When I attended the Culinary Institute of America’s annual Worlds of Flavor conference last year, one speaker cited a report that there are 25,600 ramen restaurants in Japan. Those are dedicated ramen shops, selling little more than gyoza on the side.
Seattle has two such shops.
To learn more about my favorite Japanese noodle dish, I visited Ivan Ramen, one of Japan’s many ramen restaurants, to meet Ivan Orkin–a New Yorker who was inspired by the movie Tampopo and moved to Tokyo to fulfill a dream of being a successful ramen shop chef. (You can find Orkin in conversation with David Chang in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach.) In a country full of “disciplined” cooking, Orkin loves ramen because “it’s the one maverick cuisine with no rules.”
With no rules, there are endless versions of ramen, with each version boasting its own boosters. This probably makes it wrong for me to title this article “What’s Wrong with Ramen in Seattle?” In fact, what’s right is the increasing popularity of ramen and its prevalence on menus around Seattle. I hear that Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura is developing a recipe, and maybe Seattle will soon land a Japanese chain, following in the footsteps of New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.
What’s ready is the chance for someone to open a stellar place that takes ramen to the next level. That’s the case in Vancouver (well, predictably, Richmond), where G-Men Ramen (photo, above) was serving the best bowls I’ve found in the Pacific Northwest–until they suddenly closed a couple of months ago. (I’m told they hope to reopen next month, perhaps with a different name, in the former Nan Chuu space on Alexandra Road in Richmond.) Eating there, and in Tokyo, helped me understand why we’re falling short on ramen quality in Seattle:
1. No housemade noodles. This isn’t a must, but sometimes it’s a distinguishing feature. Local noodle options are weak, and it seems most of the restaurants get their ramen noodles from the same source in California.
2. Broths are off (usually weak). The process takes time and dedication, and can’t just be an afterthought.
3. Inferior meat. Pork and chicken taste better in Asia. Lower quality pork and chicken not only result in lower quality stock for the soup, but the chashu pieces I see here are lacking in fat and flavor.
4. Bad eggs. Those lower quality chickens come from lower quality eggs. Unless a restaurant here uses a farm fresh egg, it will be lacking the bright orange yolk you’d find at a place like G-Men Ramen. (Our ramen shops also tend to overcook the eggs.)
5. A lack of “Japaneseness.” Just as our Hanna Raskin questioned whether the quality of Stopsky’s Deli suffered from a lack of Yiddishkeit (the Yiddish word for “Jewishness”), I wonder whether the best ramen places should be single-focus and Japanese-run. (Some similarly argue that the best sushi joints are run by Japanese sushi chefs.)
Here’s a round-up of ramen shops in the Seattle area, with a few notes offered.
- Maekawa Bar (ramen pictured, right) is an izakaya offering serviceable, simple shoyu, plus optional add-ons like a pat of butter. ($7)
- Kushibar offers all the usual suspects (shoyu, tonkotsu, miso, shio), though some complain the broth is too strong. ($11-12)
- Kaname serves a limited number of tonkotsu miso and tonkotsu shio bowls on its izakaya menu, but with weak broths. ($8.95)
- Kiku Sushi is a Bellevue sushi joint serving only champon, with mixed seafood. ($11.50)
- Dozo Bellevue Café (Kirkland’s Dozo Japanese Sushi has a more limited ramen menu) supplements classic Japanese choices with its Chuka (Chinese) ramen offerings like tan tan men and BP (bell pepper) & pork ramen. ($8-11)
- New Zen is a Japanese restaurant whose only ramen features a tonkotsu-shoyu blend; it might do the trick if you’re traveling to Ikea in Renton. ($9.50)
- Ginza gives you overpriced and underwhelming ramen (shoyu, miso, shio, asari with clam, and takana with sour pickles, mushrooms and pork) in Bellevue. ($12.75-13.50)
- Tsukushinbo is the best of the bunch; it’s what my Japanese partner says she’d imagine her or any grandma’s shoyu ramen to be–previously discussed here. ($8.50, includes gyoza and rice, but limited number of bowls for Friday lunch only)
Chinese (Yes, ramen originate there, but the Japanese have really elevated it.)
- Fu Lin (ramen pictured, right) has signs that scream ramen throughout the restaurant, but regardless of the many varieties offered, the broths are weak and the noodles are cooked too soft. ($6-8)
- Yoe’s Noodles, with, yes, more soft noodles and bland broth in bowls that range from basic to those with grilled eel–previously discussed here. ($7.50-9.50)
Other (from chefs and owners who are not specifically Japanese or Chinese)
- Aloha Ramen (ramen pictured, right) is a dedicated ramen shop (with Hawaiian roots), and it’s doing a wide variety of bowls from the usual (all but tonkotsu) to the more exotic (black sesame miso to mabo katsu). Shio is pretty good, but some bowls suffer from bland broths. ($7.50-9.50)
- Revel takes its try at kimchi ramen with housemade noodles–previously discussed here. ($14)
- Spring Hill makes a wonderfully complex bowl of saimin, with the best egg in town–previously discussed here. ($12) Note, saimin’s not ramen, but if you want to try this “Hawaiian ramen,” you can also go to Hawaiian Breeze and Saimin Says.
- Okinawa Teriyaki is an odd place for ramen, as I was told it’s “American” and uses vegetable stock and dry Korean noodles–previously discussed here. ($6.99-8.99)
You’ll notice that Boom Noodle (shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, shio, kimchi, and spicy yuzu for $9.95-$10.95) and Samurai Noodle (tonkotsu, shoyu, shoyu-tonkotsu combination for $7.25, with other varieties on the menu and in-store specials up to $1.00 more) are missing from the lists. These two are consistently the best bets in town for ramen, and I’ll be writing more about them in the future.
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on July 26, 2011.