If one can get crushes on food, I have a food crush on ramen. It’s a dish that, done properly, leads you to close your eyes and briefly imagine that all is right with the world. Soothing, hot, rich, noodle-y, salty…ramen is the ultimate comfort food, yet doesn’t leave you feeling overstuffed or like you’ve eaten a giant grease bomb afterwards. Best of all, it’s fun to eat. Who can resist the childlike pleasure in slurping down a bunch of eggy noodles and getting broth all over your face? Not me.
Like many white Americans, my first experience with ramen was courtesy of Top Ramen, those $.59 bags of dehydrated fried noodles into which I’d stir an MSG-laden seasoning packet. The resulting neon-yellow broth tasted like someone had upended an entire box of salt into my bowl, but it was hangover-friendly, filling, and cheap – thereby meeting all the requirements of my collegiate appetite.
In the post-college years, I’d have a bowl whenever I went to the Kabuki Theater in Japantown. Not wanting to stand in line at Suzu (though, duh, lines generally mean good food), I’d usually go to Sapporo-Ya and have a bowl of chasu ramen in soy broth. It may not have been perfect, but it definitely did the trick. Ramen was a three, maybe four-times-a- year meal, and certainly not a meal I ever thought could be unforgettable.
But then I went to Ippudo, a noodle joint in New York.
San Francisco, we have a problem. A ramen problem.
My ramen world changed one bitterly cold, snowy night in the East Village. I’d heard about Ippudo from a local friend who considered it to be the best ramen joint in New York. As I entered the dimly lit restaurant, it was clear that the other 50 or so people in line felt the same way. I waited for an hour and half or so, and then finally(!) was seated. I ordered Akamaru Shin-Aji ramen, pork belly in a tonkotsu (pork) broth. And let me tell you…
It was seriously one of the, if not THE, best things I have ever eaten.
The broth was rich and creamy, almost milky, and seriously porky – with a fresh, soft-boiled egg floating in the center. The pork belly itself was smoky and fatty; its flavor haunts me still. And the noodles! They were toothsome, springy, and utterly delicious.
This was no Top Ramen. This was something else entirely . And I was determined to find it, or at least something close to it, in San Francisco. I have long believed that anything NY or LA does food-wise, SF can do better, and I am fully confident my hometown is up to the task.
Conventional ramen wisdom states that the best bowls in the city are actually to be had outside of the city (in, say, San Mateo or San Jose) but my trusted sources (Jackson Scarlett, proprietor of the Shirohige Ramen-Ya truck being one of them) beg to differ. With my faithful foodie sidekick Maggie, I begin my quest at Katana-Ya, in the theater district. Katana-Ya serves a variety of broth, meat, and vegetable options (like soy, miso, pork, fried chicken, tofu, corn, and kim chee). I order the chasu (pork) ramen in shoyu (soy) broth, and though it is not like Ippudo (the two broths have very different flavors and textures), it is delicious and hits the spot on a chilly SF night.
Our next stop is Izakaya Sozai in the Sunset. An izakaya is a Japanese restaurant specializing in small plates that are eaten while drinking alcohol. In addition to starters, Maggie and I each order chasu in tonkatsu broth. The portions are large and we probably could have shared one, but we down our bowls anyway. The ramen is great. It has a soy-sauce soft-boiled egg, several slices of smoky pork belly, and a rich and creamy broth.
We venture out into the Richmond for our next stops, Oyaji and Halu. At Oyaji, we slide into what is almost a private booth separated by a heavy bamboo bead curtain and order two bowls of chasu ramen. There are other choices, but it’s my philosophy that you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the way pork is cooked. Oyaji does not disappoint – the pork is tender and smoky.
A few nights later, we check out Halu, a small restaurant absolutely covered in Beatles memorabilia. With “Paperback Writer” blaring out of the stereo, we consider our options and both decide on – surprise! – chasu ramen. When we place our order, the waitress tells us that the pork isn’t ready yet. Undeterred, I tell her that we’ll wait.
“It’s going to be, like, four hours,” she says. Oh.
We order karaage (fried chicken) ramen instead and slurp up our noodles, this time bathed in a salty, meaty (rather than porky) broth. It’s a bowl of savory goodness and is extremely filling. I can manage to finish only about half of it.
Although sated by San Francisco’s surprisingly varied ramen options, I still want to keep searching for the transcendent ramen bowl.
This is where Richie Nakano comes in.
Richie, a line cook at Nopa restaurant, is on a mission to create the ramen that I’m craving –the kind that uses the freshest ingredients, has a complex depth of flavor, and, as I discover, takes about four days to cook.
I meet Richie at his home in the Richmond District one sunny Saturday afternoon to see the process in action. After a few quick introductions to his wife (Sky) and his rabbit (Kozy), we go into the kitchen and get down to business. First up, the stock.
Richie opens his freezer and I stare in amazement. He’s got a good 30 pounds of frozen pig parts jammed in there. He pulls out a few choice cuts. “So, it takes about 10 pounds of pork necks,” he says, explaining that the collagen from the bones and tendons create a richer, creamier stock. He puts the bones into a giant stockpot and then adds two whole free-range chickens. To this, he pours a few quarts of dashi, a light fish-flavored stock.
“So, when will it be done?” I ask.
“Hmm, what’s today, Saturday? It should be done on Tuesday,” he replies.
Next, Richie gives me a noodle-making demonstration. Many ramen noodles are made with flour, water, and kansui, otherwise known as alkaline salts. That’s what gives ramen noodles their springy texture and also creates a numbing sensation in the mouth. Richie eschews the salts and uses superfine double-zero flour mixed with fresh-from-the-chicken eggs. He mixes up a bright yellow dough, kneads it to develop the gluten, and then, after vacuum sealing it and letting it rest, rolls out the noodles with a metal pasta machine.
At this point, the smell of the broth starts wafting through the kitchen, making my mouth water. But alas, due to our schedules, I’ll have to wait seven(!) more days before I can taste Richie’s magical brew.
On Saturday I finally get the text that I’ve been waiting for and race down to Richie’s. When I walk into the kitchen, I am met with the smell of roasted pork. He’s had an unanticipated pig-part delivery, and in an effort to use it all, has whipped up another pot of stock. There’s a fresh batch of noodles hanging over the counter, and a few bunches of chard in a bowl. After pouring me an excellent Koshihikari Echigo rice beer, he adds mirin, sake, and soy sauce to the stock, sautés the chard, and puts the noodles in to boil. It’s go time.
In addition to the chard and noodles, there are several slices of meaty roasted pork nestled into the bowl, as well as my new favorite foodstuff: a sous-vide (cooked in a water bath) egg. I break the egg and let the yolk spill into the broth. It has a surprisingly delicate flavor that’s rich without being overwhelming, smoky without being overly salty, and most importantly, is exquisitely porky. The noodles are super fresh, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.
In a word, it’s magnificent. Take that, New York.
Take your own ramen tour of the city, with Katana-Ya, Izakaya Sozai, Oyaji, and Halu.
Or, you can make it yourself. Measurements are in grams and pounds:
For the noodles:
5 eggs (255 grams)
4 cups flour (606 grams)
4 T water (62 grams)
Mix the eggs, flour, and water together in a standing mixer with a dough hook attachment until the dough is smooth and shiny. Let it rest. Roll it out using a pasta machine and cut the noodles on the #4 setting.
For the dashi:
12 quarts water
70 grams konbu
100 grams bonito flakes
170 grams niboshi
Steep for 2.5 hours. Strain. Add 8.5 grams dried shiitake. Simmer for 30 minutes and remove. Add 8.5 lbs of chicken (2 whole chickens). Simmer on low for 90 minutes, then remove chicken. Strip the meat from the bones; reserve the bones for the stock and the meat for another use. Add 10 lbs of pork necks and 1 beef femur. Add water to cover, approximately 12–14 quarts.
Once at a simmer, add stripped chicken bones. Remove beef bone. Cook for 30 hours, replenishing water as needed. During the final seven hours, add in two onions and four carrots. At the end of 30 hours, strain the stock and add mirin, sake, and soy.
For the pork:
Cook sous-vide at 80°C for 8 hours.
Slice the pork, sauté some chard, and cook the noodles to your liking. Layer into a deep bowl and add a few ladles of broth. Garnish with a soft-boiled egg and a sheet of nori.