I grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and have vivid memories of bowls of ramen and soba noodles stacked high in bowls or boxes, being delivered by crazy men riding bicycles through crazy Tokyo traffic like the photo on the right. Ramen had been around since the late 1800s in Japan, but it was during the post-WWII years, and particularly in the 1960s, when ramen became the ubiquitous Japanese comfort food it is today.
I loved ramen as a child, and when my family moved to the states in the mid-‘60s I was sad to find that ramen wasn’t sold in the few Japanese restaurants that were available here. But in 1970 Nissin, the company that invented instant ramen in 1958 began selling instant ramen in the U.S. The next year, the company rolled out Cup Noodles.
Several generations of college students have grown up with instant ramen and Cup Noodles since the ’70s. Who can argue when each savory serving can cost just pennies? Lots of people even use instant ramen as a base for fancier dishes by adding meats and vegetables. But I think that’s cheating. If you want to have some “real” ramen, nothing beats going to a good ramen-ya (shop) for a steaming bowl.
The steaming hot soup of a real bowl of ramen is salty and meaty with hints of chicken, pork and fish bathing together like it’s a friendly hot tub of flavor, and the noodles are firm and chewy (though a good ramen-ya will offer the option to have your noodles hard or soft to your liking) with just the right amount of absorption of the soup, and the toppings can be creative but respect tradition. The experience is several cuts above plopping a square of fried dried noodles into a saucepan for five minutes or pouring boiling water into the styrofoam cup and waiting two minutes with the top flap closed (no peeking!). Instant ramen is cheap, but it’s not food for the soul. The noodles are immediately limp, the soup is flavored hot water (though it can fool your brain into thinking you just ate some real food) and out of the box the topping are… well, there are no toppings.
Ramen’s origins are Chinese. The noodle bowls were originally sold at Chinese food carts and restaurants in port cities during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as working-class food for laborers. But since then, ramen has become a Japanese cultural institution. Different cities and regions have developed unique ramen styles and enhancements. Sapporo is famous for miso ramen; Tokyo for shoyu; Kyushu for tonkotsu ramen, everyone’s current favorite. It’s a rich pork and chicken broth that simmers the bones so long that the ramen has a layer of fatty collagen on top.
You can’t beat ramen in Japan. One of the best I ever had was in a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Kyoto, a couple blocks from the Japan Rail station several years ago (see the video at the bottom of this post). When I was in Kumamoto in Kyushu last year, we had the best ramen I’ve ever had. Having tonkotsu in the prefecture where the style was invented was an amazing experience. We ate in a tiny unassuming family-owned place and the ramen was incredible.
Earlier this year we had the opportunity to visit the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum south of Tokyo, and it was an amazing experience. It’s a crazy re-creation of a Tokyo neighborhood circa 1958 (I was born in Tokyo in 1957) forever preserved in a dusky twilight, and everything about the storefront facades and billboards reminds me of my childhood. The museum isn’t just for show — it features eight of the best and best-known ramen shops from across Japan serving small bowls of their local specialty. We had a great time pigging out!
The museum is a reflection of Japan’s reverence for ramen as a cultural heritage (even though its origins were in China), and nearby in Yokohama there’s also a museum dedicated to Instant Ramen. We’ll have to visit that one next time we’re in Japan.
But sadly, here in the US and especially in Denver, real ramen is still a novelty. Some Japanese restaurants might serve ramen, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to make it right. So most Japanese restaurants will stick to the reliable standards like teriyaki and sushi. I know a few Japanese restaurants that serve pretty good ramen, but honestly, the best ramen is served at places that specialize in just ramen, where the soup stock can be simmered all day to get it just right.
If you’re lucky, you live in a city where ramen has always been part of the culinary scene, or the ramen fad has already caught on fire. Denver isn’t exactly a ramen hotbed yet.
We’ve tried ramen at places that don’t specialize in the dish, or are run by people who aren’t serious rameniacs, but looking to ride the coattails of a fad. The noodles are never quite right, the soup can taste like dishwater, and the ingredients simply are obscene… really, broccoli atop a bowl of ramen? Or the ramen noodles are served in what tastes like udon stock broth made with katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Yuck. Fine for udon, but don’t try to bamboozle us by tossing in different noodles and calling it ramen.
Whenever we’re in California we try the recommended ramen places. A personal fave in San Francisco’s Japantown, not great but the always dependable Iroha, closed this past year but has been replaced by a very good shop, Ramen Yamadaya. I also always visit a couple other shops in San Francisco’s Jtown: the tiny (and often very busy) Suzu Noodle House and Tanpopo beneath Yamadaya, which has been there for a long time, is pretty good too.
Los Angeles has a bunch of great ramen places, many which have opened in the past few years. Some are over-rated and filled with hipsters who don’t know better (Uncle in Denver is one such hipster hangout; I’m mystified why it’s so popular). In LA’s Little Tokyo, Daikokuya with its yellow awning always has lines outside. But look closer and you’ll see very few Asians in line and even fewer Japanese. Not that Asians are the arbiters of quality or even authenticity, but the crowds in that place don’t know better.
The food’s OK, but just a few doors down is a place I’ve liked much better for years, San Sui Tei, which is owned by a Chinese man who ran a ramen shop in Japan for years before coming to LA. The service can bog down when he’s busy (it’s just him and several helpers who’ve been with him every time I’ve dined there), but the fried rice is heavenly and the tonkotsu broth is rich and savory. He’s just nicer than Daikokuya, where you feel rushed because there are 20 people outside waiting for your seat.
Now I have a new favorite place for ramen in LA’s Little Tokyo. On a recommendation from a Japanese friend in Denver, I tried Men-Oh, which opened in 2012 in a strip mall a couple of blocks from Daikokuya and San Sui Tei (in Honda Plaza, the same place as my favorite Hawaiian breakfast joint, Aloha Cafe!). I had their specialty, Tokushima Black Garlic Ramen with Gyoza and it was amazing. Really. It rocked my world.
That same trip, I also had a very good tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Yamadaya in Torrance, an LA suburb (you can find photos of a lot of these meals on my Instagram). It’s one of the locations of the same California chain that I enjoyed in San Francisco. And I’ve had good ramen — or rather, ramen that I liked — at other places around LA, including Shin Sen Gumi (a chain I first enjoyed inside a Marukai market) and Orochon, which has a silly challenge as a gimmick. If you can eat a 2.2-pound bowl of their extra spicy ramen in 30 minutes, you get a t-shirt and your photo on their wall (but you still have to pay for your ramen).
You can also find delicious reliable ramen if you live near a Mitsuwa market, because most of them have a Santouka ramen-ya in their food court. I’ve had Santouka, a popular chain from Japan, in New Jersey and San Diego, and it’s pretty great.
But now that ramen’s catching on stateside, beware the rise of hipster noodle joints. On earlier LA trips, I’ve tried Tsujita, a super-trendy place in the already-trendy Sawtelle Japanese district. The place is famous for tsukemen, in which noodles are served separate from a bowl of concentrated dipping soup, and for its tonkotsu ramen. I’m not a big fan of tsukemen – I like my noodles swimming in hot soup – and I don’t care for Tsujita’s tonkotsu. It’s too fatty, and I felt like I’d been French-kissing a can of Crisco shortening after I had the ramen.
One person’s greasy kiss is another’s orgasmic foodie experience, though. A lot of people like Tsujita and yes, Daikokuya. Ramen is truly a subjective, individual taste. For all I know, some of the ramen that I think are awful might taste great to someone from Japan. I don’t think so, but it’s possible…. I may not like them all, but at least in LA I have the choice of many recommended places for ramen!
In comparison, for years Denver was a dry, barren desert for ramen lovers.
Not long ago only a couple of places served the stuff, including one, a lonely American branch of the Japanese Oshima Ramen chain which was too far ahead of its time. When it opened 15 years ago it was the only place serving ramen in Denver — hell, probably anywhere in Colorado. It started promisingly, though the bowls were too expensive for back then. The noodles were housemade with flour flown in from Japan, and the broth was carefully simmered and lovingly nurtured. But the original owner sold the place, and in the ensuing years it deteriorated into a dirty eatery serving second-rate soup and what tasted like characterless store-bought noodles. Oshima finally gave up the ghost in 2014 just as a new generation of real ramen restaurants began simmering on the local culinary community scene.
I first got hopeful in 2009 and wrote optimistically about the emerging scene. Of the places I mentioned in 2009, most are already gone. Bento Zanmai in Boulder and Taki’s in Denver are both closed. Likewise Happy Noodle House, a trendy shop opened by serial Boulder restaurateur David Query (nope, not Asian) that shut as soon as he thought the fad was over. Frank Bonanno’s pan-Asian Denver bistro Bones still serves their lovely Lobster Ramen, but it’s pricey and for special occasions, not as work-a-day comfort food. It’s been a while since we’ve been there, but we still love Okole Maluna, the Hawaiian restaurant north of Denver in the small town of Windsor. They make the Hawaiian-style ramen called Saimin, which of course has slivers of Spam on top of the noodles.
Some of the local restaurants that serve ramen today are decent and hit the spot if you’re really looking to slurp some noodles. Here are some that serve one or more types of ramen; I’m listing the new hot spots lower down:
- Sakura House in Sakura Square is good and has a surprising variety of ramen, but can be slow (must be a curse from the location’s previous restaurant, Yoko’s). The flavor isn’t amazing, but it’ll do in a pinch.
- The excellent and unique Domo not surprisingly has a unique take on miso ramen with salmon, but it’s not a dish I go there for.
- Kokoro, the fast-casual “beef bowl” restaurant that now has two locations, serves a passable bowl of ramen if you’re in a hurry (and they also have a summertime seasonal favorite, Hiyashi Chuka Soba, ramen noodles served cold).
- Ki Ki’s, a small family-run restaurant on South Colorado Blvd. that seems to be a hangout for Chinese students from Denver University, also serves ramen on top of a large and diverse menu of Japanese dishes. I’ve eaten there many times and like the place, but confess that I’ve never tried their ramen.
- A couple of restaurants don’t serve ramen every day because it’s so time- and labor-intensive. My friend Kei Izawa — a true ramen snob — tells me the noodles served at Sushi Tora in Boulder are worth checking out, even though they only have it on Saturdays and Sundays for lunch).
- In the one-day-a-week category, Sachi Sushi wins hands-down for its unique location and tasty ramen. Chef Tsukasa Hibino, who was a sushi chef at Sushi Tora for many years, opened Sachi Sushi along the back wall of the Niwot Market, a small country grocery store in the small town just northeast of Boulder. And on Sundays only, he makes ramen — shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and spicy miso. The soup is great (I bet he’d make a superior tonkostu if he had the time… and staff). A lot of people know about his ramen, though, so go early or prepare to stand in line for a long wait. And if he runs out, you’re out of luck — you have to go back next weekend.
- Also in the one-day-a-week category, Sushi Leo in Longmont further northeast of Niwot used to have ramen on Saturdays for lunch but I don’t see it listed anymore on their menu. I’ll update. It was not bad and a nice change from sushi and other more typical local Japanese fare.
- Sonoda’s in Aurora, the last remaining location of what used to be a chain of three until Kenny Sonoda decided to call it quits, is a much-loved eatery owned by the onetime sushi chef there. He offers shoyu, miso or spicy miso broth.
- Sushi Den, one of the acknowledged top Japanese restaurants in the area, has quietly added pretty good ramen to their menus over the past few years. But because they’re so popular and crowded, I generally don’t go there for ramen. Too long of a wait. Note: I see Ototo, one of Sushi Den owner Toshi Kizaki’s sibling restaurants, has reopened in its original space across Florida from Den serving robata-style grilling but is also serving up the Sushi Den ramen that was Ototo’s one Japanese dish when it originally opened. I’ll probably try it there because it’ll (hopefully) be easier to get in.
- Miyako Ra-men Spot is a new place that focuses on ramen on South Broadway. It’s shoehorned into a weird strip mall and easy to overlook. I’ve only gone once but I’ll go back and try again — their “tonkotsu” is a thick shoyu ramen base, and I don’t know that it would pass muster in Kyushu. But the chef is Japanese and my experience with all the recent ramen places is that the chefs are always tinkering with and tweaking their dishes, especially the broths
Denver does now have several new and legitimate ramen-ya, though — places that focus on ramen as their primary mission. My current local ramen-ya faves are Tokio in downtown Denver; Osaka Ramen and Tengu, both sort of fusion/contemporary in the RiNo district; and for now, the best, Katsu Ramen in Aurora, a Denver suburb. Here’s a rundown:
- Of the new generation of ramen shops with a buzz, Tokio opened first, nestled among the densely packed apartment/condos in the shadow of Coors Field where the Rockies baseball team loses. Chef Miki Hashimoto closed his well-regarded restaurant Japon in Washington Park (there’s a new place with the same name in Westminster that has nothing to do with the old Japon) and went to Japan to study the ramen arts before opening Tokio. The handful of times we’ve eaten there we’ve loved the tonkotsu and tried the tsukemen (again, I’m not a fan of dipping noodles into a stronger version of broth in a separate bowl) and the shoyu. Hashimoto and his staff also serve up excellent sushi and a rarity, Bincyo-tan charcoal grilled meats and vegetables. It’s a great place, and one night after an event with the Consul General of Japan, we stopped for ramen and found a big group of Japanese including the consular staff there. What better recommendation could you ask for?
- Tengu opened next. It’s part-owned by a Japanese American and run by Caucasian chefs who are the first to admit they’re not making “traditional” or authentic ramen. But it’s good and fast and inexpensive (a major point for something that started as street food over a hundred years ago). The menu is small, just a handful of ramen types and a handful of small-plate appetizers. But the food’s all good. Tengu’s hidden at one end of a giant cool building that houses a bunch of startups and hip companies, so it probably has a built-in loyal clientele. Its interior is dark and trendy, but they’ve paid attention to details — the bar area is all built using traditional Japanese woodworking styles, for instance. And the basement is a cave-like hideout for private parties and overflow seating (one nit: they don’t serve ramen downstairs and you’re not allowed to order ramen and take it downstairs yourself).
- Over in the eastern suburb of Aurora, the non-Japanese owners of Sushi Katsu, an all-you-can-eat restaurant that I still haven’t tried, opened Katsu Ramen. They made the wise decision of hiring a head chef from Osaka who brought two other chefs along. The first time I checked out Katsu Ramen, the floor staff wasn’t Japanese, but ever since then the servers have been Japanese, which helps them communicate with the chefs. The ramen is terrific, and the restaurant’s decor is like a typical unassuming ramen-ya in Japan. It reminds me of the place in Kyushu where I had the killer tonkotsu last year. The lunch combinations are a great deal for under $14, with ramen, gyoza and either fried rice, beef bowl, chashu bowl, katsu don or curry. Bring an appetite. I really think Katsu Ramen is the real deal.
- The restaurant with the biggest buzz building up for months is Osaka Ramen, which finally opened in RiNo earlier this year. Chef Jeff Osaka had closed his successful non-Asian restaurant twelve (at which he cooked up new menus every month) to open Osaka Ramen. It’s downstairs in the warehouse district among a bunch of great new eateries (OK, this is one case of hipsters leading us to some fine places).
The ramen is good — Jeff Osaka says he knows his ramen isn’t “authentic” but I think his tonkotsu is great and very authentic. He gets extra points for the best logo ever for a ramen-ya. The photo at the top of this post is from a recent visit, when I had a delicious special miso ramen.
Osaka has a big vision; he’s already opened a second location for ramen in Cherry Creek for the wealthy set, and he’s about to open Sushi-Rama, a cutting-edge conveyor-belt that’ll be a first for Denver, in RiNo just a couple blocks from Osaka Ramen.
The future’s bright for Colorado’s ramen lovers. But even if the scene cools down, I know I can always find great ramen on the coasts… and I never turn down a chance to have ramen when I’m in Japan!
NOTE: An earlier (and much shorter) version of this post ran in my “Nikkei Voice” column in the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the JACL.