Monday, October 10, 2011

Ramen Quest

Ramen is one of the most difficult foods to photograph. It’s also a complicated soup to prepare. David Chang wrote in the Momofuku cookbook, “Of all the challenges making ramen poses, getting the noodles right might be the toughest.” That’s what seemed to be at play when, on my third visit to Ippudo in New York, I finally had the patience to wait long enough to eat there. For almost two years leading up to this, I read and listened to groans of praise from food friends coast to coast about this ramen.

When the bowl of steaming noodles was placed before me, something immediately looked odd. Why weren’t they thick and glistening? Why were they whitish, thin, and almost undercooked looking? I tasted one and it was slightly floury, not chewy, as I had hoped. This thin style of noodle was unfamiliar, and I didn’t love it. What I ordered was the Akamaru Modern ramen (pictured above). The broth was cloudy, rich and savory with pork, miso and saké. The soup was addictive, but I didn’t like the noodles.

The chew: that is how I personally measure ramen. Then there’s the broth, and the garnishes, and all the rest. I developed a taste for the thick ramen noodle as a kid on Kauai, at Hamura’s Saimin. They’ve made those noodles from scratch with a winning texture for over fifty years. Toothsome wavy noodles, noodles that you can grasp with chopsticks, slurp, and bite into with satisfaction – that is what I look for in ramen. So after visiting this branch of the highly regarded Japanese chain, it affirmed that some of the small restaurants serving ramen in Portland are really doing something good.

I’ve been going to Biwa for years, and have tasted Gabe Rosen’s ramen evolve through different noodles, broths and toppings. I think that its current incarnation is the best it’s been, and the best I’ve tasted. The noodles are thick, the broth is a hearty blend of chicken and pork broths, and it comes garnished with an egg cooked in shoyu and chasyu pork.

Wafu opened recently on Division Street, and the first bowl of ramen that I had there (a couple of weeks after it opened) was a bit disappointing. But on my second visit (and apparently after the visits of many other vocal patrons with culinary backgrounds), the ramen had morphed into a deep and complex broth of pork, chicken and bonito, with chewy house made noodles topped with slow-roasted pork belly, scallions, kamaboko and corn. It won me over.

One of Portland’s sushi masters, Hiro Ikegaya, wanted to open a Sapporo-style ramen restaurant for a while, and this year he did. Mirakutei is a stark space with a counter along the kitchen and feels the most authentically Japanese. It’s a place where you can come in, find a seat, slurp down your noodles, and be on your way. There are a few styles here, but I like the Mirakutei Original Ramen. The flavor of the tonkatsu (pork and miso) broth is good, and the noodles are just right. It’s satisfying with minimal garnishes.

One day I’ll visit Japan and taste ramen at the source, and see how these compare. It’s at the top of my list of international travel destinations. Last year when I found out that I had to change planes in Tokyo on my way to Thailand, I was determined to eat a bowl of noodles there. I ordered airport udon, and it left me with so much more to desire. The watery broth tasted of packaged stock, but the noodles did have chew.

Ramen references: the Momofuku cookbook and Lucky Peach magazine


  1. I love this. The only Ramen I've found in Chicago is an outpost of Takashi's and it was much too salty to taste a proper broth. We have a reasonably vibrant Chinatown but nothing like the West coast. I will join you on this quest. Reporting from the Midwest.

  2. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Excellent article, Lila!! While I'm no expert, I will say that the Ramen place in the Century City Mall in LA is shockingly delicious. And, they have a veggie broth for vegetarians (unlike myself) which seems to be somewhat rare. If you're ever here, we'll have to go together! Aloha, Jenny