After a surge of glitzy openings in the mid-2010’s, many San Francisco ramen lovers started wondering if “peak ramen” had passed. Judging by the consistent lines at many of the city’s ramen darlings, plus 2019’s opening of arguably the most hyped ramen shop in San Francisco history, we'd wager we're still very much basking in ramen’s radiant glow.
There is no bigger name in the San Francisco ramen world than Ippudo. Combine that world-renowned reputation with a flashy, marquee location on Yerba Buena Lane in the heart of the city, and you’ve got a recipe for a juggernaut -- or a huge letdown. Luckily Ippudo is definitely not the latter. The restaurant’s wheelhouse is taking a robust tonkotsu base, then creating superb riffs with the likes of wasabi, bonito or miso paste. In general, Ippudo has a few more little accents to each bowl that, combined with the particularly special thin noodles, show why the establishment really is one of the bosses of the ramen world. Don’t miss the top-tier sake and Toki whiskey highballs menu.
With an empire that stretches from Jackson Hole to Dubai, and includes business partners like Ayesha Curry and Marc Benioff, it’s easy to get swept up thinking about the sheer grandeur of the MINA Group and forget that Michael Mina’s San Francisco restaurants are actually very good. Perhaps the most humble of the San Francisco offerings is this Financial District favorite for bowls of ginger-chicken or Hokkaido-style pork ramen. Ramen Bar also serves delightful poke bowls, but let’s not get carried away on where your focus should be for at least a first visit.
Outer Richmond/Inner Richmond
Once you’re tired of the shio, shoyu, tonkotsu trifecta, it’s time to head out to Kaiju Cooks, a charming spot that has a host of different ramen options, from a signature spicy Kobe beef to a tom-yum inspired seafood one with a coconut-lime broth. Traditional? No. Excellent? Yes. It’s the younger sibling of Kaiju Eats, which also boasts a similar menu of creative ramens, along with a tried-and-true tonkotsu one.
We’re not going to pick an objective best of the handful of excellent Japantown ramen shops (that'd be impossible), but if you held a poll among diners with that question, we’re betting that this stalwart would win. The signature Hakata-style tonkotsu is deeply flavored and as elegant in texture as a velvety velouté at the French Laundry. Guests here can customize the firmness of noodles (ask for firm here because too soft gets knocked out by the rich broth) and the spice level. To go next level at Marufuku, come just before it opens and catch one of the 15 servings per day of the spectacular chicken paitan “DX” with magnificently vibrant white chicken broth and a grilled chicken leg for good measure.
The city’s many ramen aficionados are always seeking out that secretive, still-unknown ramen place that doesn’t have Instagram influencers waiting in line for an hour every day. Well, that place just might be a Korean tapas restaurant that happens to serve a formidable ramen. It’s common to visit Jijime and not even look at the ramen section, which is split between a few beef-based options and pork-based ones. Don’t make that mistake. The pork kuro (with housemade black garlic oil) and the tonkotsu with ground sesame seeds are probably the elite pair of the group. Then order a few tapas and embrace how one of SF’s leading ramen venues lets you round a meal with monkey brain (deep-fried stuffed mushrooms with spicy salmon) and sizzling corn cheese.
After the beloved Ken-Ken Ramen closed in the heart of the Mission, the city wondered if its replacement could fill its big shoes. The answer, thanks to Ramenwell’s chef/owner Harold Jurado, is a resounding yes. He has the magic touch with assertive, beautifully constructed bowls of ramen, focusing on just four kinds generally (20-hour tonkotsu, chicken paitan, chicken tantanmen and a shoyu mushroom-based “Mushroom Lover). The dumplings and bao available as starting bites are easily some of the premier ramen accompaniments in this big city.
Right at the edge of the Outer Mission and Bernal Heights, Coco’s is the kind of petite, wood-paneled neighborhood charmer that we all wish we had steps from our door. With a dozen or so variations of ramen based on a pork and chicken stock, we’d keep coming back again and again if we lived nearby. Plus, there’s a seafood ramen and a way-above-average vegan one too. Coco’s is probably the least flashy or hyped of the ramen restaurants on this list. And that's good. They let the bowls and friendly vibe do the talking.
Looking back on the surge of ramen shops in San Francisco in the 2010’s, city ramen scholars will probably consider this Japantown modern classic as the one that really started ramen’s big moment when it opened in 2013. It remains one of our city’s leading all-around ramen establishments, both for the chic, reclaimed wood-heavy décor and the ramen (duh). Waraku’s roast garlic tonkotsu ramen is the mandatory must-order on a debut visit, but then it’s fun to subsequently follow up with the spicy ground pork tan-tan one with a Sichuan pepper kick or the rare tsukemen sighting in SF.
NOTE: Tsuta serves soba, but the noodles aren't made from buckwheat. It's kind of a hybrid place, but it's so damn good we had to include it.
San Francisco’s newest -- and already one of the best -- ramen destinations is also kinda not really serving ramen. The original Tsuta in Tokyo has the honor of being the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant. However, Tsuta’s menu, logo, and staff also state that it’s soba that is being served -- not ramen. Then again, the homemade noodles are not buckwheat as is typical in soba, and the more elaborate vegetable and pork chashu garnishes tend to be more in line with ramen. But, ramen is originally from China. With all that said, Tsuta makes beautiful bowls of noodle soups with idyllic springy, thin noodles and some of the loveliest chicken-seafood dashi broths anywhere in town. Besides, you’ve probably always been looking for a reason to visit the Metreon, so, finally, here’s a good one.
Lower Nob Hill
What else is there to say about Mensho? Well, it’s one of the Bay Area’s most popular restaurants -- period. The lines haven’t shortened years later for what truly is San Francisco’s tori paitan (chicken broth) ramen masterpiece. It’s almost unfair that arguably San Francisco’s best vegan ramen (technically it’s “tantanmen,” a Japanese riff on Sichuan dan dan noodles), made with soy cream and seven kinds of nuts is here too. If you haven’t been to Mensho in a while, you’re in for a treat since the menu has expanded since the early days with lamb broths, matcha paitan, and sometimes A5 Wagyu broths added to its steadfast repertoire. Guess what? While reading this, the lines just got longer on Geary Street.
Suit-wearing, coffee-fueled titans of the cubicle make a beeline for Ramen Underground at the FiDi/Chinatown border each weekday for signature chicken-based ramens. The noodles and chicken broth (or tonkotsu or veggie ones) are noteworthy in their own right, but what lifts Ramen Underground way above its peers is the uniquely customizable menu. You want habanero with that soy sauce broth? Boom. Chicken dumplings and kimchi with the spicy salt chicken broth ramen? You betcha. The choice is yours and far easier when you don’t arrive between noon and 2pm. Just a heads up that the habanero broths are not subtle…there is serious heat.
Every other restaurant opening in town these days calls itself an “izakaya” but Sozai was an original years ago. It's got late-night eats like fried cheese or yakitori skewers of every chicken part ever named, but there’s also a formality here -- no eating ramen until the snacks are done and the sake finished. We’d guess 90% of the tables crammed into the tight space order the ritsu tonkotsu ramen, which is THE only ramen unless there’s a special (hope that the tsukemen is on that chalkboard menu). Before the Mensho’s and Ippudo’s of San Francisco, this was the city’s most talked-about ramen. It still is one of the best, being a tad less fatty-rich than its tonkotsu peers, which invites adding braised pork belly and an egg as a garnish to fully round it out.
The old days (pre-2015 opening of Orenchi Beyond) went something like this: one hour drive to Santa Clara, two to three hour wait for the best ramen in the Bay Area at older sister Orenchi, hour drive back to SF. Oh bittersweet nostalgia! Located at the northern end of the Valencia dining corridor, Orenchi Beyond truly is tonkotsu perfection, somehow porkier than all the other bowls on this list. Unless you’re going for the vegan curry tan-tan ramen, there’s just one decision here: “regular” (shio) or “beyond” (shoyu). Be sure to order some spicy chicken karaage to get the fun started. As a bonus, it’s right across the street from Zeitgeist, making it the perfect place to warm up after you freeze in San Francisco’s most famous bar backyard.
Japantown and SoMa
Many San Francisco ramen fans learned about dashi broths from this ramen shop’s specialty: fish stock-based broths singing with an almost uni meets caviar-umami seafaring profile. It’s simultaneously nuanced and thrilling, clearly meticulously produced, and the perfect pairing with whole-wheat noodles and chashu pork. Everybody is so focused on the house seafood dashi ramen that it’s easy to overlook the also excellent “zen ramen” (a vegan ramen bowl with a white soy sauce broth), inspired by traditional shoujin temple techniques, or tori paitan (chicken and pork dashi broth). A more abbreviated menu with a to-go focus can be found at Hinodeya’s newly opened SoMa location.
Lower Haight and SoMa
Tsukemen is dipping ramen that involves two bowls: one with an intensely meaty broth and pork slices, and the other with thicker noodles to dip into the broth. When you’re done with the noodles, ask for some dashi soup to thin out the intensely pork-concentrated remaining broth, then drink! Frankly, we’re pretty convinced it just might be the route every ramen should take (note that it isn’t served at lunch in SoMa). Iza also has a terrific cold ramen for those five days a year it’s above 75 degrees in SF. For all other times, it’s all about the chicken potstickers and Iza’s namesake ramen with a fascinating mixed broth composing of the best of all ramen broth worlds (tonkotsu, chicken, bonito AND vegetable).
Nojo represents the changes in San Francisco dining in a nutshell (eggshell in ramen speak?) over the past couple of years. Previously a loveable independent izakaya with a particularly outstanding chicken ramen, Nojo was purchased by a giant Japanese restaurant corporation a few years ago and became their first U.S. restaurant, with the same name. Just look at Nojo’s website “about” page and it seems like a VC pitch deck. Anyhow, more importantly, the quartet of chicken broth-based chicken paitan ramens are consistently phenomenal. Whether you opt for a soy version with slow-braised whole chicken leg or tan-tan spicy miso with ground chicken, it’s an absolute winner.
One of the finest ramen destinations is also a terrific pho, laksa, and fried rice destination. This could probably explain how the ramen can get lost in the shuffle when discussing “best ramen” in the city. There are two options here: spicy sesame miso with ground chicken or tonkotsu-shoyu with braised pork belly and spinach. Both are a bit on the restrained side without much in the way of elaborate accents, but there’s no shortage of flavor in either broth, especially if you punch a bowl up with a $1 spice shot.
For quite possibly the most interesting ramen variation in SF, head towards the Balboa Park BART station. Just a few blocks away is this charming ramen favorite featuring a fascinating signature curveball for delighted ramen bowls: five different traditional pork-based ramen styles with a hefty dose of lobster in the broth. No, it isn’t like lobster bisque at all. It’s really a wonderfully balanced surf and turf marriage that hums with pork-centric umami and lobster-infused sea brine. For good measure, the lobster “house specialty” ramens come topped with soft-shell crab, which turns out to be the greatest soup garnish ever (forget about those oyster crackers in clam chowder). But if that's a little too adventurous for you, 21 Taste House offers more traditional ramen styles as well.
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