and the student-friendly prices, Gamble closed Cousins last year. Chef Joe Sein and his wife, Ayako, have had similar experiences running restaurants in the Bay Area. 

The couple, who are also business partners, just opened Tsuruya in the space formerly occupied by Cousins and Lucky Bird. From 2019 to 2022, they opened and then closed Karaweik, a Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. When I dropped by to try a bowl of Sein’s ramen, Ayako said Tsuruya is their latest post-pandemic venture. Ayako, who runs the front-of-house operations, delivered the news with a hopeful smile that implied, “Cross your fingers!”

In this competitive business climate, Tsuruya is situated directly across the street from the udon and tempura chain restaurant, Marugame. With locations in Texas, Hawaii and all across California, Marugame is fast-becoming a juggernaut.

When stepping inside Tsuruya’s refurbished interior, it’s immediately apparent that the Seins have their own unique vision that’s nothing like their neighbor. Tsuruya provides an intimate space, less jittery than Marugame, which is set up as a self-service cafeteria line.

While Chef Sein’s menu at Karaweik included many different Burmese dishes, he’s streamlined his approach at Tsuruya. The front of the menu features two main options—tonkotsu, braised pork belly, or tori paitan, braised chicken served in a creamy white broth. From this starting point, the diner can modify each soup with four degrees of spiciness, a choice of noodles and a variety of ingredients.

A regular bowl of tonkotsu or tori paitan soup is $16. A deluxe or tokujo bowl goes up to $18.50 and includes extra protein, a jidori egg with its signature dark orange yolk, spinach and nori. A side note declares that vegetarian ramen is available in limited numbers.

For noodles, customers choose between hakata, a version of vermicelli, or sapporo, described as “medium, thick, wavy.” I admit to enviously watching my friend slurp down her thick, wavy noodles while I ate my thinner noodle strands. The sapporo noodles just pair better with the broth and all of the ingredients.

The spice levels start at zero, move up to spicy with the addition of a homemade paste, remain stationary with a black garlic oil and then ramp up to three fire emojis with an extra-hot chili paste. Both soups include bamboo shoots, red onion, wood ear mushrooms, green onions and an ajitama egg that’s jammy and marinated in soy sauce.

For $4 more, under the “mashi mashi” or extra toppings section, there’s a kaedama noodle option, perhaps the waviest traditional noodle of all. I ordered a side of spinach ($1.50) served, wilted and condensed, in a small bowl. After I dropped it into the broth, the spinach expanded into a row of dark green blooms.

On the back of the menu, a few small bites such as edamame ($5), chicken karaage, fried calamari and creamy chashu pork croquettes (all at $8.50) are offered. I tried an iced uji matcha green tea ($4) the color of pond water. It proved to be a bitter, frothy and murky beverage, but an order of matcha green tea ice cream ($5) cleansed the palate. Tsuruya’s other dessert options are a yuzu sorbet ($5) and a matcha panna cotta ($6).

The simplified menu at Tsuruya seems like a smart way to start the new restaurant, located at the midway point between Berkeley High School, UC Berkeley and all the nearby student and family housing. When I ate there, two students chatted and slurped spoonfuls of broth at the counter seats. A family of four sat in the corner by the front window. No TVs or loud music blared across the room, making Tsuruya a cozy, white-tiled oasis.  

Tsuruya, open Mon, Wed-Thu 4:30pm–9:30pm; Fri 4:30pm-10pm, Sat and Sun noon to 3pm and 4:30pm–10pm; 1926 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 415.316.5288. IG: tsuruyaramen_berkeley.

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