There's a ramen boom in Seattle, with noodle pop-ups, new restaurants serving ramen, old restaurants jumping on the bandwagon, and even ramen at a farmers market. (On top of all this, several more ramen joints are due to open in the Seattle area this fall.) I know a number of chefs tinkering with recipes, and have occasionally been invited to tastings to offer feedback. It's an exciting time for ramen here, though I have mixed feelings about the situation.
Compared to most of the country, Seattle's ramen is pretty good. There are enough options to calm a craving and feel satisfied. I don't question the passion. My concern is quality. Most of the ramen in Seattle doesn't stack up against I enjoy each year when I travel to Tokyo, or even at Biwa in Portland or G-Men Ramen in Richmond, British Columbia—my favorite in the Pacific Northwest. Some restaurants can't get the noodles right, making them too thick or serving soba-like wheat noodles that are simply too soft. But the broth is the main culprit, lacking a certain depth of flavor, or getting quick-fix umami boosts from ingredients like duck fat or mushrooms. There's room for improvement, and with more ramen coming (rumors have Japanese import Santouka opening here), I have hope for the future.
It's been a year since our last round-up of ramen in Seattle, and with the ramen craze continuing, I was eager to review and update my list of best local bowls. Two places fell off the list. Boom Noodle's focus on making a healthier bowl has taken the ramen in the wrong direction, and Showa closed. Their head chef is reinventing the ramen at Bloom Bento, but unfortunately the tonkotsu ramen there lacks the deep, porky flavor that's a hallmark of the style.
The good news is that there are two new restaurants worth visiting for ramen. One is an import from Japan with a light and citrusy yuzu-shio ramen, while the other is an old-style Japanese restaurant serving ramen with chili paste and sweet miso dressing. Carryovers from last year are a Korean-influenced restaurant serving kimchi ramen, and a ramen joint with an Okinawan chef who spent years in Hawaii. My favorite ramen, though, comes from a restaurant that makes a limited number of shoyu ramen bowls for Friday lunch only, occasionally bested by a local ramen chain which battles consistency but is capable of producing a rich bowl of tonkotsu ramen.
Here are the six bowls of ramen being served in the Seattle area that I recommend trying.
Samurai Noodle spearheaded the ramen craze in Seattle, and on a good day, serves the best bowl in Seattle. The ramen menu is expansive, though Samurai is probably best-known for its Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.50). The broth is made from long-cooked pork bones and bacon fat, yielding a sort of liquid bacon. In the broth are thick slices of tender pork, wood ear mushrooms, and green onions. You can purchase a wide variety of extra toppings, though you'll certainly want to add pickled ginger and sesame seeds from the condiment tray at your seat. Note that you choose a desired level of "doneness" of the house-made noodles, and you can substitute, as I would, thicker, slightly jagged noodles for the thinner, straight ones that normally come with the tonkotsu order.
Like Samurai Noodle, Aloha Ramen serves the widest array of ramen in the Seattle area. Chef Lorenzo Rangel, an Okinawan who worked for years in Hawaii, arrives early to prepare his ramen broths. The long list includes unique offerings like black sesame ramen and ma po tofu ramen (with or without katsu pork cutlet). While the overall quality isn't stellar, the Shio Ramen ($8.00) is a good choice. Using salt as the primary seasoning, the delicate soup comes with thin-sliced pork, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and green onions. Many customers upgrade to a combination meal that adds gyoza or garlic fried rice, a house specialty.
Setsuna has two dining rooms. Enter the one with the bar, and you'll feel like you're in a Showa-era eatery. This Japanese restaurant recently started ramen service, with four types available, all made with a blend of chicken, pork bone, and seafood broths. I especially like the Red Ramen ($9.50, plus $1 for the must-have soft-boiled egg), which is shio-based and spiced with a blend of chili paste and sweet miso dressing. (Do I detect a little fish sauce as well?) All bowls contain straight noodles, braised pork (a little too sweet and five-spicy for my taste), blanched bean sprouts, bamboo, and yu choy greens. My biggest concern is that the broth is a little mild and not hot enough (there's no steam coming off the bowls as they arrive at the tables), but the flavor is good and the ramen holds promise for improved quality as the chef tinkers with it.
Kukai Ramen & Izakaya is a chain from Japan that opened in Bellevue at the end of 2012. Japanese friends continually told me the broth was too bland and/or too salty, so I resisted going until reports got a bit better. While there continue to be occasional misfires (one bowl had noodles that were quite undercooked, drawing inspection from huge numbers of staff it in the kitchen), I can report that the quality is good--though not yet worth-the-drive-to-the-Eastside good. There's a variety of bowls available, with Yuzu Shio Ramen ($11.00) my favorite, offering a light broth with nice balance between salt and Japanese citrus. The thin-sliced chashu is grilled and slightly fatty (a good thing), while the egg that looks boring on the outside has the desired soft, almost runny yolk on the inside.
At Revel, Korean influences play a big part in the bold flavor of the fabulous food throughout the menu. Therefore, it's no surprise that kimchi is the key to Revel Ramen ($14). The house-made noodles are tasty couriers of broth made from pork bones (including feet) and chicken bones, along with tahini and garlic. As with any ramen, eat the noodles quickly to keep them from getting too soft, but note that the broth gets better over time as the kimchi penetrates it. The thinly sliced pork belly has just enough fat to contribute fantastic flavor, and you'll also find green onions, nori strips, slices of ginger, and a perfectly soft-cooked egg in this excellent bowl of ramen, which is only available weekends during brunch service.
Tsukushinbo, a mainstay in Seattle's old Japantown district, still serves my favorite ramen for consistency, value, and comfort. Here, the Friday special is Shoyu Ramen and Gyoza with Rice ($8.50). This is a simple soy sauce based broth, the kind your Japanese grandmother might make, and includes pork, spinach, seaweed, bamboo, and green onions. Nothing fancy, but fine quality, and quite filling as it comes with three pork dumplings and rice. Note, though, that ramen is a Friday-only affair. And while Tsukushinbo has increased the number of bowls from 20 to about 30, if you show up halfway through lunch service, you're rolling the dice on availability. People start lining up at 11:30 in anticipation of the opening.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.