the 2009 king of the bowl: top shops from coast-to-coast
Yes, it's finally here! The 2009 King of the Bowl ramen ratings. I apologize for being a week late, but that's about how long it took for me to, um, recover from New Year's Eve? Maybe. But whatever! We're in an expansive, reverse manifest destiny state of mind here at rameniac, so for the Year of the Ox, we'll be taking a look at ramen shops coast-to-coast! From the fireworks of New York City to the familiar faces in Los Angeles, test your luck in Las Vegas so you won't have to go slurpless in Seattle, this one's for you, dear reader, and my frequent flyer mileage points. Happy 2009!
Familiar Faces: The 2009 Los Angeles Top Ten
It's been a largely unchanged year for ramen in Los Angeles. While 2008 has seen the rise of Ippudo and the continuing superiority of Setagaya in New York City, the noodle scene in Southern California has remained static, save for the opening of one or two sub-par shops and the late-breaking Chin-Ma-Ya, whose impact remains to be seen. I've shuffled around the rankings here and there. Kohryu in Orange County is simply too far away to be considered a part of this list, and by all accounts, has gone downhill after a management overhaul. I've simply gotten a bit tired of Orochon and their floury noodles, although they're still worth a periodic visit. And perhaps we should all forget Chabuya, which seems to have settled into upscale mediocrity in Chef Morizumi's entrepreneurial absence. Last year's rankings are in parenthesis. As follows:
|1. Santouka (1)|
In an absolute rout, Santouka defends its crown as the best and most authentic ramen operation in Southern California. Oily, rich, and loaded with umami from pork bones and Hokkaido seafood, this shio ramen from Japan's far north is a tantalizing taste of what the slurpy stuff could be, if only local shops put a little more effort and money into brewing their soups and importing noodles made with actual kansui.
|2. Asa (2)|
Okay, maybe I'm a little biased, as I've become fast friends with the staff at Asa over the course of the past year. But would my repeat patronage have anything to do with the meticulous artisanal kotteri shoyu product that Kubo-san serves up? Santouka is a large corporate ramen chain with the resources to import their ingredients straight from japan, but Asa is a humble little noodle start-up that nearly wins the day. Attention to detail is what separates the best from the rest!
|3. Shisen Ramen (6)|
Shisen Ramen has always been a decent Sichuan-style noodler. Lately, it's grown on me even more, with soup that's a flavorful blend of fiery spices and a thin, if woefully unremarkable yellow egg noodle. It's not the best bowl in town by far, not by a long shot, but something keeps pulling me back, especially late at night. Maybe it's just their hours?
|4. Hakata Shin-Sen-Gumi (5)|
There is much to love about the ever-popular Shin-Sen-Gumi, which brings my absolute favorite type of ramen, Hakata tonkotsu to L.A. and Orange County. What bothers me is that they do it so poorly! A bowl of ramen at SSG wouldn't even pass for mediocre in Fukuoka, and still, it's one of the best you'll find in town. Which just tells me that we all need to move to Japan, stat.
|5. Gardena Ramen (4)|
Gardena Ramen slips a notch this year, simply because Nakamura-san refuses to change with the times. Loaded with complex flavor, his shoyu ramen soup is still the best in town, but his refusal to expand his menu or use premium ingredients for his toppings makes him the perfect ganko oyaji ramen chef, the eccentric old man, endlessly perfecting his soup. Come to think of it, that's not a bad thing at all!
Umemura flies low under the radar and has definitely seen better days, and yet, ever since I started eating here again, I've been compelled to return every now and then. Maybe it's that yakiniku shoyu ramen with the extra sweet kick, or maybe I'm just getting old and nostalgic for my college years, when Umemura actually meant something in the grand scheme of things.
|7. Chin-Ma-Ya (-)|
Little Tokyo's newest ramen shop is a tan tan men specialist with a pedigree of over a hundred branches up and down Japan. Their trademark Sichuan-style soup is loaded with taste and peppercorn heat, and yet they could be so much better if only they imported proper white noodles instead of using the same generic yellow egg-based stuff all the mediocre ramen shops in town use. Weeks old, here's hoping they revise their business plan a bit!
|8.Shin-Mama Ramen (7)|
I haven't had Shin-Mama's delectable and light onomichi ramen in a while, but their monthly rotation of featured noodle "match-ups," featuring occasionally successful attempts at various ramen styles from across Japan, keep diners coming back to this low-key corner of the South Bay.
Ramenya, o Ramenya. Last year, this modest assari-kei in West Los Angeles barely missed the Top Ten. If anything, I would have ranked the place #11. But although it's true that there's nothing spectacular about this old-school standby of a ramen shop, I keep returning for relatively inoffensive ramen and the comfort of familiarity. Kind of like having a friend with benefits, if by benefits you meant sturdy chashu and consistently decent shoyu soup. Kill me now.
|10. Daikokuya (8)|
A few years on, Daikokuya has become a victim of its own success. Patronized by a neverending crowd of Little Tokyo hipsters, this purveyor of shoyu tonkotsu ramen has grown complacent, with rumblings of inconsistency making the rounds. Los Angeles ramen fans have a lot to love in Daikokuya's thick, rich soup, but quite simply, the noodles are - and have always been - all wrong for the broth.
They'd Make It Anywhere: The 2009 New York City Top Ten
There is no Stateside ramen scene more exciting than in New York City, where the first wave of heavy hitters from Japan are electing to getting off the plane. And I'm not even talking about the Yankees. Ippdudo, Setagaya, and the impending "locals-only" launch of Ichiran in Brooklyn are setting the new standard for ramen in North America, and should have West Coast ramen fans drooling in envy. There's even a Santouka in New Jersey, and coupled with the fact that ramen in the Big Apple is a notch above the rest in both specialization and overall quality, there ain't anything Los Angeles has got that New Yorkers don't have as well, in spades.
|1. Ramen Setagaya|
Ramen Setagaya is the closest anyone has come to realizing an authentic Tokyo gyoukai-style ramen and tsukemen shop outside of Japan. Sure, it's not exactly the same as their namesake restaurants in the motherland, but you'd be hard pressed to find a deeper, more subtle soup flavor and the same cutting edge innovation (i.e. grilling the chashu over mokutan wood coal) anywhere else in town, or country, for that matter.
|2. Ippudo NY|
Ippudo has long held court as one of Japan's top Hakata ramen chains. It's excellent stuff, and although the New York branch of the restaurant resembles a night club as much as it does a ramen shop, Ippudo NY's slightly modified but still superior akamaru tonkotsu ramen makes for the second-best bowl of noodles in North America. They would rank first, but their noodles (homemade in the restaurant's basement!) were just a touch too floury on my rather inebriated visit. Perhaps I should give them another chance. You think???
|3. Minca Ramen Factory|
Shigeo Kamada's boutique torigara and tonkotsu ramen shop is the East Village's hidden gem, an homage to ramen from the hinterlands of Western Japan. There is nothing else like it in the States, save for a second shop which recently opened. It's also in New York City. Spread the love around a bit, will ya?!
Rockmeisha is a West Village izakaya with a Fukuoka bent and a smooth, creamy bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen that ranks somewhere above Shin-Sen Gumi in Los Angeles, and a notch or two below Ippudo. This is the level New York is playing at; serious slurping for serious cosmopolitan palates. As with most things, the rest of the nation can simply look on in envy.
|5. Rai Rai Ken
Rai Rai Ken is an old school, shinasoba-style ramen shop with Chinese flair. I bailed on dessert at Chikalicious across the street so I could suck down a bowl of shoyu ramen here. And this was after my friends and I had already had dinner! With a saturated, dark shoyu flavor, this mid-tier ramen shop is a shade better than the mediocre assari-kei plaguing many an American Japantown.
|6. Sapporo Restaurant|
Nestled in the shadow of Times Square, Sapporo Restaurant conjures all sorts of memories for having served my first ever bowl of New York City ramen years ago. Surprisingly, their miso ramen is full of flavor and umami punch. Actually that wouldn't be surprising at all, if only American ramen shops would hold themselves to a consistently higher standard.
|7. Momofuku Noodle Bar
Overhyped, overpriced and blessed by Iron Chef Morimoto in what has got to be the most flagrant abuse of ranking since the BCS screwed up college football, Momofuku is a gentrified abomination of a ramen shop with food peddled to New York diners who really ought to know better. Oh, they have excellent pork buns. As with Chabuya however, the ramen is worth neither the price nor the popularity.
Menkui-tei is a throwback to the assari-kei ramen shops of a bygone era (meaning, the nineties), when ramen was bland, boring, and came in three kinds of soup - shoyu, miso, and shio. Throw in a cursory attempt at tonkotsu and some average, by-the-bag frozen gyoza and you've got a menu straight out of 1992, before "good" ramen ever hit these shores.
A pair of Hakata-style robatayaki in the East Village, Taisho and Oh! Taisho serve up obligatory bowls of Hakata tonkotsu ramen that aren't all bad. The soup has decent flavor, but the thin noodles are stiff and straight out of the package. This New York analogue to Los Angeles' legendary Shin-Sen-Gumi won't be rocking anyone's boat anytime soon. Go for the skewers. Pass on the noodles, unless you're still hungry at the end of the meal.
This midtown "chanko-ramen" specialist dishes out a hybrid nabe of noodles that is decent enough, but closer in spirit to udon or sumo-style hot pot. Avoid the Hakata ramen however; no restaurant, especially one from Fukuoka, should even bother serving tonkotsu ramen quite so mediocre.
Sweetness in Seattle: The 2009 Seattle Six
The Pacific Northwest's "Emerald City" is a remarkable confluence of regional pleasures and multiculturalism with an Asian flair. Damn. I should write for travel guides. Seattle has few ramen shops to speak of - you might be better off going to Vancouver to get your noodle fix if you're in these parts - but the tonkotsu boom has reached even this rain-soaked corner of the United States in recent years. Had Kurt Cobain slurped down a few "Samurai Armor Plates" during his lifetime, grunge might have never happened.
The Seattle International District's venerated noodle shop has relocated, into the Bellevue Uwajimaya supermarket! What is it with food court ramen? Takohachi is the best of the breed as far as Seattle is concerned, with a luxuriously oily shoyu soup loaded with peppery goodness and topped with kimchi, in that idiosyncratic way that Kansai-area ramen chefs are known for.
Imagine full blown gyoukai ramen flavor in the most unlikely of places! Kaname took over the old Takohachi spot, and resurrected the space with an izakaya and a pair of subdued wafu-dashi shoyu and miso bowls. Sure, the noodles are generic, but the broth is complex and deep, and for a mid-market ramen city, this is good stuff to be sure.
Okay, so Fulin is actually a Taiwanese Chinese restaurant, but there's no denying that their tonkotsu ramen is a veritable umami bomb loaded with flavor and goodness. For a town in which slurping joints are scarce, Fulin is a godsend. Who knew xiao long bao could be such a tasty and fitting accompaniment for a bowl of ramen?
|4. Samurai Noodle
Japan's tonkotsu ramen boom lands with a thud in Seattle courtesy of Samurai Noodle, the justly popular ramen shop (and now mini-chain) that serves up thick, oily Hakata-style fare to people who still believe that ramen is the six-for-a-dollar stuff you eat as a starving college student. Is it authentic? Not really. Is it good? It's decent. Does it shine, in a town where there are few options and ramen remains on the fringes of mainstream gastronomic culture? Absolutely.
|5. Boom Noodle
Boom Noodle is what you get when you take a couple of American dudes, a Japanese chef, and a blueprint for upscaling and drop it smack dab in Seattle's epicenter of cool, Capitol Hill. As far as authentic ramen goes, this ain't it. But if want to suck down some deliberately bland, consumer friendly shio ramen or nibble at some excellent appetizers, Boom Noodle is your weapon of choice. Plus there's saturday night ping pong and a bar. What more could you ask for?
Tsukushinbo serves ramen once a week, on Fridays for lunch, and Seattlites queue up for the stuff simply due to mystique and its limited quantities. Generic assari-kei ramen was never so hard to come by, but if you're hankering for a bowl that reminds you of every mediocre shoyu ramen you've ever had, you can be sure to find it here.
Lucky Numbers: The 2009 Las Vegas Top Three
Well, there are pretty much only three ramen shops in Sin City, where noodles are as scarce as water on the arid Mojave. I hear there's a fourth, but I haven't been there. And I definitely haven't looked into ramen at any of the newfangled casinos on the strip, although I'm sure it exists for the bevvy of Asian high rollers that pass through town each week. Okay, I confess. I'm not thinking about ramen whenever I'm in Vegas. I'm mostly concerned with strippers and gambling away all my money. Just kidding. It's all about the 99-cent buffets and Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. Never mind. Actually, I'm not a huge fan of Vegas, and only ever go there for business but shh! Don't tell. What happens in Vegas...
|1. Yokohama Kaigenro|
At one point, the folks behind Little Tokyo's Yokohama Kaigenro decided to set up shop five hours east, in the middle of the desert, across the street from the Hard Rock Cafe hotel. And thus, Vegas was born, drawing millions of noodle fanatics to this dusty corner of Nevada year after year. Not really. But Yokohama Kaigenro is a step above its counterpart in downtown Los Angeles. They even use fried shallots in the broth.
|2. Togoshi Ramen|
Togoshi Ramen operates a little bit off the strip, and provides a welcome dose of reality to those who need to step away from the bright lights and the entertainment every now and then. With a decent bowl of namesake noodles in a viscous soup and champon-style toppings, you can spend your last ten bucks at Togoshi before stumbling out into the desert for the vultures to pick at your broke-ass corpse. There are worse ways to go.
Shuseki is a modest Japanese izakaya in Las Vegas' "Chinatown," off strip on Spring Mountain Road. There's a 99 Ranch supermarket nearby. The ramen is meh. But around these parts, you take what you can get. That's what they used to say in the wild west, right before they shot you. The end.