The Best Ramen Restaurants in America
Sitting alone in the tight quarters of Totto Ramen in New York Midtown as a new transplant after college, I remember how completely their fresh bowl of noodles held my attention. It was my first encounter with paitan, a kind of thick, creamy, pork-based broth, though I didn’t yet know the word for it. I realized my vocabulary on the topic of ramen – of which I really only associated with the Instant variety – was nonexistent, then. I remember wondering what contributed to the creamy base, and how these noodles were so springy, what is in this marinated egg? That was a quick, small moment almost 10 years ago, but the memory still instructs me to be mindful of how vast my unknowns are, and to keep learning.
Similarly, expanding our horizons is a theme of this piece, hence why we chose to ask experts – ramen chefs, sushi chefs, homestyle Japanese chefs and more – for their preferred ramen locales.
Even after having written a book on Japanese cuisine, accepting the limits of what we know to prioritize learning from others has been a humbling, enriching process. Through it, I’ve uncovered so many new ramen favorites, some hurriedly eaten at, others bookmarked for future travels. The final picks from these chefs and food writers span across the U.S. from coast to coast, with a happy variety of regional styles included--albeit only the tip of the ramen-world iceberg. Eat through this list, and you may also find yourself leaving with more questions than you came with.
Chef Tatsuya Sekiguchi’s PicksI had the tremendous honor of spending many hours with Sushi Master Tatsuya Sekiguchi of Omakase Room last year during the process of writing his book, Kodawari, which dives into his classical and deeply thoughtful philosophy about sushi. Although Chef Tatsu admits to being a bit obsessive of his craft (spending his off-days often also thinking about and eating sushi) he does occasionally indulge in some of his favorite ramen joints, which he evaluates similarly to their sushi counterparts: balance of soup to noodle, no flavor overpowering any others, complex in flavor yet delicate in delivery.
What started as popup at Ramen Lab in the U.S. has turned into two bustling locations in Manhattan, plus a recent opening in Brooklyn. Menya Jiro’s legacy starts in Kagoshima, Japan, where its founders first opened a ramen shop by the name of Tsubame in 2007; many years, awards, and a name change later, it is still a favorite for its well-balanced chicken-and-pork based soup and signature homemade noodles. As Chef Sekiguchi likes to say of the noodles, they are “not too thick, not too thin – just the right size where the soup clings to each noodle.”
TsuKuShiNew York, New York
Tsukushi is not a ramen restaurant, but a midtown Japanese institution frequented after-hours by Japanese chefs in the city. It is perhaps deliberately hard to find; once behind an unmarked door of a (now demolished) building, reopened in 2018, again behind an easy-to-miss stretch of 50th Street. As part of the coveted late-night menu, Chef Norihiko Manabe serves up a very traditional Hokkaido-style shoyu ramen, made of chicken broth and topped with thin ramen noodles and fatty roast pork. It’s “not fancy, with no fancy toppings – just plain and delicious. That’s why you always crave it,” says Chef Sekiguchi.
Hinodeya stands apart with its delicate dashi-based ramen broth in a sea of rich, pork-based competitors. An expansion of a ramen brand originally from the Saitama Prefecture (which opened in 1885), San Francisco is its first – and so far only – U.S. outpost. The soup is clear and light, with a “lingering umami that stimulates your appetite,” as Chef Sekiguchi describes it. Clearly something is working, as in a short three years since opening it has grown to three locations in the Bay Area alone.
Chef Richard Kashida’s PicksEver since I met Chef Richard Kashida about 3 years ago, he’s become my de facto expert on all things ramen. He’s one of the partners behind Jin Ramen, the Upper West Side ramen staple, and now in the works to open up multiple new brick-and-mortar concepts for his restaurant brand Dashi while still operating his popup stands Rooster Boy and Pho Cup. His top ramen picks reach beyond just food to atmosphere and efficiency in business operations, ranging from a popup tent to a Michelin-starred chain from Japan.
ROKC stands for ramen, oysters, kitchen, cocktails – and delivers as promised on each. You can take a tour across Japan with ramen styles hailing from Tokyo (with a soy sauce & fish soup base) to Hakata (a kombu and bonito soup base). The program is overseen by Chef Isao Yoneda, previously of Totto Ramen (a popular paitan style shop in Midtown) and Hide-Chan (known for its tonkotsu). The unlikely pairing of ramen with funky cocktails, like ones served in a conch shell, lightbulb, or smoked in a cloche, by Angel’s Share alums make this casual Harlem spot suitable for both date nights and group outings.
Tonchin may be a chain from Tokyo, but it is anything but chain-like. Brother founders Katsuhiro and Motohiro Sugeno took their time – 25 years, if you’re wondering – to perfect their recipes before exporting the concept abroad. Chef Kashida praises Tonchin for its “awesome presentation, execution, and quality in each bowl,” with homemade curly noodles, Tokyo tonkotsu style broth, and from-scratch toppings or flavorings like miso and smoked dashi. Plus, you can finish your meal with kaki-gori, or Japanese shaved ice, served in a satisfyingly plump mound and lighter than air.
Chef Emily Yuen’s PicksIf you, like me, have been feeling burned out from the New York City food scene, a visit to Bessou for a re-energizing dose of careful, thoughtful and delicious food should be on your list. Chef Emily Yuen, alongside owner Maiko Kyogoku, blends together Japanese sensibility with global flavors in dishes like “Shiso Cigars” (with Sendai miso and roasted nuts), their coveted chicken karaage (with Moroccan spices and a shiso tzatziki) and squid ink donabe with aonori (powdered green seaweed). Her favorite ramen spots emphasize creativity, with places that are as innovative as they are delicious.
Like many others in the ramen category, Mu Ramen burst onto the scene in 2014 as a pop-up. After New York Times critic Pete Wells listed it as his No. 1 ramen destination, the stars aligned for an official brick-and-mortar opening in what was (but now is much less so) an industrial stretch of Long Island City. Mu Ramen calls itself an “American restaurant that serves New York style ramen,” with Chef Joshua Smookler (formerly of Per Se) pulling influences from his Korean heritage and Jewish upbringing: in addition to their famed ramen (options include tonkotsu, miso, paitan and a duck-based shoyu) there are fun items like “Katz Pastrami Kimchi Fried Rice.”
You may recognize Ichiran from their famous solo dining booths (called “Ramen Focus Booths”), where guests sit in a minimally decorated wooden booth, sheltered from other patrons on either side. Order via a short written form dictating every aspect of your ramen down to the noodle texture and within a few minutes, a bowl of piping hot ramen appears wordlessly in front of you. Noodles are made from scratch, and if you desire more noodles, Ichiran has a special “kae-dama (extra noodles) ordering system” using song to alert your server to freshen up your bowl.
Chef Yuji Haraguchi’s Picks
Chef Yuji Haraguchi’s ramen is literally of its own kind. Rooted on the Japanese no-waste philosophy (mottainai), he uses the entirety of all of his fish at his restaurants (which now include Yuji Ramen, Lorimer, Okonomi, Osakana and Okozushi), saving the flavorful bones to create a rich, fish-based stock he calls “tunakotsu.” His fish ramen has since captured the hearts of New Yorkers and travelers alike, as well as the interest of the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Kanagawa, Japan, where his specialty ramen was featured. For Chef Haraguchi, his ramen picks reflect his own pursuit of innovating on the well-loved to create something new.
Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura was a ramen star before he even arrived in the U.S. After feeling out the New York scene at the always-popular Ramen Lab (a ramen shop in the Lower East Side with rotating chefs, hosted by noodle giant Sun Noodle), he opened Nakamura with his signature torigara ramen (a clear chicken broth seasoned with soy). Chef Nakamura’s work has resonated so deeply with Chef Haraguchi that he says it was “Nakamura-san’s torigara ramen [that] inspired me to change my career to be a ramen chef.”
Otaku owner Sarah Gavigan is a Los Angeles native whose pursuit of great ramen in her new home of Nashville, TN is, as Chef Haraguchi calls it, “a true example of American ramen created with passion.” (It was also the city’s first ramen-specific shop.) The menu boasts their signature “Tennessee Tonkotsu” with soft pork confit, a clear chicken shoyu, a pork-based spicy miso, and a vegetarian “Tantanmen” (the Japanese version of spicy Sichuan Dan Dan noodles).
Chef Mutsuko Soma’s PicksChef Mutsuko Soma of Kamonegi, a specialty soba shop in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, has been serving up her handmade noodles since 2017 in three styles: nanban (in hot broth), seiro (accompanied with hot broth) and bukkake (in cold broth). The fervor for her work has spread quickly beyond the Emerald City, with Chef Soma being named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs.
Chef Soma describes Suika as an izakaya (Japanese-style gastropub) with a decidedly different ethos than the typical “slurp-and-go” mentality of many ramen shops. “I don’t go out very often, so when I do have the chance…I want to enjoy and take my time,” she tells me. Here, she orders a mix of ramen (they have two, the “Hellz” ramen – a spicy oxtail-based shoyu – and an oxtail-based miso) plus appetizers and drinks for a relaxing night out. Guests also rave about their mix of classic and adventurous, from Hamachi kama (yellow cheek) to “Ma-Po” rice cakes and uni shooters.
Ramen Danbo specializes in Kyushu-style thin noodles that are crafted inhouse and served with their signature pork-based tonkotsu. Hailing from Chikushino (on the southern island of Kyushu), the Japanese chain first opened in Vancounver, B.C. before entering the U.S. market. Chef Soma praises it for being “the closest to authentic ramen outside Japan” and the customizability: diners can choose the noodle size and softness, plus the broth and umami levels.
Santouka may try to stay hidden inside a Mitsuwa Marketplace (a Japanese grocery store), but the lines give it away. At any of their locations you’ll see a queue of eager diners waiting for their silky tonkotsu that simmers for over 30 hours. If you can, upgrade to “Tokusen Toriniku Ramen” for a side of buttery-soft sliced pork cheeks to supplement your noodles. The brand hails from Hokkaido, Japan and its massive overseas presence only pales in comparison to its undeniable consistency wherever it goes. Santouka was recommended by Chefs Kashida and Haraguchi, as well as Chef Soma.
Chef John Sugimura’s Picks
Chef John Sugimura dedicates his Minneapolis-based, Japanese street food restaurant, PinKU, to his grandmother Tsui, the family matriarch who immigrated to California in the 1920s, survived the internment at Tule Lake with her willpower, and eventually moved the family to Minnesota. PinKU is part celebration, part reconnection, all brought together with Chef Sugimura’s own takes on staples like gyoza, hand rolls and inari.
Located squarely in the middle of San Francisco’s historic Japantown is Marufuku Ramen, a Hakata-style tonkotsu chain that opened in 2017 and has been serving throngs of eager eaters ever since. If you’re lucky, you may be able to nab a bowl of its limited deluxe chicken paitan, with only 15 bowls available daily. Chef Sugimura’s order? “Medium fire tonkotsu with a couple of soy soft boiled eggs and an extra mound of bamboo shoots!”
Further down the California coast, in another Japanese enclave, sits Hakata Ikkousha Ramen of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. Chef Sugimura says he likes to “sneak away and eat alone…to experience the joy of a food coma.” Choose from toppings like “God’s Fire” or “Black Devil” to spice up your bowl of tonkotsu, or opt for a bowl of Mentaiko (cod roe) Tonkotsu for a definitively new ramen experience.
“Ramen. It is all we do,” boasts the slogan of this no-reservations, eat-in only “neighborhood noodle joint” (as Chef Sugimura calls it) with two locations in Minneapolis. There are five ramen styles served here: a pork-and-chicken shoyu, a pork and bone marrow tonkotsu, a meaty miso, a delicate chicken shio and a vegan curry. Chef Sugimura opts for the shoyu and miso when he’s “jonesing for ramen,” praising Kazama for “exceeding my expectations every time.”
Thrillist contributor picksWe tapped San Francisco-based restaurants writer Trevor Felch and LA-based Food GPS founder Josh Lurie, both Thrillist contributors, for the following recommendations.
Before Orenchi Beyond opened in San Francisco in 2015, the Santa Clara location regularly drew devotees from all over the Bay Area willing to wait two to three hours for a bowl. It truly is tonkotsu perfection, somehow porkier than any of its rivals in the area. -TF
Look, ramen is ultimately about pork. And any pork expert (addict?), will tell you that Kurobuta pork is basically the holy grail of pig breeds. It’s the swine equivalent of kobe beef. Tokushima is a city on Southeast Japan’s island of Shikoku and happens to be both home to some of the world’s best Kurobuta pigs and home of this small, international ramen chain, which is responsible for that soft, fatty, stir-fried Kurobuta pork belly in your bowl. -TF
Tsujita created a quantum shift for ramen when Tokyo master Takehiro Tsujita opened his first, eponymous restaurant in 2012. He followed that up with this ramen-only annex across the street, specializing in even more intense bowls. Tsukemen is the clear choice, featuring thick, al dente Sun noodles, a soft-boiled egg, fat-rimmed chashu, sizable mound of peppery bean sprouts, and tangy, savory tonkotsu broth bobbing with pork fat bits. To bolster your bowl, spoon on minced garlic or onikasu (red spice). They’ll even provide extra pork back fat for people who can absorb even more intense pork flavor. -JL
Ramen JosuiLos Angeles, California
This Nagoya-style ramen joint in a Torrance strip mall serves standout tantanmen featuring spicy ground miso pork and house-made chile oil, broth optional. The creamy, moderately spicy pork and chicken broth is finished with fish for an additional umami boost. Bean sprouts and scallions add texture over a generous thatch of thin noodles. Josui translates from Japanese as “clean water,” and it’s certainly effortless to let their ramen broth wash over your palate. -JL
Executive chef Brandon Kida debuted his luxurious lobster ramen in 2015 featuring the meat of an entire 1¼ - 1½-pound lobster in each bowl. Why not? The location in Century City is littered with lawyers, agents and other power players who wouldn’t second-guess an appropriately expensive price tag. Each order features a lobster and chicken broth that chef Kida boosts with aromatic tare. Sweet, extracted lobster meat, crunchy wood ear mushrooms, chile oil, a jammy onsen egg, nori, and shaved scallions round out this impeccable bowl. Plan your pilgrimage carefully: Hinoki & The Bird serves their lobster ramen only in cooler months. -JL
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