The Real Top Ramen

What's next after sushi? Try a bowl of Japanese noodles.

ramen noodles with seafood

Steaming-hot ramen with egg, shrimp, fish cake, and squid

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Most of us know ramen as the savior of penny-pinching college students who subsist on the cheap bricks of dried noodles and foil packets of flavored dust. This instant meal, however, has little in common with the noodle-and-broth dish served in Japan, where ramen is a national obsession. There's a museum devoted to it, a movie about it (the 1985 comedy Tampopo), and several-hour waits at top ramenya (ramen shops).

"In Japan, sushi is quite pricey," says Kumao Arai, chef at San Jose's highly regarded Ramen Halu. "Ramen is much cheaper, and because the soup is difficult to prepare at home, everyone goes to the ramenya." Now adventurous food lovers here in the West can enjoy fragrant bowls of authentic Japanese ramen, too.

Ramen styles vary—just as barbecue styles vary across the United States—but the basic components remain the same. Long strands of al dente wheat noodles are served in deep bowls of rich stock. Flavors include miso (bean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and shio (salt). The broth-noodle combo is then artfully embellished with toppings, such as sliced pork, boiled eggs, bean sprouts, corn, black mushrooms, seaweed, scallions, seasoned bamboo shoots, or greens. No one frowns if you slurp.

At Ramen Halu (408-246-3933), it's not uncommon to find a line out the door. The chef's signature Halu ramen, with thin slices of tender roast pork, arrives in a caramel-colored broth made from chicken and pork bones simmered for nearly 10 hours. At the Bay Area's Ryowa (Mountain View 650-965-8829; Berkeley 510-883-0667), you'll see ramen lovers hunched over steaming bowls while reading manga (Japanese comic books) plucked from the restaurant's bookshelf. At Togoshi Ramen (702-737-7003), located off the Strip in Las Vegas, 17 varieties of ramen are dished out to an international crowd. "Japanese singers, actors, baseball players—they all eat at my restaurant," says owner Rumiko Nomura. Other top-notch ramenya: New Edokko in Sacramento (916-448-2828); Santa Japanese Restaurant in San Mateo, Calif. (650-344-5918); Toshi's Ramen in Eugene, Ore. (541-683-7833); and Yotteko-ya in Honolulu (808-946-2900). Information: www.worldramen.net.

Photography by Jeff Green

This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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