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 (-41⁰C, 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.
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.
JINYA Ramen Bar’s motto, “Real Japanese ramen isn’t about the noodles, it’s about the broth,” isn’t just a catchphrase. Slowly simmered for more than 10 hours, the broths are a combination of whole pork bones, chicken, or vegetables with bonito, dashi, and kombu. Varieties include tonkotsu, spicy, garlic, umami miso, and chicken-based broths, and a creamy, delectable vegan broth, fragrant with sesame paste, that could tempt a hardcore carnivore to convert to a veggie diet. All ramen bowls can be made into a combo with the addition of items like crispy chicken, pork gyoza, salad, or curry rice. Sake enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the milky, slightly sweet, unfiltered JINYA house-made sake, served chilled.
Kearny Mesa & Little Italy
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 with 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 the Ultimate Supercharged Collagen Tonkotsu Ramen with double thick noodles, spicy miso tonkotsu broth, prime X.O. kurobuta pigs feet, a five-spice pickled soft egg, and spicy red miso dipping sauce.
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 tender kakuni, mabo tofu, 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.
Clairmont & Downtown
Ramen Yamadaya’s specialty is milky-colored, long-simmered tonkotsu that ranges from light and delicate to oily and viscous, typically served with thin, straight noodles. Cold rainy nights beg for a bowl of black garlic oil-infused Tonkotsu Kotteri Ramen, a thick, rich umami blast served scalding hot to ensure that the abundant pork fat remains liquefied. Succumbed to whatever bug is going around? Sip Tonkotsu Spicy Ramen for your choice of sort-of-tingly to sinus-clearing heat. Both locations offer delivery through a third party (with an upcharge).
Newest on the scene, Ajisen Ramen brings the fast-casual concept to its over 700 international locations. The huge menu includes gyoza, baby octopus, fried oysters, chicken kaarage, and more, as well as udon and rice bowls, sushi, salads, and desserts like mochi and snow shaved ice. The thin Kumamoto-style ramen is made daily in-house -- it is meant 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 satisfy your crunchy tooth with Beef Mille Feuille Katsu, a Napoleon-like stack of panko-crusted shaved, compressed beef fried golden brown and served beside a simple tonkotsu broth.
1. Hokkaido Santouka Ramen4240 Kearny Mesa Rd, San Diego
2. Nishiki Ramen8055 Armour St Ste 201A, San Diego
3. JINYA Ramen Bar825 Garnet Ave, San Diego
4. Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen4646 Convoy St, San Diego
5. Tajima Ramen House4681 Convoy St, San Diego
6. Ramen Yamadaya531 Broadway, San Diego
7. Ajisen7398 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, San Diego
Housed inside of Convoy District Japanese food mecca Mitsuwa Marketplace, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka specializes in unpretentious and body-warming ramen bowls. The outpost of the popular Japanese chain that has spread across the U.S. lets you deviate from the typical tonkotsu-style pork broth in order to experiment with salt-based shio ramen or miso ramen made with fermented red soy paste. Those looking for an eating experience more interactive than the simple slurp can opt for tokusen toroniku, essentially a deconstructed ramen with the meat and topping served separately from the broth.
Japanese chain Niskiki Ramen chose San Diego as it's landing pad for U.S. expansion, bringing their signature bowls to this 1600sqft space in the Mitsuwa shopping complex on Armour St. A custom noodle machine cranks out fresh noodles from a room that's visible from the dining room through a window. You can choose thick or thin versions to be bathed in three different kinds of broth: classic tonkotsu (pork), miso, and vegan. Also on offer are small plates like crunchy fried chicken bits called karaage and edamame.
JINYA Ramen Bar, a Japanese chain that debuted in San Diego with this location, does a ramen bar/izakaya concept that is a bit more comfortable than your average quick-service noodle stop, with a sleek wooden bar along the open kitchen, an outdoor patio, and angular communal tables in a light-filled building. The signature bowl here is the pork tonkotsu with slices of chasu, black garlic oil, a boiled egg and garlic chips; but you can go the umami miso, vegan or spicy chicken routes as well. 20 local and Japanese beers on tap let you gulp while you slurp.
A colorful mural of John Lennon on the wall at Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen sets a quirky scene for the poke and soup noodle bowls this fast-casual Little Italy joint is known for. In addition to ramen -- coming in pork, curry, and shoyu broths -- there's a rich selection of fun fusion foods, like ramen burgers in a noodle buns and sushi burritos packed with raw seafood. Japanese beers like Sapporo, sakes, soju, and wine by-the-glass may have you humming 'Imagine.'
Local Japanese chain Tajima is known for its ramen bowls (made with your choice of thin or thick noodles) and izakaya small plates. Traditionalists come to slurp on the namesake Tajima pork belly tonkotsu broth, but a meal here isn't complete without a starter of octopus and pan-fried pork dumplings. The kitchen is open late Thursday through Saturday nights -- good news for anyone whose salty cravings tend to be strongest outside of traditional dining hours.
The Gaslamp Quarter gets a spot of its own to slurp noodle bowls from popular LA chain Ramen Yamadaya. Tonkotsu (pork) broths are the house specialty, coming in four iterations: knotteri (fatty with black garlic oil), spicy, shio (basic salt-based), and shoyu (soy). But those less inclined to slurp still find a reason to come, with sides like savory wheat-flour balls called takoyaki and gyoza. Rice bowls topped with chashu pork or spicy tunas, and a selection of Japanese bento boxes, almost rival the ramen here.
Ajisen's success is a testament to the international community's thirst for ramen (and love for the winking Anime girl mascot): the small, original ramen house started in Kumamoto, Japan in 1968 and now has more than 700 dining rooms around the world. The specialty bowl the noodle slinger has come to identify with is a white pork-based ramen from Southern Japan, though the menu covers some 40 varieties, incorporating curry, kimchi, miso and tomato. If you want to deviate from the bowl, opt for a sizzling tray of steak teppanyaki, fried gyoza or crispy spring rolls.