In Japan ramen is considered fast food despite the time and care that goes into the preparation of the broth, noodles, and accompaniments (typically chashu, or braised pork, and marinated egg). Whole eateries called ramen-ya are dedicated to the humble foodstuff, often showcasing their offerings in the form of plastic replicas so well done that you can almost see the steam wafting off the vinyl chloride noodles. I had my first bowl of fresh ramen in 2009 on my second trip to Tokyo. The noodles were wonderfully chewy, and the broth was savory and comforting.
I discovered later that each region in Japan has a signature style, which explains why heated debates abound concerning “real ramen” or the perfect bowl of ramen. The most common types of soup are tonkotsu (rich and milky, made from pork bones), shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso; the latter three are blended with broth of some kind (chicken, pork, seafood/seaweed, or vegetable). The noodles, served al dente with some springiness, can be curly or straight, and cut in a wide range of thicknesses. In the Bay Area, they’re typically made with wheat and egg, although a few restaurants offer egg- or gluten-free alternatives. Toppings are all over the map, but along with chashu and egg, you’ll often get green onions, bamboo, and seaweed.
In the Bay Area, we’re fortunate that we can sample ramen that’s as varied as that in Japan. Some local spots also offer tasty vegetarian and vegan options. The following are some of my favorite bowls in the East Bay and San Francisco (you can view the full gallery of ramen I slurped up on my blog). If your favorite ramen doesn’t appear here, please share it with us in the comments below. Itadakimasu!
Ken Ken Ramen
3378 18th Street, San Francisco
Ken Ken Ramen takes pride in chef Takahiro Hori’s supremely rich, porky Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen ($11, and served only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), with its thin, straight noodles, a broth enhanced with a dash of mayu (black garlic and sesame oil), tender chashu, wood-ear mushrooms, pickled ginger, and a whole, unctuous soft-boiled shoyu egg. The vegan ramen ($11) is no slouch, either, with a garden of veggies (lightly fried kabocha, wood-ear mushrooms, bok choy, bamboo, and pea sprouts) in a shoyu or miso broth; its curly noodles aren’t quite as firm as the eggy kind but are still infinitely slurpable. (During the rest of the week, you have your choice of shoyu, shio, and miso ramen.) Come early to avoid the wait.
2566B Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley
Kiraku, chef Daiki Saito’s izakaya in Berkeley, has just one ramen ($8.50) on the menu, and it delivers. In fact, the no-frills bowl of shoyu broth, spinach, green onions, a delectable slice of chashu, and half a hard-boiled shoyu egg with curly noodles takes me straight back to the first time I ate ramen in Tokyo. Come early to avoid the wait.
2977 College Avenue, Berkeley
Manpuku, a tiny ramen/sushi spot, has been serving ramen since the 1990s and has several kinds on their menu. My go-to is the seafood ramen ($7.95), which features a bounty of curly noodles, fresh seafood (mussels in shell, tender hunks of salmon and sea bream, shrimp, and calamari) and vegetables (julienned zucchini and carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, and bean sprouts), and a light shoyu chicken broth that complements the seafood.
5120 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco
Japanese chain Men Oh specializes in Tokushima ramen ($8.95), a rich but light tonkotsu/shoyu broth, straight noodles, chashu and stir-fried pork belly, and a raw egg that intensifies the broth’s creaminess. Their other ramen are yummy as well. The tonkotsu miso ($9.50) spotlights a gingery, almost buttery broth that’s sweetened by corn, while the spicy tonkotsu ($9.50) is topped with a dollop of miso pork paste and chili threads. Both include curly noodles and a lightly marinated soft-boiled egg.
101 California Street San Francisco
Chefs Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga recently opened up Ramen Bar, a cafeteria-style eatery with indoor/outdoor seating and six kinds of ramen on the menu. Purists might balk at the nontraditional options, but they should appreciate the straight noodles and whole soft-boiled eggs (lightly marinated in sake, mirin, and shoyu). The “Hokkaido” miso-butter chashu ramen ($14) is their take on a tonkotsu, with a creamy broth and thick, fatty slices of pork; chili paste and ginger add a bit of heat and another dimension of flavor. The Tokyo-style Kurobuta pork ramen ($12) offers a flavorful shoyu broth and generous portions of pork. The peppery broth of the ginger-braised chicken ramen ($12) pairs well with the chewy, gluten-free noodles made of yam flour. The vegetarian mushroom and soy ramen’s ($11) mushroom-infused broth is rich, creamy, and gingery like the Hokkaido ramen but is topped with meaty shimeji, trumpet and shiitake mushrooms as well as sweet corn and peppery mizuna.
5812 College Avenue, Oakland
Chez Panisse alums Jerry Jaksich, Rayneil De Guzman, and Sam White’s Ramen Shop offers just three types of ramen a night on their creative, ever-changing menu, which focuses on seasonal ingredients, their straight homemade noodles, and their whims. You’ll always find a rich, tonkotsu-like ramen along with a lighter shio or shoyu ramen, as well as a vegetarian option. The Hokkaido corn miso ramen ($16) I had was creamy, gingery, and spicy, topped with squash blossom butter, ground pork belly, half of a soft-boiled shoyu egg, summer squash, and baby shiitake. The shoyu ramen ($17) was smoky and savory, with shrimp meatballs, chashu, and mizuna. The vegetarian shoyu Meyer lemon ramen’s ($15) exquisite broth was enhanced by meaty king oyster and Maitake mushrooms, roasted eggplant, tomato confit, arugula, and a salt-cured egg. Come early to avoid the wait.
988 Franklin Street #186, Oakland
Sobo chef Stella Loi's extensive menu of tonkotsu, shoyu, shio, and miso ramen might be overwhelming, but it’s definitely delicious and offers vegan and gluten-free options. The tonkotsu ramen with mayu ($9.50) has a milky, porky broth that’s infused with a lovely, smoky pepperiness. The curly noodles are chewy; the chashu melts in your mouth; and the sake-/sea-salt-cured egg is expertly soft-boiled. The shio ramen with aromatic seafood/chicken broth is a winner with the gluten-free noodles ($11.50), which are made of yam and rice flour and are super springy. The crunchy wood-ear mushrooms are a nice complement to the chashu and fishcake. The vegan soy coconut ramen ($8.85) is more reminiscent of a Thai noodle soup, but I appreciate the creamy, nutty broth splashed with yuzu (Japanese lemon), the tang of the pickled ginger, and the straight wheat noodles that aren’t quite as firm as their eggy counterparts but are tasty nonetheless.
1221 Park Street, Alameda
Yojimbo Sushi whips up gargantuan bowls of boldly flavored Korean-style ramen garnished with shredded carrots for color and crunch. The spicy pork ramen ($9.95) features a spicy, salty, pungent shoyu broth, fatty hunks of braised pork belly, and a hard-boiled shoyu egg. The spicy seafood ramen ($9.95) is essentially the same but swaps in moist morsels of fish and shrimp for the pork. Their noodles are toothsome and curly.