It’s time to get one thing straight: those five-for-a-dollar sodium-bombed bricks of instant noodles may be manna for college kids but they ain’t ramen, despite what the package may claim. Real ramen is a noodle soup on steroids, Asia’s ultimate comfort food and fast becoming one of America’s as well.
“Chefs here are taking it as seriously as they do in Japan,” says Jamison Blankenship of Chuko in Brooklyn. “It’s become a craze. People will wait two hours for a seat sometimes.”
It all starts with the broth. Not beef, shrimp, or “Oriental” flavors, but shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, and the granddaddy of them all, tonkotsu, where pork bones are boiled long hours until all the marrow is extracted, turning the soup a thick, milky white. “It leaves a deep memory in many people who eat it for the first time,” explains Jessmin Lau, co-owner of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya in Bellevue, WA.
Next comes a pile of long noodles and a seemingly endless array of toppings—rich, fatty chashu (braised pork belly), seafood, chicken, and even lamb—hit with chili spice and miso, daikon, seaweed, bamboo shoots, and perfect soft-boiled eggs. “There’s room to experiment with the original Japanese traditions as long as you keep the quality level high,” offers Blankenship, who lands fresh vegetables, like butternut squash, in his steaming bowls.
Whether you’re a ramen devotee or a curious newbie, here’s some of the best ramen in America. Some spots are traditional. Others hang their hat on fusion. But all are worth a noisy slurp.