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.
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 are some of the best ramen in America. Some spots are traditional. Others hang their hat on fusion. But all are worth a noisy slurp.
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Randy L. Rasmussen
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Ching
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Courtesy of Kukai Ramen
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Krieger
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Lori JC Lum
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Courtesy of Noodle and Pie
See More of America's Best Ramen 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 Photo: Scottie Davison
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