America's Best Ramen
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.
Biwa, Portland, OR
The seven-year-old izakaya-esque Biwa may offer only a single ramen, but given the obsessive research chef John Moch put into it, it’s a must order: thin noodles, a lone egg, and chashu pork, floating in a rich bowl of a pork-and-chicken broth that takes 18 hours to create. Seasonal variations include a crab ramen in winter and ethically sourced duck ramen in spring, while spicy ground pork or smoked pork shoulder add-ons can amp it up anytime. biwarestaurant.com
Chuko Ramen, Brooklyn, NY
Six months in Japan spent studiously slurping ramen paid off for co-owner Jamison Blankenship, previously chef de cuisine at Morimoto, whose Prospect Heights ramen joint is famous for its wait, which can span hours, as well as his craft approach to the dish. Noodles are custom-made by cult producer Sun Noodles, and everything else is made in-house, from a warming pork-bone broth in winter to a humidity-fighting summer option that’s chilled. Vegetarians can nosh year round on a miso-based broth with toppings like butternut squash, cabbage, and fresh bamboo. barchuko.com
Kukai Ramen, Bellevue, WA
The first stateside outpost of Japan’s popular Kukai chain bet on equal parts authenticity and innovation to make an umami-packed splash in Seattle’s vibrant ramen scene, from the wood-paneled dining area and open-action stainless-steel kitchen to parlaying four broths—shio, shoyu, tonkotsu, and veggie, all simmered 10 hours—into a variety of memorable bowls. By marrying French consommé techniques like preroasting the bones, resulting stocks are nearly oil-free and clear, a perfect base for more subtle toppings such as tender kelp and citrusy yuzu. kukai-ramen.com
Toki Underground, Washington D.C.
When opening his eclectic 25-seat ramen and dumpling den above D.C.’s H Street corridor, chef/owner Erik Bruner-Yang reveled in the music and art and family recipes of a youth spent in both Japan and Taiwan—including a stint at a Hakata ramen joint in Taipei. Tonkotsu broth bowls are served up classic (chashu pulled pork, soft egg, seasonal vegetables, pickled ginger), livened with red miso and kimchi, and pushed into something entirely new: the Taipei Curry Chicken melds Japanese curry, Chinese-style ramen noodles, and Taiwanese five-spiced fried chicken into a uniquely hearty hybrid. tokiunderground.com
Lucky Belly, Honolulu
The décor may be minimalist but this Hawaiian ramen joint’s signature offering—the aptly named Beast Bowl—is anything but. After 48 hours of simmering, tonkotsu, miso, and goma (sesame) broths combine with al dente noodles, wakame seaweed, bean sprouts, ginger, and green onion. Then comes the soft-steamed egg, slow-cooked brisket, short ribs, and plump oxtail dumplings. A sprinkle of porcini dust finishes it off, a bomb of deep earthy aromas beckoning as it steams. luckybelly.com
Noodle & Pie, New Orleans
Handmade noodles and southern-style pies go together like…well, they usually don’t, at least not until this popular NOLA pop-up proved the dueling comfort-food concept and set down permanent roots in Uptown last August. Expect sunny, down-home hospitality, with a communal table in the middle and the smells of cooked apples, sugars, and rich pork broths simmering. You’ll always find a banana cream pie and two ramen bowls (traditional tonkotsu and vegetarian), but beyond that it’s up to the seasons to prescribe, be that blueberries, Pontchartrain crab, or eight-hour brisket. noodleandpie.com
Chef Frank Bonanno ladles up nontraditional—and superbly rich—bowls of ramen at Denver’s Bones. Depending on the time of year, diners can slurp up Duck Ramen (pastrami-cured duck confit, watercress, pickled veg) or Lobster Ramen, where thick chunks of poached claw meat swim with edamame and beurre blanc in a miso broth. By popular demand, a Green Chili Tsukemen (roasted chiles, sweet Olathe corn, crispy potatoes, queso fresco, and pork albondigas) will be returning this spring. bonesdenver.com
Masu Sushi and Robata, Minneapolis
Though Masu may already be one of the best sushi restaurants in the U.S., its noodles demand equal billing. Consider the Tonkotsu Curry Ramen: for the broth alone, kombu, shiitake, chicken wings, roasted pork necks, roasted pig feet, slab bacon, vegetables, mirin, and soy sauce simmer it up for at least nine hours. Inveterate slurpers can also choose pork belly and miso bowls, rotating specials such as Littleneck Clam or Chicken Kimchi Ramen, as well as ample udons and yakisoba. masusushiandrobata.com
Ramen Shop, Oakland, CA
Unlike traditional ramen shops that closely follow a well-guarded recipe, Ramen Shop chefs are on an ever-changing quest to develop (and tweak) the perfect broth, with local ingredients as inspiration. That could mean drying Bay Area anchovies and sardines for house-made dashi or balancing the complexity of bright, fresh, and savory flavors in its Vegetarian Shoyu Meyer Lemon Ramen (that one gets topped by pungent chanterelle mushrooms, tomato confit, Di Cicco broccoli, roasted eggplant, mustard greens, and a salt-cured egg). No surprise, it’s a favorite of San Francisco’s off-duty chefs. ramenshop.com
Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Austin, TX
Brainchild of a Le Cordon Bleu–trained hip-hop DJ and Tokyo-born, Austin-bred entrepreneur, the city’s first brick-and-mortar temple to Japan’s soupy soul food serves a never-ending line of supplicants classic tonkotsu and tonkotsu shoyu bowls, plus miso and tsukemen (dipping ramen) versions and a chicken-based shoyu at lunch. There’s even a gluten-free option with rice. But it’s the inventive specials that really stand out: Veggie Ramen (with fried brussels sprouts) on Sunday nights, a Valentine’s Day tomato-based red ramen, a Buffalo chicken wing–inspired novelty for Super Bowl Sunday, and a chili cheese ramen that may soon be making a reappearance for Texas Tuesdays. ramen-tatsuya.com
Umaido Ramen, Suwanee, GA
Ramen lovers can test their mettle—and gastrointestinal fortitude—in a tiny suburban gem just outside Atlanta. Finishing four bowls (with broth) under 20 minutes or one bowl of “Level 100” spicy ramen in 10 lands you a free meal and your (super-stuffed) photo on the wall. The challenges add a bit of fun and a lot of camaraderie to what is essentially a very straightforward ramen menu with tonkotsu and seafood options, as well as a popular Honey Miso bowl, combining sweetened soybean paste, sliced pork, corn, seaweed, bean sprouts, and red bell pepper in a traditional pork-bone broth. umaidos.com
Ippudo, New York City
Catalyzing NYC’s ramen mania when it opened its East Village flagship in 2008, Japan’s Ippudo (named one of the best fast-food chains in the world) immerses diners in classic noodle-shop culture, down to the shouted “Irasshaimase!” greeting just as you would find on the island of Kyushu, where tonkotsu broth was born. Ippudo’s pork broth takes more than two days to reach perfection and is the backbone of bowls like the coveted Akamaru Modern, a traditional pork chashu-mushroom-cabbage bowl amped up with fragrant garlic oil and a secret “Umami Dama” miso paste. A second, now equally as packed, midtown location opened last year. ippudony.com
In a quest to create the ultimate comfort food, the culture-combining ramen chefs at Oiistar aren’t shy about having fun. (Vintage cartoons projected on the walls may have been a tip-off.) The Pozolmen channels Mexico with jalapeño, red onion, tomatoes, and pork loin, while the Tikkamen—tender chicken, masala, bean sprouts, roasted sesame—is basically everything to love about India’s tikka masala in a rich noodle soup. The most popular menu item? The Japanese-Korean Chadolmen, which pairs vinegary, tart kimchi with spicy miso. oiistar.com
Santouka Ramen, Los Angeles
Unlike at most mass chains, quality hasn’t suffered from size as the 15-year-old Santouka went from a one-room, nine-seat hole-in-the-wall in Hokkaido, Japan, to an international ramen heavyweight with outlets across Japan, Southeast Asia, Canada, and now America. There are four in the L.A. area alone and five more in San Jose, San Diego, Chicago, Honolulu, and Edgewater, NJ. The singular reason for its success: possibly the country’s best bowl of shio (salt) ramen bearing a tiny, pickled plum (umeboshi). santouka.co.jp