Debatable: Is Shake Shack Really Fast Food?!?
East Village, Carlsbad
BESHOCK comes from the Japanese word bi-shoku, or gastronomy, defined as “the practice or art of choosing, cooking and eating good food.” Executive chef Yoshiaki Tsuji simmers a 10-hour tonkotsu stock of pork and chicken bones, local vegetables, and traditional seasonings as a base for most bowls, but there’s also chicken, miso or soy-based ramen, and a creamy, veggie-laden vegan broth rich with sesame and spicy oil. Enhance your ramen experience by letting saké master Ayaka Ito guide you through their impressive selection of sakés for the perfect pairing.
You won’t find a better deal than at Izakaya Masa, where their basic ramen bowls come in at a measly $8. Broth choices are minimal: just tonkotsu, shio or shoyu, so there’s nothing to hide the simple, clean flavors of the noodles and traditional add-ins. There’s also a superb selection of hot and cold small plates, sushi, cut rolls, sashimi, rice bowls, and donburi to round out your meal.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is located inside the Mitsuwa Market, but don’t let the food court atmosphere stop you. The original restaurant was founded by Hitoshi Hatanaka in Asahikawa, Japan, a city famous for recording the coldest temperature in Japanese history (-41 degrees Celsius, in 1902), so one can assume it knows its way around a bowl of piping hot broth. If you’re new to ramen, the glass enclosed visual menu shows you exactly what will be in your bowl. A good start is the Tokusen Toroniku Ramen: plain broth and noodles served in a signature blue bowl, garnishes and succulent slices of pork cheeks on the side, ready to be dipped and devoured. Cash only, an ATM is located inside the market, so head there before you get in line.
Far less traditional than most, Hachi Ramen pushes the envelope with fusion bowls like Baja Birria holding meltingly tender stewed beef, savory soy birria broth, cauliflower and cilantro. The duck ramen is also a popular choice: rosy pink slices of breast meat are nestled on top of chewy noodles in a thick chicken soy broth. Big appetites should go for Hachi Black, a kitchen-sink-style combo of pork belly, roasted duck, steamy bird (chicken) dumplings, and chicken breast piled into a big bowl with tonkotsu and bonito broth. There's a small but excellent vegan menu, too.
Kearny Mesa, Hillcrest
Noodles made in-house daily are what make the difference at Nishiki Ramen, the wildly popular Japanese chain’s first foray into the US market. You can’t go wrong with Smoke Bomb Black Ramen: smoky roasted black garlic sauce, melting tender pork belly chashu, and a perfect, velvety “slow egg.” Vegetarians and vegans will appreciate the hearty, warmth-inducing mushroom broth option, and vegan noodles are available for a slight upcharge. The adorable kid’s meal features tricolor pasta, minced pork chashu dipping soup, chicken tender, fries, and a yogurt drink.
Kearny Mesa, Little Italy, and Liberty Public Market
The secret to RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen’s award-winning ramen, according to Executive chef and owner Junya Watanabe, is putting passion into every detail of the dish, from the alkalized water, which is used to make both its tender/chewy noodles and exceptionally delicious broths, to the flame-blistered aburi-style toppings. Cozy up to the Rikimaru Oxtail Ramen -- double thick noodles in rich chicken broth with a bowl of fall-off-the-bone oxtail and ponzu dipping sauce served on the side -- or Setagaya 27 premium curry broth topped with cabbage, corn, and garlic chips.
East Village & other locations
Chef/Owner Sam Morikizono continues to expand his Tajima empire throughout San Diego and into Tijuana, proving that Japanese comfort food has universal appeal. Build your bowl from a base of tonkotsu, miso, chicken, or curry broth and thin, fat, gluten-free, or vegan spinach noodles. The standard toppings of pork or chicken chashu, half a ramen egg, green onion, sesame seeds, and Japanese seaweed are already included -- make it your own by adding on toppings like fried tofu, black garlic oil, or sour/spicy red bomb paste. Rice bowls and a la carte small plates are reasonably priced, and the Mercury Street and Convoy Street locations serve tasty tonkatsu, teriyaki, and tempura entrees if soup isn't calling your name today.
Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa
Chewy, springy noodles are the star of master ramen chef and owner Takashi Endo’s luscious tonkotsu, miso, and tantanmen bowls. While a central factory in Japan provides over 100,000 servings of noodles each month to his Japanese locations, here at his US shops the noodles are handmade in-house daily. Using only flour imported from Hokkaido, Japan, alkaline water, salt, and no artificial colors or preservatives, head noodle maker Ryosuske Goto produces 55 pounds of noodles daily. Their distinctly wheaty aroma and flavor are perfectly paired with your choice of broths and toppings from the blessedly short menu. Pro tip: There’s a limited number of noodle servings per day, so don’t wait until the last minute to go.
Ajisen Ramen brings the fast-casual concept to its 700+ international locations. The huge menu includes gyoza, baby octopus, fried oysters, chicken karaage, and more, as well as udon and rice bowls, sushi, salads, and desserts like mochi and green tea tiramisu. The thin Kumamoto-style ramen is made daily in-house -- it's meant to be eaten right after it’s served, to best enjoy the traditional chewiness of the noodles. Ward off a cold with spicy sesame Tantanmen ramen, a new, stylistic interpretation of Sichuan Dan Dan noodles, or go for the gold standard Ajisen Best Combo topped with premium pork slices, barbecued pork, and tender pork ribs.
Simple and straightforward, the broths at Yakyudori coat the well-cooked noodles with a mild, savory/sweet richness that lingers on your tongue. Several versions are available, including shio, shoyu, Nagoya, regular or spicy miso, and tonkotsu, and a light, fresh veggie style. Stop in at lunchtime (11:30am-2:30pm daily) for the $10 combo specials: a small ramen of any style, a side dish or appetizer, and a small salad. After 5:30pm, the yakitori chefs turn out skewers of grilled chicken, pork, beef, seafood, veggies, and quail eggs to accompany your ramen. Bonus: In the frustratingly parking-challenged Convoy Street area, Yakyudori’s expansive lot almost always has enough spots to accommodate its clientele.