For the majority of American eaters, the word "ramen" implies a pale brick of instant noodles packaged with a silver packet of salty beef, chicken, or shrimp bouillon in powder form. This bargain-priced, sodium-saturated food staple has kept countless college students from starving; the Maruchan brand is so popular it still gets away with selling an "Oriental Flavor."
OKINAWA TERIYAKI 1100 Western Ave., 447-2648, DOWNTOWN
For those accustomed to instant ramen, the soup dished up at Okinawa Teriyaki—in an earthenware bowl, with a roughly Mt. Fuji–sized mound of grilled meat heaped atop wavy, relatively thick noodles and a garden's worth of fresh vegetables nestled beneath the cloudy, egg-infused broth—is a revelation.
Situated at the corner of Western Avenue and Spring Street, Okinawa has become even more of a no-frills downtown lunch destination since relocating from a nearby space beneath the Viaduct last year. Encountering lines that stretch out the door is not uncommon during the lunch rush; savvy diners will phone in orders ahead of time. The teriyaki is served up quick, and for $6.95 the massive platter of rice, chopped lettuce, and dark meat slathered in sweet, sticky sauce might be enough food to sate even Takeru Kobayashi's hunger. They also offer yakisoba, and an assortment of pot stickers and other fried items.
The ramen varieties include chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, and katsu (breaded, deep-fried pork). They take a few minutes longer for the kitchen to prepare, and cost slightly more than other menu items, with prices from $6.99 for veggie to $9.99 for tofu and shrimp; any soup can be made "spicy" for an extra two bits. The upgrade doesn't pack much punch, but a spurt of Sriracha sauce adds enough oomph for capsaicin cravers. Adding sauces and condiments to ramen and other prepared foods is apparently a faux pas in Japan, but the culture also dictates that it is polite to slurp ramen as loudly as possible to signal that it's tasty and has been served at the proper piping-hot temperature. And at Okinawa, be prepared to slurp extra loud.