When I attended the Culinary Institute of America's annual Worlds of Flavor conference last year, one speaker mentioned that there are more than 80,000 ramen restaurants in Japan. Those are dedicated ramen shops, selling little more than gyoza on the side.
Seattle has two such shops.
To learn more about my favorite Japanese noodle dish, I visited Ivan Ramen, one of Japan's many ramen restaurants, to meet Ivan Orkin--a New Yorker who was inspired by the movie Tampopo and moved to Tokyo to fulfill a dream of being a successful ramen-shop chef. (You can find Orkin in conversation with David Chang in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach.) In a country full of "disciplined" cooking, Orkin loves ramen because "it's the one maverick cuisine with no rules."
With no rules, there are endless versions of ramen, each boasting its own boosters. This probably makes it wrong for me to title this article "What's Wrong With Ramen in Seattle?" In fact, what's right is the increasing popularity of ramen and its prevalence on local menus. I hear that Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura is developing a recipe, and maybe Seattle will soon land a Japanese chain, following in the footsteps of New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.
What's ready is the chance for someone to open a stellar place that takes ramen to the next level. That's the case in Vancouver (well, predictably, Richmond), where G-Men Ramen was serving the best bowls I've found in the Pacific Northwest--until they suddenly closed a couple of months ago. (I'm told they hope to reopen next month, perhaps with a different name, in the former Nan Chuu space on Alexandra Road in Richmond.) Eating there, and in Tokyo, helped me understand why we're falling short on ramen quality in Seattle:
1. No housemade noodles. This isn't a must, but sometimes it's a distinguishing feature. Local noodle options are weak, and it seems most of the restaurants get their ramen noodles from the same source in California.
2. Broths are off (usually weak). The process takes time and dedication, and can't just be an afterthought.
3. Inferior meat. Pork and chicken taste better in Asia. Lower-quality pork and chicken not only result in lower-quality stock for the soup, but the chashu pieces I see here are lacking in fat and flavor.
4. Bad eggs. Those lower-quality chickens come from lower-quality eggs. Unless a restaurant here uses a farm-fresh egg, it will be lacking the bright orange yolk you'll find at a place like G-Men Ramen. (Our ramen shops also tend to overcook the eggs.)
5. A lack of "Japaneseness." Just as our Hanna Raskin questioned whether the quality of Stopsky's Deli suffered from a lack of Yiddishkeit (Yiddish for "Jewishness"), I wonder whether the best ramen places should be single-focus and Japanese-run. (Some similarly argue that the best sushi joints are run by Japanese sushi chefs.)
Here's a round-up of ramen shops in the Seattle area, with a few notes offered.
Chinese (Yes, ramen originated there, but the Japanese have really elevated it.)
Fu Lin's ramen.
Other (from chefs and owners who are not specifically Japanese or Chinese)
You'll notice that Boom Noodle (shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, shio, kimchi, and spicy yuzu for $9.95-$10.95) and Samurai Noodle (tonkotsu, shoyu, shoyu-tonkotsu combination for $7.25, with other varieties on the menu and in-store specials up to $1 more) are missing from the lists. These two are consistently the best bets in town for ramen, and I'll be writing more about them in the future.