Ramen is not Cup 'O Noodles, dear god no. Ramen is soup with flour and egg noodles and various toppings. And people in Japan feel as strongly about ramen as we in New York feel about bagels or a slice of pizza. This is simple comfort food, but plenty of science is required to make it right. And if you put 10 New Yorkers in a room you'll have at least 5 opinions on what makes a bagel "right." Same thing in Japan with ramen.
I love ramen because when it's good, it's healthy, completely satisfying as a meal, and very inexpensive - if you add an order of gyoza (dumplings) and a drink, you're spending about $15. But a bowl of ramen on its own is a full meal, make no mistake. Food for all seasons, ramen is obviously perfect in cold weather, but I love it on a hot day too as a healthy lunch that's not heavy on meat.
If you're interested in ramen, or in good cinema, see the movie Tampopo, an ode to the joys of ramen and food in general, and made in the style of an American western.
Here are a few things that are generally true about ramen:
- The noodles should be boiled al dente. They should be springy and chewy, not soft.
- It is absolutely appropriate to eat ramen loudly, slurping the noodles into your mouth.
- The broth is either cloudy pork bone called Tonkotsu, or clear and made from pork, seafood (dried scallop, anchovy, mackerel, for example), chicken, vegetables, or some combination thereof.
- The broth is seasoned in two ways. 1) The chef uses her or his own seasoning called the Tar, which can be a mix of garlic, vinegar, oil, and who knows what else. The bowl that contains the Tar should never be emptied - it is continually replenished and the aged essence of the seasonings is a point of pride. In Japan there are ramen shops whose Tar bowls have been in continual use for over 50 years. 2) After a small amount of the Tar is placed at the bottom of the bowl, the chef seasons the soup with either Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio (salt), or Miso (fermented soybean paste, the same used to make Miso Soup. Light, red, and dark Miso pastes can be combined.
- The toppings are serious business. Six is traditional, but there may be more or less. Typical toppings include slices of Chashu (roast pork), shinachiku (fresh, seasoned bamboo shoots), scallions, seaweed, naruto (thinly sliced fish cake), boiled spinach or bean sprouts, cloud ear mushrooms, and egg (best when it's soft boiled and seasoned. Some ramen shops will offer chili oil, shucked corn, white pepper, crisp roast garlic slices, and other toppings upon request.
- The toppings are meant to be an interlude between bites of noodles. They are the garnish, not the meal.
- You may ask the chef to make changes to your bowl of ramen - extra pork, no scallions, whatever you like. This is common.
Rai Rai Ken - 214 E. 10th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues.
A red paper lantern hanging outside announces this narrow and often crowded ramen joint. This is one of the first true ramen shops in NYC and it's still one of the very best. Three flavors are served: Shoyu, Shio, and Miso. While none of the individual elements at Rai Rai Ken are the best in town, they are each very very good, and the overall bowl is fantastic.
Noodles: curly, springy and light, but thick and satisfying. Excellent.
Broth: mix of vegetables, pork, and seafood. Deeply flavored but totally mild with no oil or grease, a healthy and wholesome feeling broth.
Toppings: Strong on the roast pork and bamboo, scallions and fish cake are nice. Weak on the egg, which is hardboiled and without real flavor.
Ramen Setagaya - 141 1st Avenue between St Marks Place and 9th Streets.
Very popular in Japan, Setagaya is famous for Shio ramen, and justifiably so. There are no other choices - when you go to Setagaya you're getting Shio ramen. It's the finest bowl of Shio ramen I've ever had, rich and mellow, and deeply satisfying. Sit at the bar and watch the chefs scurry about, or sit at a table and watch the untranslated and zany looking ramen shows on the big screen TV.
Noodles: straight and on the thin side, chewy and tasty. Excellent.
Broth: chicken and dried seafood, and utterly luscious. Salty, but in flavor, not as a sensation, if that makes any sense.
Toppings: Strong on the seasoned soft boiled egg (DELICIOUS), bamboo, seaweed and scallions. Pork is nice, but I'm not crazy about the way they throw the slices on the grill at the last minute.
Ippudo - 65 4th Avenue between 9th and10th Streets.
Also very popular in Japan, Ippudo is most notable for its incredible Tonkotsu broth. More of a restaurant than a ramen joint, and the higher prices reflect this. You sit at nice tables in a chic atmosphere, which in the context of ramen kind of turns me off, but to each their own. Whatever you might feel about the decor, there is no arguing about the velvety, incredibly rich and flavorful pork bone broth. I'd like to carry some around at all times in a hip flask. There are several types to try, differing only in the toppings and in whether or not there is spicy ground pork and oil added at the end. I like them all, but the Akamaru ramen is my favorite.
Noodles: thin and straight, springy. Very good, but a bit delicate.
Toppings: They're fine, but nothing special. And you must pay an extra $3 if you want the seasoned soft bolied egg. It's all about the broth at Ippudo.
Naruto Ramen - 1596 3rd Avenue between 89th and 90th Streets.
That's right, the Upper East Side has a ramen joint. And it's pretty good, the toppings in particular. I once was served noodles that had a faint ammonia smell, as can happen when they are not so fresh. And the soup is not particularly distinctive. So not worth the trip way uptown if ramen is your goal, but worth it if you happen to find yourself up there already.
Noodles: curly and chewy, pretty thick, variable in freshness.
Broth: pork, chicken, and seafood base, served only as Shoyu ramen.
Toppings: excellent. Best roast pork of all of these places, thick and juicy. Best bamboo slices too. Good seasoned soft boiled egg.
Fukumatsu - 212 East 52nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
Also not worth a special ramen trip, but perfect if you're in the area and the craving hits you. Nothing is bad, but nothing is distinguished either, and the place is really more of a sushi restaurant. That said, Wednesday's lunch special is a bowl of ramen, a California Roll, 4 gyoza, and a salad for $12. So if you're hungry and don't mind the jostling of midtown...
Noodles: curly and springy.
Broth: Chicken, pork, and dried seafood broth served only as Shio ramen, but the rich salty taste is not there. Perfectly fine soup, but not great as Shio broth.
Toppings: fine, nothing special.
Momofuku Noodle Bar - 171 1st Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets.
There are plenty of good reasons to visit Momofuku noodle bar, but in my opinion, ramen is not one of them. This is a different take on ramen, and there's nothing wrong with a different take, but the results here are less impressive than the other options at this restaurant, and less impressive than all of the other ramen shops in the area (you're around the corner from Rai Rai Ken and down the street from Setagaya...what's wrong with you?!?). The problem is the broth - it's just too rich and porky, unbalanced. It's like broth on steroids, which as everyone knows, are illegal.
Noodles: fine, not as springy as you would expect, but fine.
Broth: pork (and good Berkshire pork too), but too porky.
Toppings: delicious and meaty slices of Berkshire pork belly, but that's all that's memorable.
Minca - 536 East 5th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B.
This is the only place that I just didn't like. The broth tasted off, way too chicken-y, and too greasy. The bamboo shoots still had the can water flavor all over them. The scallions were limp, nothing was right here. Too bad because they offer many flavors of ramen and the setting is quite nice. It would be very difficult for me to go back though, the bowl was that poor.
Noodles: fine, but lost amidst the unpleasant chicken broth clinging to them.
Broth: I already told you - not fresh, unbalanced, poor.
Toppings: fine, but does it matter?