Bowled Over by Ramen

ramen cover(Originally published 11/11 in Northwest Palate magazine.)

A ramen revolution took place this past year.

Though our region’s numbers pale in comparison to Japan’s, which by some estimates has upwards of 100,000 ramen restaurants, a new legion of chef devotees joined traditionalists in seeking to perfect the humble, yet blissfully sublime bowl of Asian noodle soup.

In our November / December issue, Culinary explorer Jay Friedman slurped up the soup scene, visiting izakayas, traditional (and some non-) Japanese food and drink establishments, from Portland to Seattle and Vancouver, BC.

His journey starts in the beating heart of ramen culture—Tokyo, Japan.

TOKYO, JAPAN—While eating my third bowl of ramen in three days, I had my ramen epiphany. It was at Ichiran, where I sat like all diners do in an individual stall that provides privacy. Walls blocked the neighbors to my sides while a bamboo screen in front shielded me from the server. All my focus, as intended, was on the bowl before me. After a spoonful of broth, a slurp of noodles, and a bite of fatty pork, I realized ramen was one of the most fantastic foods to be found.

I had to have more.

The next day I had my fourth bowl at Ivan Ramen, where I met Ivan Orkin, a gaijin from New York who was inspired by the Japanese cult-classic movie about ramen, Tampopo. Orkin moved to Tokyo to fulfill a dream of being a ramen shop chef. “It’s the one maverick cuisine with no rules,” he says.

Ramen as cuisine?

Many of us relate to ramen as the ten-for-a-dollar packages of instant noodles we ate during our struggling college years. That’s certainly the case for local chefs such as Jonathan Hunt, of Boom Noodle in Seattle, and Gabe Rosen, of Portland’s Biwa, who journeyed to Japan to experience the real stuff.

For many North American chefs, ramen is soul food that makes a comforting, complete meal.  For consumers, transitioning from ten-cent packages at home to ten-dollar bowls at a restaurant can be a bit daunting.

Not to mention the number of choices, including:

• Type of broth—chicken, pork, or a combination of the two, with seafood sometimes added

• Tare, or seasoning, ranging from shoyu (soy sauce), to shio (salt), and miso (fermented soybean paste)

• Toppings, like corn, bean sprouts, eggs, and even a pat of butter for extra unctuousness.

Noodles are another prime consideration.

There are wavy and straight varieties, coming in different thicknesses and cooked to varying preferences of doneness. But don’t let the choices overwhelm you. Some restaurants serve one bowl with no options, while others spell out recommended combinations. Part of ramen’s allure is that it’s meant to be simple, yet complex.

Catch ramen fever and you’ll want to try out all the combinations to find your favorite. Ramen is best eaten with reckless abandon, like ribs or burgers or ice cream sundaes.

And, yes, you should slurp.

At a good ramen shop, the bowl comes quickly, the soup super-hot. Push aside politeness and dive into the bowl. Slurping the noodles not only aerates and cools what you take in, but it keeps the noodles intact. An important cultural side note: noodles represent longevity to Asian people.It’s said that you should eat your ramen in seven minutes or less to enjoy it at its best, alternating bite and broth, to produce a warm and fulfilled feeling. That’s the sensation I experienced during my ramen exploits in Tokyo.

But you don’t have to go to Japan to get a great bowl.

Following are a few of my favorite ramen restaurants from across the region…

Portland Ramen shops

Shigezo

It’s the housemade noodles that distinguish the ramen at this Japanese import. The Tokyo-based franchise has more than 60 restaurants in Japan and an outpost in Honolulu, Hawaii; the location in downtown Portland is the first in North America. While water, weather, and other factors change the texture of the noodles at each location, “we try to make it very teinei”—best translated as “meticulously”—says manager Toku Nagaoka. For lunch, try the shoyu ramen, with thin, straight noodles that are filling yet light on the belly. Wait until nighttime to order the tonkotsu, as the pork bone soup requires longer cooking and comes with thick, straight noodles. Where those robust noodles really shine are in the abu-ramen, a recent rage in Tokyo that Shigezo brings to Portland. Abu, short for abura, means oil; this dish basically substitutes oil for the broth, resulting in a “dry” bowl of ramen. “Fried noodle yakisoba is popular here, so people understand abu-ramen and how to eat it,” Nagaoka explains.

Abu-ramen at Shigezo

Abu-ramen at Shigezo

Biwa

Descending down the steps and entering this southeast Portland eatery, it feels like I’m entering Tokyo. Chef/owner Gabe Rosen spent considerable time perfecting his ramen soup recipe, though ironically when he lived in Japan, ramen was not one of his favorite foods. “As a student, I was traveling and eating in cafeterias, which were at least as scary as here,” Rosen says. “Ramen was the least odious choice.” Grab a seat at the kitchen counter and revere at the ramen-making. Pork and chicken broth comes with chashu, pork belly simmered with garlic, ginger, sake, and shoyu. The other toppings are spectacular, including miso pork loin, smoked pork shoulder, wakame (seaweed), and kimchi greens.

Biwa's ramen

Biwa’s ramen

Yuzu

A warm “Irasshaimase” welcomes you when you enter this unassuming little izakaya in a little shopping plaza in nearby Beaverton. Kick back with beer, sake, or shochu, and go for the shoyu ramen with a side of delicate gyoza.

Shoyu ramen at Yuzu

Shoyu ramen at Yuzu

Boke Bowl

Upstart pop-up and soon-to-be bricks and mortar, Boke Bowl takes its name from the Japanese term for “blur” or “mental haze,” among other translations. It lives up to its name by blurring the boundaries of what goes in a bowl of ramen, as well as what constitutes a restaurant. Ramen renegade chef Patrick Fleming has perfected his menu during a spate of lunchtime events held at various local restaurants this past year, but now he’s ready to set up permanent digs in Portland’s burgeoning Produce Row district (scheduled to open before the end of this year). In Fleming’s ramen-world, toppings take a trip south, with options including buttermilk-fried chicken, pulled pork, cornmeal-crusted oysters, and butternut squash. This innovative, if unconventional, approach exemplifies ramen’s stature as a maverick cuisine without rules.

Ramen with fried chicken at Boke Bowl

Ramen with fried chicken at Boke Bowl

Wafu

This new noodle bar in southeast Portland shows ramen’s upscale potential. The menu is based around chef Trent Pierce’s deep, dark broth tasting of roasted pork bones mixed with fish sauce. Not in the mood for soup? Try the abura soba ramen: served without the broth, it’s topped with a belly-filling helping of shredded pork and scallions over thick, wavy noodles tossed in an oil-and-soy sauce. Also on offer is a sophisticated Japanese-style selection of small plates and cocktails, and don’t miss the yuzu cream puffs.

*Note: Wafu has since closed.

Seattle Ramen shops

Samurai Noodle

With its recently opened third location on Capitol Hill, Samurai is one of only two restaurants dedicated to ramen in the Seattle area. The most authentic ramen experience in the city is at the original International District location. See and hear the telltale “thwacking” of noodles when you go up to the counter to order. Here, diners have the most ordering options, including noodle doneness, kaedama (extra noodles), and numerous toppings like Parmesan cheese or mentaiko spicy roe. Hearty appetites should try on the Samurai “armour” combination, with extra pork, green onions, black mushrooms, bamboo shoots, flavored egg, and roasted seaweed. Pork lovers will go for the tonkotsu broth, which some have dubbed “liquid bacon,” while a healthy tou-nyu (soy milk) broth satisfies vegetarians.

Tonkotsu ramen at Samurai Noodle

Tonkotsu ramen at Samurai Noodle

Boom Noodle

With three locations around town, Boom Noodle is not a traditional ramen joint. Bedecked in bright green colors, with sleek lines and communal tables, the restaurants look like futuristic cafeterias. Chef Jonathan Hunt offers the four most popular types of ramen—shoyu, shio, miso, and tonkotsu—drawing inspiration not only from Japan, but also China and Vietnam. Hunt finds it liberating to interpret the ramen according to his instincts and professional experience. “It’s the single most polarizing dish I’ve ever come across,” he says. “To take on that challenge and try to please as many people as possible, that’s exciting to me.”A visit to Wagamama, a chain of noodle bars in London, opened Hunt’s eyes to the fun of noodle restaurants, but it wasn’t until he took a trip to Japan that he really experienced ramen excellence. He likes the interactivity of noodle dishes and calls ramen “the perfect bowl of food… It excites so many senses.”

*Note: Boom Noodle has since closed.

Aloha Ramen

This dedicated ramen shop has Hawaiian roots. There’s a wide variety of bowls featuring fresh ingredients, from Katsu Tan Tan Ramen with deep-fried pork cutlet, to black sesame miso.

Shio ramen at Aloha

Shio ramen at Aloha

Tsukushinbo

This small Japanese restaurant in Seattle’s International District serves what a Japanese friend says she’d imagine her or any grandma’s shoyu ramen to be—and it’s a bargain at $8.50, including gyoza and rice. But it’s the early bird that gets the ramen: there’s just a limited number of bowls for Friday lunch only.

Tsukushinbo's shoyu ramen

Tsukushinbo’s shoyu ramen

Showa

This izakaya just started ramen service. Dubbed kotterishoyu, it’s made with chicken, pork (though no bones, which is why it’s not tonkotsu), and manila clams, making it as much assari (light and fresh) as kotteri (rich and fatty). It’s delicious with pork belly and a nicely seasoned soft-cooked egg.

*Note: Showa has since closed.

Vancouver Ramen shops

Kintaro

The ramen-ya that started the craze in Vancouver, Kintaro is still popular for its pork and seafood broth. The rolled pork belly is thickly sliced and fantastically fatty. Go for the food, not the atmosphere.

Kintaro's miso ramen

Kintaro’s miso ramen

Motomachi Shokudo

The first thing you notice here at Kintaro’s younger sister restaurant is its contemporary, yet minimalist design. Chef/owner Daiji Matsubara intentionally went for older appeal, but Motomachi also draws young crowds. “Ramen is a never-ending pursuit of taste,” he says.The restaurant tends to have more female appeal than the traditional ramen shop, mimicking a similar trend in Japan. About the flower that comes on your tray Matsubara says: “Kaiseki restaurants always include that, and if you see it you feel calm… Sometimes it’s difficult for a woman to come by herself, so the flower welcomes her.”The broths are also different, highlighting organic, healthful ingredients. Whereas Kintaro uses a pork and fish double-broth, Motomachi substitutes mostly organic chicken (“Unfortunately, I cannot find organic feet,” Matsubara laments) to make broth that’s almost clear. Kombu, small anchovies, and bonito pack umami power to make a rich broth that’s not too fatty. Unique to Motomachi are the nama-shoyu ramen (made with unpasteurized soy sauce) that comes with the option of burnt onion oil, as well as bamboo-charcoal dark miso ramen—the charcoal said to be good for digestion, skin, and anti-aging.Asked about the appeal of ramen, Matsubara says, “The customer can get soup, vegetable, and meat all in one bowl… It comes together, and you can get full in a short time.”

Nama shoyu ramen at Motomachi Shokudo

Nama shoyu ramen at Motomachi Shokudo

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

Santouka is contemporary, with its dark wood, stainless steel finishes, and open glass kitchen. This Japanese chain import boasts long lines, a testament to the quality, and serves its ramen lukewarm—claiming it’s the best temperature for tasting the flavors.

Santouka's tonkotsu shoyu ramen

Santouka’s tonkotsu shoyu ramen

Benkei

Five locations around town offer five soup bases and a variety of toppings, allowing you to customize your bowl. Akaoni is my favorite, with spicy miso, fried green onions, and minced pork.

*Note: Benkei is now down to one location.

Akaoni ramen at Benkei

Akaoni ramen at Benkei

Ramen Jinya

Located in Yaletown, the new kid on the block is an offshoot of the popular Los Angeles ramen joint, which is connected to robata restaurants in Tokyo. Offering four tonkotsu and three chicken broth offerings, Jinya serves some of the most deliciously fatty chashu in Vancouver.

Tonkotsu at Ramen Jinya

Tonkotsu at Ramen Jinya

Suika

The diverse menu of this upscale izakaya includes a fabulous Tokyo-style oxtail ramen that is less beefy than it sounds due to the addition of a powder of katsuo, saba, and konbu at the end of the cooking process. It’s like a cross between ramen and Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Suika's oxtail ramen

Suika’s oxtail ramen

G-Men Ramen at Nan Chuu Izakaya

This izakaya on “Food Street” Alexandra Road in Richmond picks up where G-Men Ramen—the quintessential ramen shop with the most authentic Japanese feel—left off. After G-Men’s unexpected closure, its ramen chef, Minoru Suzuki, is now at Nan Chuu. He’s serving up the rich and intense tonkotsu broth in the evening (with choice of shoyu or miso tare), and planning to bring back the shoyu and shio bowls when lunch service starts. Other ramen shops may have better individual components, but when taking the broth, meat, egg, and other toppings as a whole, Suzuki’s soup can’t be beat. Typical of the Japanese, Suzuki (his business card says “Man in Charge of Nan Chuu”) is soft-spoken about his ramen. After an avalanche of compliments, he says, “Thank you for coming to Nan Chuu tonight, and please come back. I will try to make better ramen.” That’s the Japanese spirit, and the essence of ramen.

Shoyu ramen at G-Men/Nan Chuu

Shoyu ramen at G-Men/Nan Chuu

G-Men/Nan Chuu's RCMP ramen: red chili miso pepper

G-Men/Nan Chuu’s RCMP ramen: red chili miso pepper

Shigezo on Urbanspoon

Biwa on Urbanspoon

Yuzu on Urbanspoon

Boke Bowl on Urbanspoon

Samurai Noodle on Urbanspoon

Aloha Ramen on Urbanspoon

Tsukushinbo on Urbanspoon

Kintaro Ramen ??? on Urbanspoon

Motomachi Shokudo ???? on Urbanspoon

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka ??? on Urbanspoon

Benkei Noodle Shop on Urbanspoon

Ramen Jinya ?? on Urbanspoon

Suika on Urbanspoon

G-men @ Nan Chuu ?? Ramen Izakaya on Urbanspoon

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