This one’s a little long to make up for the fact that I’ve been delinquent about keeping my New Year’s resolution of at least one post a week. It’s been a bit hectic lately, but still determined to keep on. Lately, it seems the ramen craze has really taken off, like that of cupcakes and macarons. I’ve been on that bandwagon for quite some time, and after almost a decade of eating ramen in all varieties (not counting the top ramen of my youth), I get picky.
While my discovery of ramen beyond the packaged kind began in Los Angeles, I’ve found that there’s so many more ramen shops up in the Bay Area, at least when I first moved here. After eating hundreds of bowls of ramen, I’ve concluded what makes me appreciate this noodle soup the most.
Like pasta sauces, ramen broth and flavors vary by region. Here are some of the basic flavors:
- Shio (Salt): A clear broth
- Shoyu (Soy sauce)
- Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) – not to be confused with tonkatsu, which is fried pork cutlets
Orenchi ramen’s signature orenchi ramen, a tonkotsu broth
- Miso (soybean paste)
Tonkotsu is my running favorite right now for broths, with shio a second runner up given my current obsession with shio clam ramen. The flavors that comprise a tonkotsu broth done right really hearken what the Japanese call umami – the fifth taste. This flavor can be found in the dashi broth base of Japanese soups, and also more commonly in foods like Parmesan and cured meats.
In Italian pastas, al dente is the term used to describe noodles that are firm, but not hard — the perfect texture for one to bite into the noodle and be able to taste the sauce along with it harmoniously. LIkewise, in ramen, a noodle must also have this al dente texture. As I’ve learned from David Chang on The Mind of a Chef, alkaline is what makes a good noodle hold itself together in a brothy soup. The amount of alkaline in noodles such as ramen and egg noodles prevents it from crumbling, getting soggy, and absorbing all the liquids, thus producing that bite pasta/noodle lovers so seek in the perfect noodle.
3. Egg (Ajitsuke Tamago)
I saved this one for last, because it’s my favorite part of the ramen. There’s a reason that Chef Jiro Ono’s sushi apprentices must learn how to make the perfect tamagoyaki before they can move on to anything else. I love eggs – they are a fascinating food. When done right, you can come up with a myriad of creations, or simply poach and sprinkle some sea salt or black pepper and Maggi for a simple breakfast.
But I digress. To me, a perfect ajitsuke tamago is the test of good ramen and its authenticity in the time they took into creating the egg that goes perfectly with your ramen. It’s ramen perfection. The egg that comes with ramen should be soft boiled — a yolk that runs when you pierce your spoon/chopstick/teeth into it (choose your weapon). It is full of flavor because it has been marinated overnight, just like the broth.
There are some modern variations to an already more “modern” Japanese food that are delicious, and some I’m not so much a fan. Karaage (fried chicken) has always been an interesting and hearty addition, but big changes on one of my classics is usually a no-no in my book.
Ramen Dojo: Love corn and butter in my ramen. Surprised by the saffron, and quail egg seems like a (high cholesterol) fancy cop out for soft-boiled marinated chicken egg. Also confused by lettuce garnish.
And sometimes, novel takes on a classic just are done right and you are hooked:
What’s your favorite part of a bowl of ramen?
Orenchi Ramen: 3540 Homestead Road in Santa Clara. Thanks to yelp, be prepared for the longest line of ramen in the South Bay of NorCal.
Ramen Izakaya Kagura (not pictured): 279 Baldwin Ave. in San Mateo. This little gem opened up literally down the street from my office. They still need to work out some kinks, but my favorite thing here is not their signature hakata ramen, but their spicy shio clam ramen that reminds me of Tom Yum noodles.
Himawari (not pictured): 202 2nd Ave. in San Mateo. Fun fact: Himawari means “sunflower.” Before Ramen Izakaya Kagura, this was my go-to ramen joint by my office, and it still sometimes is. The Tantan mien is a favorite in my office, but I actually really like the agedashi tofu and their fried rice with pickled vegetables and chasu pork.
Ramen Dojo: 805 S. B St in San Mateo. Can you sense we really like to eat ramen out here in San Mateo? This is another “wait-in-line-cuz-it’s-so-popular” place. Quail egg in my ramen weirded me out, but broth and noodles passed.