Here's Our Travel Guide to This Nation of Over 7,000 Islands
What you’re getting: Furious ramen
Chef/owner Shin Thompson opened his tiny Wicker Park outpost following the closure of his less-focused “Japanese Brasserie” Kabocha, and based on the lines and subsequent expansions into other Chi hoods, he made a wise choice. As for wise choices you might make, the namesake Furious ramen is the way to go, sporting an addictive pork-miso broth and generous helpings of both white pepper chicken and pork belly. Oh, and a poached egg. This is Chicago, did you really think you were going to get by with just one protein?
What you’re getting: Mayu ramen
Terakawa may have originated in New York but the food is straight outta Kumamoto, an island prefecture in southern Japan. Mayu is a regional style topped with black garlic oil (mayu), crunchy wood ear mushrooms, and straight, white noodles (the most privileged of all pasta products). The two-day natural heritage pork bone broth might be a little milder than you’re used to, but that’s what the assortment of table-side condiments are for.
San Diego, CA
What you're getting: Oxtail ramen
Yes, the menu is an unfocused jumble of past and present food trends (ramen burgers, frozen beer slushies, poke sushi burritos, you get the picture). And yes, there’s a large mural of chef/owner Junya Watanabe as John Lennon with the phrase “reality leaves a lot to the imagination” stenciled behind him. But don’t let those Liberace elements put you off eating at Rakiraki, which -- fair warning -- will probably require a wait of at least half an hour. Because then you’d miss out on the fatty, tender braised oxtail ramen (a specialty of Watanabe’s mentor back in Japan) and then you’d feel like an idiot.
New Orleans, LA
What you're getting: Huxta bowl
Kin transformed from a fine-dining spot to a dedicated ramen-ya in April, but it still has a haute-fusion sensibility. That means you might not be familiar with all the ingredients on your plate (or maybe you cook with yuzu kosho and ras el hanout all the time, who knows?) but it won’t matter because they’re insanely delicious. As in wait-on-line-for-an-hour-or-two delicious. The fanciness just makes the food sexier and more drool-worthy. Like if you had to find the ramen equivalent of George Clooney sipping Nespresso in a Tom Ford suit, it would probably be the Huxta bowl: lemongrass pork shoulder confit and miso garlic buttered corn in a chicken and pork double soup. The menu is small and changes often, which gives you all the more reason to visit regularly.
What you're getting: Kimchi ramen
Getting to Unideli requires a voyage to the center of the 15,000sqft United Noodles supermarket, wading through seas of shoppers, lucky cats, and deliciously mysterious Japanese candy. But stay focused: This quest ends with Minneapolis’ greatest ramen, served from a deli counter and not for the faint-of-heartburn. The layered, steaming broths ladled by Unideli include fantastic takes on the usual suspects -- a mild miso with crispy house-cut pork belly and vegan shoyu among them -- but it’s in the kimchi ramen that things really take flight. With fiery house kimchi serving as the base, it’s basically a KBBQ spread in a bowl, with bulgogi, sprouts, gochu, and shredded pepper commingling into something that’s not exactly traditional, but earns this spot the hype it’s garnered for years. And hey, you can grab a lucky cat and some candy on your way out. Plus maybe some Tums.
What you're getting: Shio ramen with a side of karaage chicken
The bad news? Biwa -- long the king of Portland’s ramen scene -- celebrated its 10th anniversary by ditching noodles and its off-menu burger in favor of higher-end sashimi and other fare. The good news? Noraneko serves that same explosive shoyu and shio ramen Gabe Rosen made famous a decade ago, and it’s still loaded with herbs from Biwa’s garden. Even better, Noraneko’s more izakaya-style menu eliminates the temptation of the Biwa’s higher-end fare with even more ramen options -- the slightly spicy curry ramen is a standout, especially with the added glory of the spot-on pork-belly chasyu -- plus that famous burger, a karaage (fried chicken) banh mi, and hamachi poke. It’s brighter (that’ll happen when you’re not in a basement) and more casual than Biwa ever was, but with all the flavor in the broth that made it a West Coast favorite for a decade.
What you're getting: Tonkotsu ramen
For most Wisconsinites, the word “soup” is preceded by “beer cheese” and “ramen” with “instant.” For years, Red Light worked to change that, offering up a twice-weekly pop-up in the back of Beard-nominated New American restaurant Ardent. Chef Justin Carlisle served nothing but boozy slushies and an explosive tonkotsu loaded with springy noodles, mushrooms, tender pork, and pink-lined fish cake that’s the polar opposite of the Milwaukee fish fry. The lines were endless. The ramen spectacular. And in August, Red Light opened up its own digs. Blessedly, that sesame-kissed tonkotsu remains a picture of ramen beauty. It’s joined by a mushroom-based miso for Milwaukee’s three vegetarians, plus a rice-loaded Japanese beef curry with fermented corn; beef-tongue shabu shabu; and a “snack pack” with nori and -- no shit -- whipped spam. That’s a bit more out there, but consider this: Most of the crowd only recently got turned onto ramen. Whipped spam might be the next frontier... especially after a few of those slushies.
San Francisco, CA
What you're getting: Tonkotsu ramen and fried pork belly
Some of the best ramen joints in the world are hidden gems, tiny little holes in the wall more akin to walk-in closets than restaurants. This is not one of them. Izakaya Sozai is a bona-fide, bustling San Francisco-based Japanese bistro with a full menu of traditional Japanese skewers, fish, and vegetable dishes. But in spite of their limited ramen menu, they've carved out a space for themselves as one of the best noodlers in the Bay area. So you should have no qualms about skipping their much ballyhooed nasu dengaku eggplant, for example, and going straight for the tonkotsu ramen. This ramen showcases a blessedly thick, creamy broth without a spice overload. For toppings, the only way to go is the fried pork belly. It captures that perfect, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside texture that most chefs would kill their own sous-chefs for. Just make sure to get a reservation -- this place is no secret.
What you're getting: Shiitake mushroom mazemen
If you like your ramen served hot with a side of trendy nightlife (and who the heck wouldn't?), Shojo is your ideal spot. Located in Boston's Chinatown and helmed by executive Chef Mark O’Leary -- who found noodle-fame with his super-popular Guchi's Midnight Ramen Boston pop-ups -- Shojo has become one of the most revered ramen joints in the entire country, and a bustling night-life destination for hungry Mass-holes. This is possibly due to the fact that they make their own noodles in their basement. Which is definitely not as sketchy as it sounds (it's delicious). But be warned, the ramen you want here is a little different. It's mazemen: thick soup noodles, sans soup, designed so all the ingredients mix together without getting lost in the broth. It's definitely an underserved contingency in the ramen world, and Shojo nails it right on its broth-less head. It's wicked good.
What you're getting: Shio ramen
The name Daikaya translates directly to "house of big cooking pot." And, yeah that pretty much sums up the vibe of this DC favorite. The place has zero frills. Its 40-seat interior is barren, and is a little stark, design-wise. But who cares? You are here for the food. And food is what you shall find here -- along with hordes of crowds fighting for said food. Head Chef Katsuya Fukushima brings fresh, chewy wheat noodles from renowned... um... noodlers Sapporo Nishiyama, mixing them with a light broth made from a medley of beef, pork, and chicken bone. And that light broth is what separates it from the glut of thicker, creamier tonkotsu ramen that makes up most of DC's ramen scene. Look, the people populating our nation's capital can't agree on anything -- except for this place. This place is the best. Across party lines, even.
Los Angeles, CA
What you’re getting: OG ramen
At this take-out ramen counter located in Downtown Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, chef Ilan Hall is stealing from the ramen rich (meat eaters) and giving to the ramen poor (vegetarians and vegans). Sadly too often, meatless ramen is little more than soy sauce-spiked lukewarm veggie water with a couple of noodles chucked in. It’s rarely a slurp-worthy bowl like those bowls of porky tonkotsu everyone dreams about. But the OG ramen, made with a sunflower seed broth, is creamy and packed with flavor thanks in part to toppings like king oyster mushrooms, chili threads, and a vegan egg (made from soy milk and nutritional yeast) that looks shockingly like the real thing.
San Francisco, CA
What you’re getting: Tori Paitan
Mensho is one of Tokyo’s most acclaimed chains with six locations in Japan’s capital city (and one more on the way). It opened its first US outpost this year in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, and while you no longer have to take a long and expensive plane ride to Japan to get a bowl, you will most definitely have to wait in line. Seriously. When the restaurant first opened, people were braving three hour lines just to get a bowl of the signature Tori Paitan. It’s hard to blame them: The ramen has rich and milky broth made from boiling chicken bones and it comes topped with slices of both pork and duck chashu, meaning you get to eat a decent portion of the animal kingdom for just $16. The lines are a bit shorter now (that would still be an hour or so wait), but the ramen is still just as good.
New York, NY
What you’re getting: Torigara ramen
Stunt foods come and go, but some recipes stick around for centuries. The Torigara ramen at Nakamura, a tiny ramen-ya in New York City’s Lower East Side, is one of those recipes. The dish in question features a clear (and not fatty) chicken broth base and is based on a recipe that is more than a 100 years old. Owner Shigetoshi Nakamura, who has been making ramen for 17 years, tops each bowl with simple toppings like pork chashu, pickled bamboo shoots, and a handful of spinach. Each bowl is chicken soup for your ramen loving soul, minus the inspirational stories, and plus some really good noodles.
What you're getting: Brisket ramen
The dudes at Cheu prioritize “keeping it real” over traditional values to the point that their shop was originally going to be called “Roundeye.” After opting for a less offensive moniker, Cheu has noodled its way into the hearts of Philadelphians with a tiny 28-seat restaurant whose walls are decked with ramen blocks, and bowls are filled with some of the most inventive takes on the noodle in the country. The coconut curry is a favorite, but the don't-miss bowl is the brisket ramen with matzo balls and kimchi.
What you're getting: Belly Bowl with pork belly, applewood bacon, and Japanese Kurobuta sausage
The broth is the benchmark of any good ramen-ya, and Lucky Belly's is what makes it stand out. The steaming soup is a mix of miso, pork, and sesame, aiming to represent the melting pot of Hawaiian cultures. Their brisket-loaded Beast and mushroom-heavy Fungi are good choices, but the Belly's the move, because where else are you going to find Japanese sausage?
What you're getting: Oxtail tonkotsu
At $20+ per bowl, Momi's tonkotsu comes with a hefty price, but the sticker-shock disappears once you're nose-down in the intoxicatingly rich, five-times-filtered pork broth. They make their noodles in-house using Japanese flour, scour out rare authentic ingredients like nameko mushrooms, and soup-up the soup with creative meats like shredded oxtail. Adventurous ramenites might also opt for a seldom-seen jellyfish salad.
Santa Clara, CA
What you're getting: The Orenchi ramen, duh
From master ramen wizard Yoshiyuki Maruyama, Orenchi is more of an experience than just dinner, as it often includes wait times that would rival any of the most popular rides at Disney World. (Except the Jungle Cruise. No one is really going on that anymore.) But there is a reason for that, and it is his almost perfect broth, made with Kurobuta pork simmered for 18 hours, plus more pork, green onion, and a soft-boiled egg. Just make sure you go early. Like, really early.
What you're getting: Whatever miso ramen they’ve got
Here’s a recipe for success: Take three chefs from the legendary Chez Panisse and have them break away to start a casual noodle shop in Downtown Oakland offering up a limited menu of three types of ramen, plus a few apps and ice cream sandwiches. Since it opened, Ramen Shop has been a runaway success, thanks to its superlative broth. The last time we were there, they had a kogashi miso ramen with ground pork belly, and some sort of shoyu-marinated egg that was mind-melting. And then, of course, we ate black sesame ice cream sandwiches. Life was good.
What you're getting: Tonkotsu ramen
Started by a DJ who also staged at a Michelin-starred LA sushi joint, Tatsu-Ya cooks their pork broth for 60 hours, resulting in a soup you can't help but slurp. Topped with a soft-boiled egg, wood-ear mushrooms, scallions, and charred chasu (marinated, braised pork belly), a bowl of tonkotsu is definitely worth the hour-plus wait. Wash it down with a Sapporo or a canned brew from Austin Beerworks.
What you’re getting: Tonkotsu ramen
A few years back, Strings raised the stakes in an already ascendant Chicago ramen boom when they opened their Chinatown shop equipped with a machine turning out fresh ramen noodles -- but noodles are only half the ramen battle! Each of the broths holds up its end of the bargain with impressive depth of flavor, but nothing tops their tonkotsu, made with a Berkshire pork base that’s cooked for 48-hours to achieve its impossibly rich, almost milk-like quality.
New York, NY
What you're getting: Totto spicy ramen
A spin-off of the Bourdain-approved Yakitori Totto, this bare-bones Hell's Kitchen hide-out chars each piece of pork with a blowtorch. The tiny space leaves little elbow room: If you're sitting at the bar, you'll probably feel some of the heat from the torch. The chicken stock of their original paitan ramen is souped up with spicy sesame oil that exponentially increases the umami. For competitive eaters, they've also got a mega-bowl loaded to the brim with pork.
Los Angeles, CA
What you're getting: Tsukemen
Tucked away in a back alley, this LA institution is no secret, thanks to its house-made curly noodles and a rowdy atmosphere that splits the difference between welcoming and exclusive. It's open until midnight, but expect a wait, made much more pleasant by a BYOB patio and neighboring Asian outposts hawking snacks like chicken lollipops. The move is the tsukemen, a bowl of fresh noodles accompanied by a concentrated dose of artery-clogging pork broth that will make your eyes roll back in your head.
What you're getting: Old-school shoyu ramen
Six days a week, Tsukushinbo serves up some of the best sushi in Seattle, and on the seventh day they do the opposite of rest -- they ladle out perhaps the hardest-to-get ramen on this list. The broth of their old-school shoyu ramen takes four days to make, so they can only cook enough to feed a few dozen hungry fanatics on Friday afternoons. Wash it down with a side of crispy gyoza dumplings.
What you're getting: Red curry
If you're looking for sliders in the D, you go to Green Dot Stables. If you're looking for slurpers, you hit their other spot -- Johnny Noodle King. They do the typical shoyu and miso, but also lesser-known variants like the seafood-filled champon, and off-the-wall bowls like the pickled tomatillo Southwest and tomato broth minestrone. Bonus points for the table-side torched mackerel and bacon fried rice.
What you're getting: Pork broth ramen
After dark, this Cleveland Italian restaurant goes Gremlin and mutates into a devilishly delicious noodle house. Take a seat at the guitar-shaped bar and enjoy pork broth ramen with a side of Michelin star until am. Pro tip: Ask for an extra egg. Extra pro tip: After eating, head downstairs for a cocktail.
New York, NY
What you're getting: Tokyo shio ramen
Ivan Orkin is an unlikely ramen master. After a post-college stint in Japan, he went to the CIA and returned to the Land of the Rising Sun to open his own ramen shop. He gained unprecedented respect for a foreigner in Tokyo, then brought his skills back stateside to start a stand at the Gotham West Market and an LES brick-and-mortar. The broth leans more Japanese than most, using a double-broth technique with two separate stocks to create a flavor as complex as tonkotsu, but far lighter. Creative ingredients like rye noodles and roasted tomatoes further distinguish him from the pack. If you want to go experimental, try the triple-pork mazemen.
New York, NY
What you're getting: Akamaru Modern
Enter the sleek flagship location -- there are three shops in NYC -- and staff will yell out “IRASSHAIMASE” to you as you walk through the dim, clamorous dining room. A worldwide ramen empire launched by “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara in Toyko in 1985, Ippudo changed the game for NYC's ramen scene when it arrived in 2008. And its popularity has shown no signs of abating, with waits still topping two hours. Their famed classic tonkotsu, a ridiculously rich, but still nuanced emulsion of pork and pork fat, is the star of the Akamaru Modern, which also boasts homemade noodles, pork chasu, mushrooms, garlic oil, and a “secret” miso paste.