There's an Entire Frickin' Lobster in This Bowl of Pho
With more than 15 varieties and spice levels ranging from one to five, Hisashi Uehara’s high-end ramen bistro makes it difficult to pick your favorite. If you’re looking for a clean, light broth with just a hint of spice, try the shoyu-based yuzu jidori, made with a refreshing chicken broth. On the other end of the flavor spectrum, go for the innovative Hot Mess, a wild and rich explosion of black garlic oil and garlic butter broth with savory Parmesan cheese, made with the spot's famous slow-boiled pork broth. When choosing your spice level, think conservatively -- the spice scale is incredibly generous. And by “incredibly generous,” we mean eye-tearing, sinus-clearing, call-your-momma-and-tell-her-you-love-her spicy. You’ve been forewarned. Or, you know, order it on the side.
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, California
The ramen craze hit LA hard about a decade ago, sending noodle-hungry Angelanos into their default position: standing in line outside of whatever trendy new shop served up the tonkatsu du jour. Much of that craze can be traced to DTLA's iconic LIttle Tokyo, specifically Daikokuya, which many consider an OG in the rise of ramen in the city, and which still holds its own alongside myriad newcomers thanks to its exquisite, delicate tonkatsu, vegan-pleasing spicy sesame and tomato broths, and refusal to get new school. The place has expanded outward to other areas of LA, but the original location still manages to be a draw by changing very little about what made it a destination in the first place.
New York, New York
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 Tokyo 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 chashu, mushrooms, garlic oil, and a “secret” miso paste.
San Francisco, California
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.
Ramen has officially hit Detroit, and much of the credit for the city's new(ish)found love for noodles falls on Johnny Noodle King, which took a gamble on hungry Detroiters' willingness to jump headlong into their steaming bowls of broth, coming out swinging with both old-school and new-school options. 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 tableside torched mackerel and bacon fried rice and the confit duck yakisoba, two ultra-chefly takes on classics that toy with convention while embracing it.
New Orleans, Louisiana
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-in-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.
San Francisco, California
Mensho is one of Tokyo’s most acclaimed chains, but thanks to the opening of its first US location in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in 2015, you no longer have to take a long and expensive plane ride to Japan to get a bowl. You'll still have to wait in line, sure, but at least there's ramen instead of an agitated TSA agent at the end. 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, but the ramen is still just as good.
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.
New York, New York
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 100 years old. Owner Shigetoshi Nakamura, who has been making ramen for nearly 20 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.
Portland's dining scene damn near went into shock, then mourning, when it was announced earlier this year that famed izakaya Biwa -- an early star during Portland's rise to "hot food city" status -- had labeled its last bowl of broth. But there was solace: The restaurant's less-fancy, ramen-obsessed Noraneko remains, and the aromas from its broth continue the storied restaurant's legacy. Noraneko serves that same explosive shoyu and shio ramen Gabe Rosen made famous a decade ago. Even better, Noraneko’s more izakaya-style lends itself to experimentation, like this year's seasonal cold ramen taco salad. They also offer up an unexpectedly great burger, karaage banh mi, and hamachi poke. But the real magic's in the bowls. RIP Biwa. Long live Noraneko.
Chef Chong Boon Ooi added an extra "o" to the porcine, onomatopoetic name that would be hanging on the sign outside this tiny ramen-ya if it had a sign, but this new-ish addition to Seattle's rich ramen scene doesn't have one. Nor does the tiny, bustling, beloved place need one. Just follow your nose. Ooink's made its name on its impossibly rich pork, served in variations ranging from mild to "holy shit," any of which jump immediately to the top of any list of Seattle's best slurp shops, new or old. There are no wrong choices here, though the spicy Kotteri ramen with its umami-rich chili oil is as likely to sear itself into your mind as it will your stomach, especially when hit with a hunk of Ooi's instantly legendary pork shashu.
San Diego, California
Subtlety isn't exactly Raikiraki's thing. Case in point, 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. The menu, too, has gained a better degree of focus, focusing less on quickly outdated trends and more on what the place does best, including Tsukemen ramen, stellar karaage donburi bowls, and other great things that you probably won't get because damn is that oxtail ramen delicious. But it's fun to… sigh… imagine.
Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice on strip mall ramen. Sometimes, you get a case of heartburn followed by the temptation to change your wireless provider next door. And sometimes, well, sometimes you get Ramen House Shinchan, which works beautiful alchemy on its rich, light broths and emerges with some of the best bowls of noodles in the Midwest. The simple, pork-laden tonkatsu and perfectly salty miso are great, but the place kicks it into high gear with its creamy tamago Tiwan ramen and its Best Condition, a pile of heavily spiced stir-fry veggies floating in a sea of egg noodles and chicken broth that makes good on the name. Don't sleep on the ebbi curry -- fried prawns with a flavorful curry for dipping -- or the outstanding takoyoki octopus balls. This is one of those instances where a dice roll always lands on a winner.
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, which can also be found in brunch ramen offerings, including a smoked duck breast concoction that's as unexpected as it is heavenly. Dinner, meanwhile, rotates on the chefs' whim and the season's offerings. On a recent visit, smoked brisket, braised short rib, sweet corn, and shoyu-marinated egg found their way into a bowl. Then a few highballs found their way into our bellies. It was a good day.
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 chashu (marinated, braised pork belly), a bowl of tonkotsu is definitely worth the hour-plus wait. And these suckers are infinitely customizable, from the standard add-ons to the signature "bombs," which can completely transform the already rich flavors, be it the sweet and buttery Corn Bomb to an increasingly fiery series of chile bombs that will make you extremely grateful that this place has a good selection of cold beers.
For most Wisconsinites, the word “soup” is preceded by “beer cheese,” and “ramen” by “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. Red Light now has its own digs, but in transitioning from pop-up to full-blown institution, Red Light has kept its spirit in tact, with sesame-kissed tonkotsu and a mushroom-based miso broth leading a menu that also includes Japanese beef curry, tinned baby eel, 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 Red Light's signature boozy slushies.
Ruckus automatically evokes the Wu Tang Clan courtesy of its name and seeming obsession with ass-kicking pop culture relics (exhibit A: The first ramen on the menu is Shoryuken), but thankfully it goes well beyond some clever branding. This place is more Method Man than Cappadonna, which is no surprise, given it's the latest effort from the team behind hip and beloved haunts Shojo and BLR. There are surprises all over the place, from the presence of (clearly unprotected) pork neck in the aforementioned ramen to add-ons like bone-marrow butter, king oyster mushrooms, and pig tail, which kick up the spicy miso soup and the complex, brothless Black Garlic Mazeman with grilled lamb leg and Brussels. Nothing here is expected. Not the pork belly hidden in the onigiri, and not the big-ass fried duck egg you can throw on top of your bowl. It is, in short, a triumph. Sorry.
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. And for spice heads/masochists, the place offers up its Hell ramen, ultra-spicy broths that go up tier by tier all the way to Monster Hell, which you have to sign a waiver to get. That's generally best enjoyed around 1am on a Saturday -- and said enjoyment is best derived from watching some other poor, misguided bastard who stumbled in from a bar try it as you slurp that tonkatsu.
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 noodles). 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 tableside condiments are for.
New York, New York
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, California
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.
Owner Tommy Lee wears his Momofuku influence proudly at Uncle: From the decor to the volume to the kick-ass buns, the love is apparent. But it's also apparent in Uncle's wholly unique twists on traditional ramen moves. Take, for example, the confit duck and gala apples floating in shoyu broth for the aptly named Duck ramen, or the explosive fish-power kick that a Bonito Bomb addition can add to the already superlative spicy chili pork ramen. This is a place that draws its influences from sages both historic and modern, but also marches to its own weird, delicious beat. And it's got soft shell crab buns to prove it.
Getting to Unideli requires a voyage to the center of the 15,000-square-foot 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.