What’s Wrong with Ramen in Seattle? It’s Wramen.

TanakaSan's tonkotsu ramen with soba-like whole wheat noodles and an “umami bomb” of dried mushrooms, parmesan rind, kombu (kelp), and duck fat ($13)

TanakaSan’s tonkotsu ramen with soba-like whole wheat noodles and an “umami bomb” of dried mushrooms, parmesan rind, kombu (kelp), and duck fat ($13)

Gomen na. That’s Japanese for “I’m sorry,” and something I want to state from the outset. I really hate to be a wet noodle about our ramen boom, but as someone who’s spent considerable time in Japan, I’ve been feeling a little sad about the state of ramen in Seattle.

During one of my 12 trips to Japan, I remember being glued to the TV watching a show dedicated to ramen. In it, three experts traveled restaurant to restaurant judging ramen quality. When deeming a bowl bad, an expert would bow his head, solemnly say “Gomen na,” and simply walk out of the place.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to do the same here.

I’m seeing so many chefs suddenly falling in love with ramen (understandably so!) and making it themselves—putting their own spins on it. When I try their creations, I’m confused. Something about the noodles, the soup, and the toppings is just not right.

As a result, I worry that ramen will lose its authenticity. People will soon think of it as misguidedly as many think of sushi: rolls that would be foreign in Japan. No native Japanese chef would sandwich cream cheese and hot pepper jelly into rice and call it sushi. Similarly, you won’t find ramen made with sous vide short ribs and candied carrots in the Land of the Rising Sun. But, all too often, that’s the direction the dish is taking in the United States.

So I’m calling for a change in nomenclature. Just as I don’t think we should call sushi rolls “sushi,” I think we need another name for Westernized ramen. Here’s my proposal. If you’re trying to make authentic Japanese ramen, continue to call it by its original name: ramen. But if you’re not trying to be authentic, then let’s call your creation something new: Wramen. Pronounced double-u ramen, it indicates a version that you wouldn’t expect to see in Japan.

Authentic ramen transports me to Tokyo (or Hakata, or Hokkaido), whereas if you’re using parmesan cheese, fried chicken or oysters, apple slices, smoked kielbasa, or tofu, that’s Wramen. The same is true for foie gras, duck confit, duck fat, and duck anything. (Do American chefs depend on duck fat to get depth of flavor that they can’t seem to extract from pork/chicken bones and seafood?) Fancy ingredients take me far from Japan, often at fanciful pricing. At the same time, trying to make ramen too healthy renders a result of Wramen. While the Japanese love to eat seasonally, there’s no call for seasonal vegetables in ramen. And don’t get me started on vegetarian ramen. It’s a rarity in Japan. In fact, there’s little concern about fat/oil content and MSG in ramen—they’re an integral (and flavorful) part of the package.

The new name Wramen not only maintains the integrity of authentic ramen, it allows me to critique both types accordingly. And to just plain try to enjoy both of them. After all, some of the Wramen I’ve eaten has been daring and delicious. Then again, some Wramen has been a completely wreck.

Brimmer & Heeltap's ramen with Chinese-style roast pork and Brussels sprout kimchi ($10)

Brimmer & Heeltap’s ramen with Chinese-style roast pork and Brussels sprout kimchi ($10)

Examples of the Wramen scene in Seattle:

  • Brimmer & Heeltap: The noodles in the “family meal ramen” are too spongy soft, but the flavors of the Chinese-style pork and the kimchi Brussels sprouts make this a delicious Wramen.
  • TanakaSan: The ever-changing ingredient combinations are intriguing (#3 includes smoked kielbasa and Savoy cabbage), though the use of soba-like whole wheat noodles is strange.
  • Mighty Ramen: The chef says he’s “going more for delicious than authentic,” using fresh, local ingredients, but this translates to weak soup, pork that’s too lean, and a high price for a small bowl. (An A for effort attempting handmade noodles, but they’re too chewy.)
  • Bloom: Fresh corn has shown the striving for seasonality, but was misplaced in the Showa tonkotsu ramen and the chicken shio ramen—with both soups weak and surprisingly indistinguishable from each other.
  • (Further afield, I’ve enjoyed ramen with pulled pork, fried chicken, and pickled mustard seeds in aioli at Boke Bowl in Portland, as well as a beef brisket and mirin-glazed bacon with mixed greens ramen at Burdock & Co. in Vancouver, BC. Both clearly Wramen, and both really good!)

Perhaps the best illustration of the Wramen trend comes from Boom Noodle. Jonathan Hunt visited Japan to immerse himself in the country’s cuisine upon getting the executive chef job at Boom, even apprenticing for a day under Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen fame. His ramen got to be quite good. But new management mandated an end to use of MSG, among other changes. Hunt eventually left and the ramen has since spiraled downward in quality, with the Tokyo (shoyu) ramen now resembling mushroom soup. It’s no wonder Boom is going bust as its restaurants close one by one.

In contrast to all the new Wramen, I’d like to see Seattle get a “real” ramen restaurant that scores three perfect 10s: 10 seats, 10-minute eating time, and a cap of $10 per bowl. Serve just ramen—specializing in only one or two types—and perhaps gyoza on the side. No cocktails, no big menu, no Western spins.

Redefining ramen in America will require educating diners and chefs alike. Just as the ramen master in Tampopo (a must -see “ramen Western” centered on a ramen shop) taught his disciple to have reverence for the bowl (“appreciate its gestalt” and “caress the surface with the chopstick tips…to express affection”), chefs should have reverence for ramen, too. They can start by identifying their bowls as authentic—or as Wramen. As a writer, I’ll be doing that, and invite others to do the same.

Where to Try Really Good “Real” Ramen in the Seattle Area

  1. Tsukushinbo: Home-style shoyu ramen served lunch-only on Fridays that cheap and good.
  2. 4649 Yoroshiku: Miso is best at this Sapporo-style restaurant that’s upped its focus on ramen for lunch.
  3. Kukai: Yuzu-shio shines (others are okay) at this Bellevue restaurant reportedly expanding to Northgate and South Lake Union.
  4. Jinya: Decent tonkotsu (I’ve had it in Vancouver) due to arrive next week at Crossroads Mall.
  5. Santouka: Scheduled to open in April in Bellevue, the specialty is tonkotsu, and it’s likely to be the best ramen in the Seattle area (again, I’ve had it in Vancouver).
  6. Biwa: If you’re headed to Portland, Biwa bests all of Seattle’s current ramen shops.
  7. G-men: This Richmond, BC restaurant serves my favorite ramen in the Pacific Northwest, truly transporting me to Japan (also good in Vancouver: Motomachi Shokudo).
4649 Yoroshiku's miso ramen ($9.50)

4649 Yoroshiku’s miso ramen ($9.50)

Rules for Ramen (aka Why Ramen Might Not Succeed in Seattle, or Why the Lines at Ippudo in NYC Drive Me Crazy)

  1. Don’t order a cocktail, don’t go to the bathroom just before your ramen comes to the table, don’t dawdle once it arrives, and don’t let it cool off. Eat your ramen quickly so the soup is hot and the noodles don’t get soft.
  2. Don’t mix all the toppings. Pick at them intermittently, enjoying the various components. This is interactive eating.
  3. Don’t try to be politely quiet. Slurp, pulling in soup with the noodles, along with air to cool things off.
  4. Don’t complain about saltiness or fattiness. Ramen isn’t intended to be healthy food. Oil glistening on the surface of the soup is a good thing.
  5. Don’t wear your Sunday best when eating ramen. Expect oil stains, especially if you drink your soup from the bowl once you finish your noodles and toppings.
  6. Don’t linger. Leave when you finish so someone else can sit. Go get coffee or a cocktail elsewhere if you want to chat with your companion(s).

Note 1: This is a major revision of a similar piece I wrote three years ago. Chances are, I’ll be revising it again in three more years.

Note 2: As for some of the more notable, heretofore unmentioneds: Setsuna is pretty good but needs hotter soup and a little more depth of flavor. Samurai Noodle has disappointed of late with somewhat weak soup. Aloha Ramen offers a wide variety of bowls, but never quite wows me. (Their shio is my favorite of the shop.) Ramen Man comes closest to my vision of an ideal ramen shop setting, but the tori-paitan is too light for my taste, the chashu is too lean and cold, and the hard-boiled eggs don’t do much more than distract me.

More Photos:

Mighty Ramen's tosho ramen with marinated egg ($9)

Mighty Ramen’s tosho ramen with marinated egg ($9)

Might Ramen's noodles, exposed

Might Ramen’s noodles, exposed

Bloom's chicken shio ramen ($13)

Bloom’s chicken shio ramen ($13)

Bloom's Showa tonkotsu ramen ($13)

Bloom’s Showa tonkotsu ramen ($13)

Brimmer & Heeltap on Urbanspoon

TanakaSan on Urbanspoon

Mighty Ramen on Urbanspoon

Bloom Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Boom Noodle on Urbanspoon

Tsukushinbo on Urbanspoon

4649 Yoroshiku on Urbanspoon

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Setsuna Japanese Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Samurai Noodle on Urbanspoon

Samurai Noodle on Urbanspoon

Samurai Noodle on Urbanspoon

Aloha Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ramen Man Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Tags:

#4649Yoroshiku
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#Biwa
,
#Bloom
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#BokeBowl
,
#BoomNoodle
, ,
#BurdockampCo
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#G-men
,
#Jinya
,
#Kukai
,
#MightyRamen
, ,
#Santouka
,
#TanakaSan
,
#Tsukushinbo

18 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Ramen in Seattle? It’s Wramen.”

  1. March 13, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    I agree with almost everything you wrote. I called TanakaSan’s “uncanny valley ramen” lol

  2. March 14, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Jay, I hope you’ll come give Bloom another try. We had major issues with consistency when we first opened (first-time restaurant owner), but have really stepped up our game. Our new Kasu Ramen is made with locally brewed sake lees, chicken and pork stock, local eggs, super tender chashu, shiitake, and negi. It might be Wramen, as Kasu is not a common ingredient for ramen in Japan, but it is much more delicious and much more consistent than what you had before.

  3. Jenny Newman
    March 14, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    Bloom doesn’t serve the two ramens that you pictured and the price for the new-ish ramens are $9.75. You could have at least checked the website (http://bloomballard.com/current-menu/). You should go in and try the Kasu Ramen – it’s full of umami goodness and maybe update your reviews, just an idea.

    -The Wife

  4. Jay
    March 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

    Jason, thanks for your comment. As you know, I really enjoyed the ramen at Showa. That made me excited to try it at the new restaurant, along with the chicken shio as the other offering on the menu. Jenny, to your point, I did consult the current menu prior to publication, and while there are two bowls each just under $10, there’s one pushing $14. After my dining companion and I spent $33 for our two bowls and felt underwhelmed/disappointed and still hungry (we went on to another restaurant to get more food, so it turned into a more expensive evening that planned), I hope you can understand my hesitancy to return, especially when trusted friends reported their disappointment with Bloom’s ramen in the months that followed. While I feel that those two bowls fairly represented the ramen experience there, I also realize that the quality can change. (As my article notes, the ramen at Boom Noodle, for example, has been like a roller coaster, going up and going down.) When it comes time for a ramen update, Jason, I’ll keep your invitation in mind. Ramen or Wramen, I’ll be appreciative of a good bowl.

  5. Nakano
    March 15, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    Here is my list including Vancouver. No particular order.
    Santoka, Ramenman, motomachi shokudo, Setsuna, 4649
    I yet have not visited Gmen, Marutama though I heard both are awesome.
    I actually really like Ramenman. The soup is rich enough for me and I like they’ serve both pork and chicken on their chashu men. My 2 cent.

  6. Jay
    March 15, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I appreciate your list, Nakano-san! Definitely try G-men when you get a chance! And if you like Ramen Man, I believe you’ll like Marutama. (I haven’t been to Marutama yet. A friend says their noodles are the best in Vancouver, and he wants to bring just the noodles to Santouka to put in their broth.) I agree that Ramen Man gets good richness into the broth. Just not my favorite style, aside from the cold ingredients issue.

  7. Kentaro
    March 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    I like your Wramen idea!

  8. March 16, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    Love the idea! Run a sushi bar in Fort Worth and recently printed ramen on the menu. Originally started as a pure tonkotsu since I spent time in Kyushu but for most local palate it’s too fatty, rich, unhealthy (which should be desired as you mentioned; for comparison sake my tonkotsu would be like a first year kendo student compared to Santouka, the battle proven samurai). Now I’ve gone to a Kyushu-style tonkotsu finished Tokyo-style with a dashi to create a double soup to better response. Though the majority of the toppings are traditional (except sous vide Catalonian pork mainly because it is the most consistent, layered belly I’ve found reminiscent of Japanese pork belly), it’s a task creating a bowl that will please both neophytes and vets alike. There is a clip of eating ramen in New York that I would recommend searching for that talks about how NYorkers like to savor and enjoy their ramen. As much as we want people to be like Japanese and follow the six spot-on rules listed, it’s not in American culture. Sometimes the restaurant has to adjust to it, which I believe is what leads to exploring better ingredients for a bowl with humble beginning in order to be able to operate a business that earns money. Yes food cost goes up, but now you can charge a bit more for it and allow people to sit a bit longer than in Japanese ramen-yas. Dallas is about to get an authentic 13-seat ramen bar that is claiming will serve a bowl under $10 and I hope it works.

  9. Jay
    March 16, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    Jesus, thanks for the comment, and glad you like my Wramen idea! G-men in Richmond (BC) was very close to my vision when it was a dedicated ramen shop. There’d typically be a line, but seats would turn over quickly. I really think if someone opened a high quality ramen shop in the right location and educated customers about ramen customs, it could work. Anyway…if I get to Fort Worth, I’ll try to remember your place so I can try your ramen or Wramen!

  10. Billy
    March 20, 2014 at 3:39 am #

    So a Jewish dude from NY is a ramen expert? As credible as a Hindu dude from Delhi being a hamburger expert…

  11. Jay
    March 20, 2014 at 6:46 am #

    Good one, Billy. I’d invite you to try the new Ivan Ramen in NYC. Afterward, please let me know if you think a Jewish dude from NY makes good ramen.

  12. Matt
    April 14, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    Looking forward to Santouka this Thursday! Time to step up the ramen game in Seattle.

  13. Gaijin Chef
    April 16, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    While I respect your knowledge of the subject, I reject this line of thinking. Under these guidelines, Momofuku (they use bacon in their dashi) and Ivan Ramen (rye flour in their noodles) are also “wramen”. The world of ramen is ever changing, especially in Japan. Should we scold chefs in Japan for calling a grilled ground beef patty between two buns a “hamburger”? I think the requirements for calling something ramen today have simplified to two things. 1) Rolled and cut, wheat based alkaline noodles (bonus points for making them in-house). 2) Complex layered broth cooked over long periods, using bones.
    We are in a different country, with different ingredients available and different influences on food. If we follow these two guidelines, our ramen might be slightly different, and new, and interesting. But it will still be ramen.

  14. Jay Freedman is an Ass Clown
    April 16, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    A) WRamen (double-u ramen) is a terrible name, it does not flow easily off the tongue.
    B) I understand you argument for having more “authentic” ramen places in Seattle. But authentic doesn’t mean “good” and “new” and “different” recipes are not bad things. FYI Ivan Ramen uses rye flour in his noodles – not authentic. and Momofuku uses bacon in his dashi! We live in a country where everyone is an immigrant or descended of an amalgam of immigrants (unless you are pure Native American) and what is lovely about that is the organic blending of cultures and styles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in food trends. Under your argument, we should not call tacos from the Kogi truck in LA, tacos, but “K-Tacos”? We should call burritos made with black beans, and sauteed vegetables “W Burritos” ? Because people in Washington smoke their salmon with Alder wood instead of Maple or oak we should call is “W smoked salmon” just so we are not confused as to what is authentic and what is not?
    Your obsessive rant about labeling what is “authentic” is completely clouding the argument. If everything that wasn’t authentic got shut down and re-zoned we wouldn’t have deep-dish pizza or enchiladas; (or maybe you would label it “C-pizza and “baked tacos made in texas covered in cheese and sauce”) and don’t tell me that fried cream cheese and hot chilli sauce isn’t fucking delicious!
    What is and what is not authentic should be completely besides the point; you are basically turning into the third reich of Ramen. “Anything that doesn’t look exactly and taste exactly like this isn’t ramen….oh yeah and if you don’t eat it like I tell you to you might as well stay in home and not embarrass yourself.” So anyone who doesn’t make pizza thin crust and 12″ across isn’t a pizza chef? If they offer any other toppings than anchovies, rocket, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil it’s not pizza? And anyone who slices up that pizza like a pie instead of eating it bite by bite with a fork and knife shouldn’t be aloud to eat it?

    Although I understand that you have made yourself the gate keeper for Ramen in Seattle, the defender and farmer of the Ramen scene. Descending down with your Godly palette to judge the lowly fucks that dare to put their new Ramen products and experiments on the scene…. and god forbid they have subtle delicate broths made with anything other than pork and chicken bones, or have a slightly leaner cut of pork, or use fresh local ingredients that haven’t been sitting in a freezer on a boat from Japan for 2 months…..

    Look, if you are trying to cultivate an active and interesting Ramen scene in Seattle… YOU are doing it wrong. You are coming across as a judgy asshole cutting down new businesses that are albeit making mistakes while experimenting with new dishes. You are not helping this “scene” that you love so much grow. If you want ramen scene to happen and be thriving and interesting in Seattle you have to nuture it; expand the umbrella. Don’t sit around and talk shit because “that one is different that what I am used to.”

    Frank Zappa said “Jazz isn’t dead it just smells funny..” Same thing with Ramen. Change is a natural part of growth for any art, or music, so why not food? Expand the umbrella.

  15. Jay
    April 16, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    [Note: I debated extensively whether to post both of the comments above, which I received in tandem earlier today. Despite the abrasive language and name-calling from “Jay Freedman (sic) is an Ass Clown” (in actuality, Gaijin Chef’s wife, who later apologized for the foul language after I made personal contact with her), I’m posting her long comment in addition to his shorter one because it will hopefully be constructive in allowing me to clarify my argument about Wramen. It also shows how highly emotional this type of issue can be.]

    To Gaijin Chef, I thank you for your comment. You have a right to reject my thesis, though I’d argue you’re misguided in your Wrejection. (I kid, I kid.)

    I’ve met both Ivan Orkin and David Chang in my capacity as a writer, and have enjoyed ramen from both of them. I first met Orkin in Tokyo, and his ramen tasted very much as if it belonged there. Yes…the noodles were slightly tweaked, but overall the bowl was very much Japanese ramen.

    That said, I did an extensive interview of Orkin, and he likes to say that ramen is a maverick cuisine in Japan, as it operates without rules. He might dispute my newly coined term “Wramen.” My concept doesn’t include clear delineation of where one would draw the line between ramen and Wramen. Chang’s ramen might be straddling that line.

    I can’t accept your simplification about ramen being so basic about noodles and broth. If I put alkaline wheat noodles in my long-cooking beef broth (a la Taiwanese beef noodle soup), by your proposal, is that now a form of (Japanese) ramen? I say it’s clearly different, as it’s clearly crossing the line between ramen and Wramen. As is much of the “ramen” I’m seeing in Seattle and the West these days.

    Which leads me to address, as well, part of your wife’s comments…

    Please read my article carefully. I wrote it because I was tired of automatically dismissing “Westernized” ramen as bad for being “inauthentic.” To help build appreciate for this new type of ramen, I wanted to create a word (as awkward as you and others might find it to read or pronounce!) that would enable me to evaluate different types of ramen in a fair way, ultimately supporting chefs putting their own (“inauthentic”) spins on ramen. My mission: maintain the integrity of the original while offering applause for the “new and improved” Western version. (By the way, you’re right that “the world of ramen is ever changing,” but I don’t think it’s especially true in Japan. I’ve seen a few unusual versions in my 12 years of visiting the country almost annually, but most ramen places seem to be keeping tight focus on traditional preparations of ramen. As with all of this, please provide research to correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Far from “scold(ing)” chefs, the new word gives structure to support creativity for doing something different. I listed examples of Wramen in the article, explaining that I especially enjoyed the versions I’ve eaten at places like Brimmer & Heeltap, Boke Bowl, and Burdock & Co. The others fell flat for me. In two of the three less-liked bowls on my local list, noodles were a major factor. As you wrote, bonus points if you can get them right. Major demerits, though, for failure—especially if other components of the ramen aren’t yet up to par. At least that’s my thinking as a “critic.” (And why most ramen chefs are opting for consistency by purchasing high quality noodles from places like Sun Noodle. Gabe Rosen at Biwa was originally making his own noodles, but figured the effort in doing so could be better applied toward perfecting other parts of the bowl. I believe that shift has paid off immensely. In fact, I told that story to another ramen chef I met this week, and he feels relieved that he can free his time from making hand-made noodles.)

    As a chef, you know that food writers are going to critique your work. It takes thick skin to do what you do. We may never agree on a number of points. But hopefully the conversation can be constructive (and civil, with realization that matters might be emotional), and help move toward more understanding—even of the differences.

  16. Jay
    April 17, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    Wow…I was completely tickled and flattered when Jesus Garcia (who commented above) of Little Lilly Sushi and Kevin Martinez of Tokyo Cafe embraced the Wramen concept so much that they recently did a “Wramen Pop-Up” dinner in Fort Worth!

    This account of the event reinforces some of my thinking. It also raises an interesting point about the term “Tex-Mex,” which evolved to distinguish cuisine that’s not authentically Mexican. Both Tex-Mex and Mexican food can now be recognized and affirmed.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. WRamen Pop Up -Sunday April 13 | Eat This Fort Worth - April 1, 2014

    […] is pronounced “Double U Ramen” and is a term coined by Seattle-based food writer Jay Friedman to describe Ramen that is heavily Western influenced. Without the constraints of producing this […]

  2. Wramen Pop-Up | ginger KEG - April 15, 2014

    […] a version you wouldn’t expect to see in Japan.  The term originated in Seattle when food writer Jay Friedman called for “a change in nomenclature”.  He proposed that authentic Japanese ramen […]

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