Ramen Is Ready for Its Slurp-Up

Seattle’s new noodles come with a backstory, not a bouillon packet.

Ramen is having a moment. Just as pizza fanatics have returned to Naples to bring us back the true pizza experience, the ramen coming into vogue in America is the "real" thing, with fresh noodles, a long-simmered broth, and a plethora of varietals, each with its own story. Rickmond Wong's encyclopedic Rameniac blog (www.rameniac.com), which earned him a January 2008 Los Angeles Times profile, describes Japan's 16 distinct regional variations, ranging from the asahikawa ramen of Hokkaido (curly, al dente noodles in an opaque pork-bone broth with a fatty top layer) to the takayama ramen of Chubu (straight noodles in a light but salty bonito-soy broth). Today's ramen lover now is expected to differentiate among soups seasoned with shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso, and to ruminate on the thickness and bite of the noodles he or she is slurping. Seattle doesn't yet have enough to merit an obsessive blog, but over the past year and a half, we've gained three new restaurants serving ramen with stories. Though they're more than Japan's classic slurp-and-run shops—and way more than the cheap instant packets, of which Americans consume 4 billion a year—their ramen is still an affordable pleasure, like a good sandwich or a great slice of pizza. Take Kaname Izakaya, which replaced the old Takohachi in the ID in October. Owner Todd Kuniyuki, an American guy who has spent many years in Japan, makes a Kyushu-style tonkotsu broth by boiling pork bones for eight to 10 hours, and seasoning the broth with both salt and soy sauce. To learn to make the broth, Kuniyuki hired a chef who was in charge of product development for Japan's well-known Ringer Hut chain (ramen chains in Japan have more cachet than American fast food). Kuniyuki also braises his own chashu, the slices of rolled pork belly that anoint his noodles, and imports his pasta from a San Jose factory that supplies it to Ringer Hut's California stores. Authenticity-attempt score: mid to high. The ramen comes in a ceramic bowl served with chopsticks and a large wooden spoon, another important component of the American neoclassic style. There's only a subtle distinction between the shio and miso versions of the tonkotsu (both $7.95)—the miso version has a slightly fuller flavor—because most of what you're tasting is the meaty pork broth, whose surface is densely beaded with fat. Though it smells a little like pureed bacon, the broth is light enough to keep sipping, alternating bites of noodles with the boiled egg, seaweed, spinach, and pork. I've eaten at Kaname several times, and the chashu is sometimes cooked beautifully, unctuously fatty and tinged with a subtle sweetness, and sometimes it's a little chewy/gristly. In addition to ramen, Kaname's sizable menu includes all the dishes Americans expect to find in a Japanese restaurant (sushi, sukiyaki, tempura, katsu), as well as the smaller drinking snacks that you'd find at izakayas, the Japanese pubs that are also growing in popularity in the States. That's a lot of different dishes to master, and Kaname seems to intermittently succeed. For the past 18 months, I've been getting my ramen fix at Samurai Noodle in Uwajimaya Village (gossip alert: a second location at 4138 University Way is in the works). Samurai is the closest we have to a classic ramen shop. The tiny store serves noodles and nothing else, with counter service plus a traffic-cop-slash-host on hand to assign seats during the lunch rush. Owner Phil Sancken's story includes secret, nondisclosable recipes bequeathed (at a price) from a Japanese chef, and he gets higher authenticity-attempt marks for the classic format, though he lowered his score by naming the place "Samurai." Sancken's signature tonkotsu ramen ($5.95) comes with a fat slice of pork, half of a hard-boiled egg, some cloud-ear mushrooms, some bamboo shoots, and a sprinkling of scallions. Some of my friends find Samurai's pork-bone broth too heavy, and I can see where they're coming from, but it's still my favorite. It's a full-assault meat fest, and I think it has been such a hit in Seattle since Sancken opened in 2006 because there's no mistaking its flavor for bouillon powder. Samurai does serve lighter chicken-, fish- and vegetable-based broths, but I eat there rarely enough that I can't convince myself to order them, even in the name of professionalism. My own complaint about Samurai is that I have tried its noodles every which way, from soft to hard, and there's a chalky quality to them that I can't quite warm to. What I love most about the tonkotsu ramen is how the thick slice of chashu melts as you eat it, and how each spoonful of the milky broth has so much umami that I could swear the hog's ghost has possessed my taste buds. I've taken to dosing myself with pinches of shredded pickled ginger to flush out my palate when it gets too meat-saturated. Boom Noodle, which opened at the beginning of January, is the newest entry into the field, and it's taking a deliberately fickle approach to the whole authenticity question. Blue C Sushi owners James Allard and Steve Rosen have decided to focus on noodles in general—chilled, soupy, stir-fried—and then to tuck into the list, almost as an afterthought, classic ramen. Blue C head chef Satoru Sugitani, who originally trained as a noodle cook in Tokyo, worked with Jonathan Hunt, formerly of Lowell-Hunt Catering, to develop the menu. In his own quest for a true ramen recipe, Hunt traveled to Kyoto and Tokyo, spending some time interning at Ivan Ramen, which is run by a quixotic New Yorker who successfully opened up a classic shoyu-ramen shop in Tokyo. Hunt's small plates, all of which I enjoyed, reference Western creativity even as they pay homage to Eastern tradition: prawns coated in fine strands of shredded wheat, so that they fried up into a crispy, juicy feather duster; panko-coated potato croquettes doused heavily with curry; salmon tataki, slices of salmon cooked on only one side to pick up some smoke from a hot pan, then anointed with a tart ponzu sauce and served with a mini haystack of julienned vegetables; über-classic thin-skinned pork gyoza, because no one in their right mind fucks with a dumpling. He's careful to minimize all the fishy, fatty, or fermented flavors that might put off Westerners. Hunt's noodle soups do include his own inventions, such as the soba in a red-beet broth, but some of the creative-looking bowls are actually modern Japanese favorites. There's a perfectly legit miso ramen with chicken and corn, and a seafood curry udon, a style now popular in Japan, whose powerfully spiced, mustard-colored broth tastes great at first and then overpowers. (Also skip the eerily sweet-hot beef yakisoba and the oversalty pork fried rice.) Rosen and Allard say they originally passed over tonkotsu ramen in favor of the lighter shoyu style, which is apparently growing in popularity in Japan because it isn't so bombastic. Their Tokyo ramen ($9.95), a duplicate of Ivan Ramen's recipe, is based on a clear, oak-colored chicken-pork broth, with silky noodles, a thin slice of undercooked pork belly, a perfectly cooked egg, and some bamboo shoots. The shio ramen ($9.95) tweaks the dish with a little chicken meat, a fish-cake flower, Japanese leeks, and sautéed scallops; Rosen says it's mild but meant to be spiked with condiments. Boom's broth is pleasant, with the flavors of both the pork and chicken in the stock coming through, but in the mouth it lacks something deep and harmonic. Rosen says that it's the much-misunderstood MSG, whose palate-washing effects are part of what I enjoy about Samurai's broth. I also think that their fear of offending standard American tastes keeps the chefs from using traditional Japanese umami boosters like the oceanic-tasting kombu or dried bonito flakes. Even though its ramen isn't as compelling, Boom one-ups both Samurai and Kaname in appearance; if Benetton remodeled a dorm cafeteria, it would look like this. The restaurant's viper-green walls, gridwork of bare lights, and optical-illusion bar all appeal to the members of the Ikea generation who fill up its long wood tables. Given the fact that you can have a beer and a bowl of noodles for $20, it's the kind of stylish, midpriced restaurant that is perfect for a pre-movie dinner or a casual date. Like a ham sandwich on wheat, ramen may be something you scarf down and appreciate later, but Boom's is a new noodle soup, for a new Capitol Hill. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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