Adana, on Capitol Hill, and Tsukushinbo, in the Chinatown International District, represent two disparate ends of the ramen spectrum: tradition vs. experimentation. But the result is pretty darn delectable in both cases.
What began as my fervent yearslong quest to find Seattle’s best tonkotsu ramen has, in recent months, resulted in a more diversified ramen palate.
In case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t found the tonkotsu ramen of my dreams, but these two one-day-a-week ramen specials have earned my respect for tastiness and what they symbolize.
The new weekly Wednesday ramen night at Adana on Capitol Hill wins props for its mushroom-forward tonkotsu broth — full disclosure: I love mushrooms — and the fact that it was conceived exclusively as a training tool to teach new chefs how to make traditional Japanese ramen.
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Meanwhile, in the Chinatown International District, Tsukushinbo still offers its famed weekly “Old School Toyko” ramen. Its staying power is testament to how strongly it’s clung to its heritage — its signature lighter-than-tonkotsu chicken-and-pork broth has been made the same way since the restaurant opened in Seattle 25 years ago.
The only change? Last September, Tsukushinbo’s owners — sister-and-brother tandem Marin and Sho Caccam — discontinued weekday lunch operations and moved their popular ramen special from its Friday lunchtime rotation to a Saturday brunch spot. Marin Caccam said they did so to accommodate their aging mother — Sayoko, 67, who founded the restaurant with her late-husband Masayoshi Caccam, and still works there several times a week.
Customers used to line up down the block long before Tsukushinbo opened for lunch on Fridays just to snag a bowl of the coveted ramen special.
There wasn’t a line outside the door on the recent Saturday that I set out to sample this famed concoction, but the little restaurant was packed nonetheless. I was seated at about 1 p.m., and ordered what turned out to be one of the last available bowls of the $15 Old School Toyko Ramen set — it comes with three gyoza and a bowl of sticky rice that’s great for dunking into leftover broth. Minutes later, I heard a server tell a disappointed customer that the ramen was sold out.
Service is not Tsukushinbo’s strong suit. I waited almost a half-hour for my ramen — the server later apologized, saying they were “slammed” — but hey, I at least enjoyed what I came to taste.
The broth is the main attraction, and the soul of Tsukushinbo’s ramen.
“It has not changed in 25 years, the same recipe,” Caccam says. “It’s kind of hard for new generations of the people right now to understand our ramen because it’s old-school, something our grandmother and great-grandmother used to make in Japan. And maybe it’s not enough kick or richness for some, because a lot of the ramen (broths) nowadays are so rich.”
This broth is more of a clear caramel color than the milky cream of tonkotsu. You can taste the chicken-and-pork tones, and a subtle sweetness lingers at the end. It’s cleaner and lighter than I’m used to, but has a satisfying depth that’s complemented by the wealth of toppings. I loved the fresh spinach that floats on the surface, and the plump, springy noodles. You get an egg, too, and some chashu pork.
The reason why they almost always sell out? They only make enough broth for about 55 bowls every week and always reserve a generous portion to serve as the base for their next batch of broth. Perhaps that’s their secret: decades-old consistency.
Conversely, Shota Nakajima’s Wednesday-night ramen at Adana is more experiment than institution, but it’s all in the name of instruction. Nakajima introduced a weekly ramen night this winter upon request of not his customers, but his staff.
“I always try to inspire my staff and make sure they’re learning something new all the time,” Nakajima said. “Three of the guys in the kitchen wanted to learn ramen, so we started out making five to 10 bowls and inviting industry friends. Word kinda spread pretty quick.”
Adana’s Wednesday ramen special ($16) gets you a steamy, flavorful bowl of soup noodles that’s the perfect antidote to any winter blues.
The soup — made of pork, dehydrated mushrooms, bonito flakes, garlic, white pepper, salt and a touch of soy sauce — is cooked 20 hours and boasts a rich mushroom aroma that’ll hit your nostrils immediately. Suitably, it comes with a generous topping of juicy Shimeji mushrooms. Also included: generous slices of pork belly, seaweed, a sprinkling of green onions and a whole marinated egg with a luxuriously runny yolk. Oh, and right after the bowl appears in front of you, the server grates seared foie gras over the top for added umami.
Because his Wednesday ramen special is essentially a cooking lab, Nakajima admits they’re still tinkering with the soup’s balance. While I liked the mushroomy flavor the week I visited, the chef seemed to wish I’d come in a week later than I did, when “we nailed it,” Nakajima says. “The week before, the mushroom was a bit stronger. It was a little bit too rich.”
“I like the broth to be clean, rich and deep,” Nakajima says. “It should be that you finish it and go, ‘Oh, wow, there’s not a lot of soup left.’ “
Don’t get too attached to this mushroomy bowl of goodness, though — it might rotate out of Adana’s kitchen soon because “we are planning to change the ramen flavor once a quarter just to keep it fun so it doesn’t get stale for the guys making it,” Nakajima says.
What you should get — that’s not going anywhere — is the chicken tatsuda ($10 at happy hour). A chicken thigh marinated in sake, soy and ginger, air dried, dipped in potato starch and fried. It’s crispy without being at all greasy, with a refreshingly light batter — and gluten free, for those who care.
Come for the ramen, stay for the fried chicken. It’s not a bad way to end a Wednesday evening.
Tsukushinbo, 515 S. Main St., Seattle. Monday-Friday 5-11 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Ramen: Only on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to whenever it’s sold out.
Adana, 1449 E. Pine St., Seattle. Wednesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-12 a.m.; Sunday 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Ramen: Only on Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to whenever it’s sold out.