When you hear the word "ramen," what's the first thing that comes to mind? If you're like most of us, it's probably a polystyrene cup filled with the salty instant noodles that you ate way too much of back in college. But over the past few years, there's been a revolution, and real ramen, big steaming bowls of impossibly rich broth, springy noodles, and countless add-ins, has finally made its way across the Pacific in a big way. And from San Francisco to Baltimore, Minneapolis to Boston, there are some truly mind-blowing bowls of ramen out there. These are the best ramen shops in America.
First things first: What, exactly, is ramen? While it's also popular in China (where it originated), in Japan ramen is nothing short of a cultural icon, and it comes in dozens of varieties. Ramen noodles typically are made from wheat flour, salt, water, and an alkaline mineral water called kansui that gives the noodles a yellow hue and firm texture. Noodles can be thick, thin, hard, soft, straight, or wavy, but at the end of the day they need to have a perfect chew and serve as a vessel for the broth.
The most common ramen styles are tonkotsu (rich, creamy, and made from pork bones), shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso, made with miso paste and chicken, pork, seafood, or vegetable broth. Each region in Japan has its own signature style, but just about all of them fall under those categories. These broths typically boil away for hours, developing a rich flavor and texture that only time can create. Recipes are usually closely guarded, but just about all of them also contain kombu (kelp), mushrooms, and onions, and they're certifiable umami-bombs.
Finally, toppings. Technically, a bowl can be filled with just broth and noodles and call itself ramen, but that's only half the fun. Just about every bowl of ramen contains a slab of roast pork called chashu along with a soft-boiled egg, and other typical add-ons include sprouts, scallions, dried seaweed, garlic, and even corn and butter in some variations. But the possibilities are endless; some ramen shops even toss in a big chunk of fried chicken!
So what, exactly, makes for a great bowl of ramen? To answer that question, we reached out to some of the country's leading authorities.
Ivan Orkin, the chef behind New York's cult favorite Ivan Ramen, compared a perfect bowl of ramen to a great sandwich. "Like you can't just throw a bunch of stuff onto a roll and call it a sandwich, you can't just throw a bunch of stuff into a bowl and call it ramen," he told us. "The toppings should make sense. Like with any composed dish, it needs to be planned out."
Bill Kim, the chef at Chicago's popular Urbanbelly, added that "there needs to be layers of flavor" in a great ramen, and that the noodles "need to be chewy, and also need to pick up the broth and transport it and all of its flavor to your mouth."
"The perfect bowl of ramen needs to be hot, like scalding hot," Peter Colon, the kitchen manager at New York's Ippudo, added. "It also needs to have fresh noodles, and it needs to be balanced. Whether it's shoyu, tonkotsu, or shio ramen, it's difficult to achieve the right balance of flavors. It can be too strong, too bland, too oily. The broth needs to constantly be cared for in order to strike the perfect balance."
Ramen is certainly having a "moment" right now, enjoying a popularity that's reserved for only the trendiest foods. There's a certifiable "cult of ramen," populated by the chefs that are pushing ramen to its limits and also by the fans who will wait hours in line for the best bowls around. It's also crossing culinary boundaries, best signified by the "ramen burger" invented by Keizo Shimamoto, which replaces the bun with crisp-fried ramen noodles and was a monster hit from the day it was first sold at New York's Smorgasburg last year.
"Foods that make you messy tend to gather a cult following, and ramen is definitely one of those foods," Orkin said. "It's fun to eat; you can slurp it up and make a mess. And like any messy food, like crabs or ribs, once you allow yourself to get a little messy you end up smiling every time."
If there's one sign that ramen is really having its moment, it's the fact that great new ramen shops are opening all the time, in some places you might not expect. In order to assemble our ranking of America's best, we reached out to leading culinary authorities throughout the country to ask what their personal favorite shops are (sticking to restaurants that specialize in ramen and noodles instead of, say, sushi bars with one bowl of ramen on the menu), and we supplemented those suggestions with ramen shops featured in local reviews and pre-existing regional and local rankings. We then took that list of more than 100 shops from across the country and built a survey, with the shops separated by region. We invited our group of trusted panelists, made up of chefs, bloggers, journalists, and other culinary authorities, to vote for their favorites, and more than 30, including the Los Angeles Times' Jonathan Gold and our fleet of city editors, cast their votes. In the end there was one clear winner, but the top shops aren't all found in ramen hotspots like New York and the Bay Area; there's great ramen all over America, from Philadelphia to Detroit.
A wide cross-section of shops made our list. In Austin, a Top Chef champion is serving wildly creative bowls of ramen out of the kitchen of one of the city's most legendary bars. In Chicago, a popular hangout is topping their long-simmered broths with katsu fried chicken and 18-hour smoked brisket. And in Minneapolis, two ramen wizards are serving varieties both classic and daring out of a 40-year-old Asian grocery store.
Ramen is one of the trendiest foods in the country today, and even though it has centuries of history behind it, it's one of the least intimidating foods out there. In fact, digging into a big bowl of it with some friends and a mug of cold beer is about as laid-back and fun as it gets. Read on to learn which ramen shops are America's best.
Check out the slideshow above for the best ramen shops in America.