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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!
6. Umemura(-)
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.
9.Ramenya (-)
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?!
4. Rockmeisha
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.
8. Menkui-tei
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.
9. Taisho
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.
10. Menchanko-Tei
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.

1. Takohachi
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.
2. Kaname
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.
3. Fulin
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?
6. Tsukushinbo
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.
3. Shuseki
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.

Comments

I agree with everything…except Santouka…hahaha! Great ranking rameniac! I can’t wait to get out to NY to check out their scene too. Btw, it was great meeting up with you and ed today. We should do that more often! And umemura made your top ten!! sweet!

Posted by keizo on 01/11 at 12:41 AM

I still prefer Asa over Santouka.  wink  As for Ippudo vs. Asa, I definitely agree about Ippudo’s noodles - they had a weird dusty/pasty consistency once I began chewing them, must be too much flour.  Though the flavor was there, I have to give the point to Asa.  Ippudo wins on the soup (I had the shiromaru), and toppings are mixed - Asa has better chashu (thought Ippudo’s was only slightly better than SSG there) and offers mentaiko, but Ippudo has buta no kakuni, which I thought was very good, and I like their sesame seed mills.  I’m inclined to give the win to Ippudo, but Asa is cheaper and local.  wink

I’ll have to try Setagaya if I ever return to NY.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/11 at 01:20 PM

Finally got to try the NY Ippudo last month, and was a little disappointed. The broth was low on umami, and the spicy miso was subdued. They don’t serve that great tea from the Japan locations, and when I pressed our waitress about it, she didn’t know what I was talking about. Worst are the ditzy white hostesses who say “Irasshaimase” when I’m going out the door. And those prices! Granted, it’s like a lounge bar, as you say, but for $15 (plus tax and tip! arghhhh), I should be getting the Tokusen Umami bowl, with cube of pork fat, not the ordinary Akamaru. Haven’t paid that much for a simple bowl of ramen since getting Ore no Sora’s 900 yen tsukemen, and with that, I at least got the hanjuku egg.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/12 at 03:30 AM

I know this an odd post on a food blog. But saying the BCS screwed up college football is extremely ignorant. It didn’t fix college football, and I agree that it sucks. But it certainly made the system a lot better than it was before. At least you have a 1 vs. 2 playing each other, regardless of whether it is contested. Before the BCS, 1 could have been playing 7 and 2 could have been playing 4.

Stick to food. Trying to be clever by referencing football only makes you look an idiot.

“the most flagrant abuse of ranking of since the BCS screwed up college football”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/13 at 09:30 AM

Rameniac, nice list.  Have you been to the New Jersey Santouka, and where would that rank against your New York top ten?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/13 at 10:26 AM

LOL David - people who eat can’t possibly be into anything else? either have a playoff or nothing at all i say. otherwise you wind up crowning a fake “champion” based on a totally arbitrary mishmash of poll averages and some dudes’ computers, and the tragedy in that is that it’ll stand in the history books. the BCS screwed up college football because everybody will have forgotten about utah come august. did you go to an SEC school? =P

Posted by rameniac on 01/13 at 12:13 PM

hi al,

thanks! i haven’t been to the new jersey santouka, unfortunately. but if it’s anything like the ones in southern california, it’s probably quite awesome. i might put it a notch below ippudo and above minca. next time i’m in the area i’ll definitely have to hit it up!

Posted by rameniac on 01/13 at 01:40 PM

“Momofuku is a gentrified abomination of a ramen shop with food peddled to New York diners who really ought to know better”

That is patently unfair. The fact is that no matter what you might think of the Ramen the rest of the food coming out of Momofuku is truly exceptional and avante guarde.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/13 at 02:04 PM

Your write up if Menkui-Tei is off.  Maybe the downtown location sucks, but the Midtown one is good.  And they make their own gyoza.  The kitchen is open and I’ve watched them make gyoza every time I’ve eaten there.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/13 at 02:46 PM

I couldnt agree more w/the momofuku review.  That place is horrible and overpriced.  Not only that, I feel that his food in general is just tweaked asian food that is absurdly overpriced and at best decent. 

For what its worth, for NYC, w/Santoka, I would rank em:

1. Ippudo (gotta get the aka maru)  Its not the japanese version or quaility, but nothing in nyc is this good or this refined.  It is a clear level above anything else.  Its a major improvement for ramen in the states.

2.Santoka NJ.  Very very good.  Some days are better than others, but very solid as it has been for years.  The toriniku (pork on the side) is even better than the pork they usually give you.  They had a special shoyu ramen for a week, it was excellent as well.  I hope they bring it back.

There is a significant drop off for me here. 

3. Kambi (Minca’s owners and the same stuff)  Seems to always be significantly better than Minca whose Q.C. is always bad whenever i go.  Sticking to the 1st few ramens, the Kambi ramens is key.  Sometime it is not served steaming hot.  A big no no in my book. 

4. Setagaya, the shio store on 1st ave, Not the St Marks new store which is horrible.  1st ave is usually good w/its delicate broth.  If your not a tonkotsu pork fan place, this is the store for you.  You wont leave feeling heavy and gross.  I had the Gyolu Ramen at the St Marks location, and it was absolutely disgusting. 

After this i really wouldnt bother. 

But there are a few other places that have some decent ramen as well around nyc.  U gotta dig though.  Tsukushi is subtle but good.  Though its not a ramen joint.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/13 at 05:40 PM

nice work!  your ramen spirit never ceases to amaze me.

although i rarely visit the bay area, i’m curious of your nor cal rankings.  perhaps an addition for ‘10?

keep up the good work!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/14 at 04:04 AM

Ahaha, you say NY needs to share the love, but California is FILLED with lovely Japanese specialty stores I would die for.  Sure, NYC has wonderful ramen places, but for the sake of a few instant ramen packages I’ve seen you review, I wouldn’t mind relocating to California.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/14 at 08:51 AM

Yikes!  My friend and I thought the ramen at Setagaya tastes like takoyaki.  We call it takoyaki ramen and after trying it twice, will never go back. 

Menkui-tei’s ramen is perfect comfort food and similar to the ramen you get at regular old ramen restaurants in Japan.  Which, sometimes, is quite nice instead of the fancy schmancy ramen joints popping up everywhere.  As a previous commentor said, their gyoza is made at the store (at least in midtown) and make sure to get them well done so they are extra crispy.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/15 at 09:45 AM

Is there nothing in Chicago?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/18 at 11:33 AM

Just went to Santouka tonight based on your review and loved it. Asa is next. However, I must say that I still love Daikokuya and I will pony up to a bowl of the Kotteri Tonkotsu ramen any day of the week. I do agree that the noodles could be better, though.

Thanks for the great info Rameniac! Keep up the good work!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/09 at 04:06 AM

Just went to the West L.A. Santouka - ordered the Shoyu Chashu ramen - have they changed the toppings?  no ume and no kikurage.  Got nori instead.  I usually go to the Torrance Santouka so I don’t know if this is usual?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/15 at 01:07 PM

ok finally registered and want to say thanks so much rameniac because you make me want to eat
NOW and that’s what it’s all about.
thx!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/18 at 04:30 PM

OMG i cant beleive you did not try what in my opinion is by far the best ramen in Las Vegas, yes its not a ramen only shop (and yes i have tried santoka and yes the spicy miso is in my opinion perfection), after trying Santoka I needed something to quell my hunger for ramen, tried diff places .. this is the best i found

I love it so much i carry the business card with me
Izakaya Miko’s
500 Windmill Ln
Ste. 165

Their tonkotsu ramen is damn good in my opinion, try it out.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/04 at 01:17 AM

What is the best Ramen joint in the Washington DC area?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/04 at 07:01 AM

Looking for someone who has made extreme and unusual dishes with instant ramen for a segment on NTV in Japan, Shooting in NYC FRIDAY 3/5.Anyone ever made ramen desserts, souffles or salads as many recipe books indicate? NTV needs to know.Email me as soon as possible.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/05 at 09:42 AM

How does the LV ramen stack up against the LA counterparts? I know it’s blasphemous even comparing anything to LA or NY but I’m going this weekend and wondering if it’s even worth bothering.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/05 at 10:54 AM

Like i said only place worth going to is not on this list… depending on your taste pref that place i liked will do you right… Its away from the tourist area though

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/05 at 11:30 AM

Great review Rameniac, I totally agree on Santouka being up there even if I haven’t tried Asa.  But do also consider another Ramen-ya called Fuu-fuu-tei in Rowland Heights/West Covina.  The assortment of their menu is insanely huge and their specialty “Nanchatte ramen” is mysteriously delicious with all sorts of interesting umami.  Shoot me an email as to what you think or if you want to go there!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/06 at 06:29 AM

“Oily, rich, and loaded with umami from pork bones and Hokkaido seafood” - comment about Santouka

sorry to differ with you opinion here, but asking the chefs at Santouka, the flavor that you’re describing here is due to loads of MSG that they added to the broth.  that’s how the umami flavor comes about.  sorry to burst your bubble about the flavors of the soup.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/14 at 05:13 PM

beg to differ - in general, MSG does function to heighten umami in food. but whether or not santouka uses it is irrelevant, as glutamates are a naturally occuring amino acid present in all sorts of meat, fish, cheese, etc.  so the flavor does in fact come from the particular blend of ingredients in the soup. there’s a vast public misconception that has stigmatized MSG as a whole; it’s usually people who are misinformed that bring it up in conversations about this restaurant or that. sorry, but do some research!

http://www.glutamate.org/media/a_natural_part_of_food.asp

Posted by rameniac on 03/15 at 05:13 PM
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