Wokou brings ramen, noodles and pours to Carmel Valley

Wokou has opened in the Village of Pacific Highlands Ranch bringing authentic Japanese noodles, ramen and yakitori to Carmel Valley. Wokou is part of the hospitality group Social Syndicate, which has eight restaurants throughout San Diego.

Wokou is the group’s first North County venture and the first of its concept — other eateries in the group include two locations of The Local Eatery and Drinking Hole, Rabbit Hole in Normal Heights, Resident Brewing Company, Bootlegger Plates and Pours, Wonderland Ocean Pub and the newly-opened OB Surf Lodge.

“With Wokou, the vision and goal is to build a family-friendly, dog-friendly, community-based restaurant, somewhere everybody could enjoy a night out with family or meet friends for drinks all in one spot and not break the bank,” said co-owner Joey Pena. “We want this place to be affordable and inviting.”

Wokou is now serving up ramen in the Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch.
Wokou is now serving up ramen in the Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch.

The menu they are serving up is what makes them especially unique, with their ramen dishes and yakitori.

Yakitori is Japanese street food — skewers that feature meat and vegetables slow-cooked over an open-flame. Yakitori skewers on the menu at Wokou feature skirt steak, chicken breast, chasu pork, king oyster mushrooms, bacon-wrapped asparagus, eggplant, zucchini and more.

Wokou’s menu will have traditional tonkotsu ramen as well as a spicy carnitas version and a vegan miso shoyu with gluten-free vegetarian noodles, tofu and spinach.

Add-ons for the ramen include nori, garlic chips, chasu pork, extra noodles, soft egg and mushroom.

Pena runs Wokou in Pacific Highlands Ranch with partners Vinny Dinino and Jimmy Langley, a Carmel Valley resident.

Pena grew up in Del Mar, attending Del Mar Hills Academy and Earl Warren Middle School before graduating Torrey Pines High School in the class of 2005, the same class as fellow entrepreneurs Shane Stanger and Robby Robbins, who own the Baked Bear, also located in the Village.

While Pacific Highlands Ranch is completely new and different, Pena said it has been fun to see a lot of familiar faces.

“I’m very familiar with this area,” Pena said. “I chose this location because there is a niche that is not being met here. There is no Asian-style food in this area, especially ramen.”

The look of the restaurant, like many Social Syndicate spots, is contemporary and modern. Artist Mike Dunn completed all the metalwork such as the restaurant’s outdoor sign, light fixtures and unique tentacle door handles, and artists Espana Garcia and Scott Holland each painted striking and colorful murals on the walls.

The central dining room and bar opens up into the outside patio and long bar seating along one wall looks right into the open kitchen.

“We wanted it to be fun, lively and bring a bit of nightlife to a suburban area for a night out close to home,” Pena said.

Wokou noodles.
Wokou noodles.

The menu that is still evolving also includes rice bowls, salads, noodles and options for kids like a ramen, Japanese-style hot dog (Kurabata sausage white rice and omelet-style eggs) and a PB&J Bao, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a bao bun.

Wokou’s bar will serve up sake, wine, kombucha and 24 beers on tap, all local except for two from a small Japanese craft brewery named Coedo. The drink menu also includes Asian-inspired craft cocktails such as the Bed,Bath & Sake with lavender-infused sake, vodka, lemon juice and sparkling sake.

Wokou just began offering lunch service on Saturdays and Sundays and plans to expand, adding days as they add staff. Pena said “good quality ramen chefs” are hard to find and they would like to have the best.

The hope is to establish a solid dinner program first before adding daily lunch and they have already started a Happy Hour from 4-6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, with drink specials and eats such as Tokyo Fries with salt, parmesan and nori strips, and Bao Bao, a pork carnitas sandwich on a steamed, plump bao bun.

“We’ve had a great response, showing that we are achieving what we set out to do,” Pena said of the families that have visited and employees of local businesses who have stopped in for Happy Hour. Canyon Crest Academy students were seen poking around the restaurant during lunch time — Pena’s summer project will to be to get the lunch program up and running by the time school kicks back up.

Pena is looking forward to the center’s expansion, which will include a Breakfast Republic across the plaza, as well as the Village green gathering space and the addition of 331 new residential units.

As Pena noted, the additions are going to change the whole vibe of the center and Wokou is excited to be at the heart of it.

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