Our noodle knowledge has evolved, I think, to a point where we hear ramen and we don’t all think of those served in Styrofoam cups. In fact, Japanese ramen has gone mainstream here.
The brothy delight is featured by Tom Douglas’ mini empire (at TanakaSan), during happy hour at Revel and last fall at a stall at the Capitol Hill Farmers Market.
But still, ramen seems a bit unfamiliar, a bit disconcerting. It’s counterintuitive to how westerners dine. Yes, you slurp. You’re supposed to eat while your ramen is steaming hot. Yes, your broth may have that fatty sheen, glistening like the Exxon Valdez spill. And, yes, eating ramen should be a race against time; the alchemy gets out of whack once the broth cools down. You should finish within 10 minutes, 12 tops. (American ramen master Ivan Orkin of the acclaimed Ivan Ramen in New York City and Tokyo consumes his bowl within seven to eight minutes.)
Of course, that’s not how we eat ramen, or anything else for that matter. We Instagram or Facebook it first. We order gyoza (pot stickers) or karaage (fried chicken) and treat it as an appetizer while our ramen sits. We text between bites.
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No ramen joint will tell you so, because, well, the “customer is always right.” But I’ll let you in on a little secret: You drive many ramen kitchens crazy when you eat this slowly. The noodles expand and get soggy, the broth a sad shadow of what it was when the fat was melting in the hot, salty broth when the bowl was plopped in front of you.
“Once the noodle is in the broth and plated, you’ll hear us yelling for the server to deliver the ramen as soon as possible so that they can enjoy a bowl of hot ramen,” said David Lim, co owner of Jinya ramen shop in Bellevue. “The Japanese eat the ramen very fast … they don’t stop, a mouthful after mouthful and they slurp. While Americans, they eat and they talk.”
At Kukai Ramen in Bellevue and Seattle, the kitchen staff must finish plating each ramen bowl within one minute and 30 seconds to give customers enough time with the hot broth before it cools down.
The late Boom Noodle on Capitol Hill, which helped introduce ramen to the area, first noticed how slowly Seattleites were eating and switched to a different noodle that could hold its shape better in the broth for extended periods. Unfortunately, it didn’t taste as good.
Moral of the story: There’s no way around it. Eat your ramen as if you had just scaled Mailbox Peak on an empty stomach.
Here’s the six best ramen places to slurp:
Tsukushinbo has been serving ramen long before it became popular. Its signature soy-sauce based broth topped with pork, spinach, bamboo, seaweed, fish cake and scallions with a side of gyoza and rice ($8.95) is served only on Fridays during lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. But good luck getting in. It’s the best ramen in Seattle, and the line stretches down the block at 11:30 a.m. If you’re not one of the first 60 customers, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a bowl. Sells out on most Fridays. 515 S Main St., Seattle (206 467-4004, no website).
Miyabi 45th is the trendiest ramen in Seattle now — and it’s also very good. Located along little “Ramen Row,” this Wallingford restaurant showcases a different ramen every Wednesday during lunch. Chef Mutsuko Soma has been tinkering with a shio ramen, a briny broth made of sea bream, shrimp heads, pork and chicken bones. 2208 N. 45th St., Seattle (206-632-4545).
Yoroshiku gets my vote for the most improved ramen in Seattle. Chef and owner Keisuke Kobayashi’s chicken broth has more complexity and depth of flavor than when he opened two years ago in Wallingford. The difference? He added chicken feet to simmer in the stock for 10 hours. 1913 N. 45th St., Seattle (206-547-4649 or yoroshikuseattle.com).
Kukai Ramen has improved since it debuted in Bellevue two years ago. This Japanese ramen chain features a chicken broth, a pork broth and a pork-and-chicken broth combo with the noodles. Try the Garlic Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen, with a pungent, rich, gravy-like pork broth. Kukai sells out of its Garlic Tonkotsu most nights. Pay the extra 50 cents to swap out the lean pork slices for the pork belly instead. In July, the chain expanded with a branch in Northgate. 14845 Main St., Bellevue (425-243-7527) and Northgate at 319 N.E. Thornton Place, Seattle (206-946-6792 or kukai-ramen.com).
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is easily the best ramen in Western Washington. Every ramen from miso to the soy-sauce based was outstanding — rich and creamy, with bold flavors that surprisingly don’t drown out the lighter ingredients. The ramen is crowned with buttery pieces of braised pork belly. 103 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue (425-462-0141 or santouka-usa.com).
Jinya Ramen Bar opened a branch at Crossroads Bellevue Shopping Center in March. Many local ramen joints don’t serve the broth hot enough nor make it fatty and rich enough. That’s not a problem here. The noodles also have a nice bite; the egg is cooked textbook perfect firm with a runny yolk. Get the Tonkotsu black with pork broth, pork chashu, scallions, nori, egg, garlic chips, garlic oil, fried onions. 15600 N.E. Eighth St., Bellevue (425-590-9548 or jinya-ramenbar.com).