If you've eaten great ramen in New York or LA, chances are you've eaten Sun Noodle. With three factories—their original in Hawaii, one in LA, and their newest in New Jersey—they produce almost 100,000 servings of noodles daily, supplying hundreds of restaurants. They've been called the Pat LaFrieda of noodles, for their willingness to work with restaurant chefs on perfecting their own noodle blends, offering complete control over everything from thickness and waviness to color and flour type.
Those wonderfully springy noodles in the broth-of-the-night at Yuji Ramen? Sun Noodle. The thick, wavy noodles in David Chang's pork broth at Momofuku? Sun again. The rye-flavored noodles that grace Ivan Orkin's bowls at Slurp Shop? You guessed it, Sun.
We've been following their adventures in the restaurant world for quite some time now, with a behind the scenes tour at the Sun Noodle factory, and a ramen crawl through LA, and we're waiting with bated breath for their ramen lab to open this spring.
But here's something you may not know: Sun Noodle produces refrigerated packs of fresh ramen noodles paired with concentrated sauce bases intended to be cooked just like instant ramen. They aren't the most widely distributed things in the world—I've only spotted them in specialty Asian grocers in New York and San Francisco—but we've got wind that they may soon expand distribution or take the mail-order route.
I headed over to Mitsuwa in New Jersey and got my hands on their four flavors—shoyu, tonkotsu, tan tan, and miso—and gave 'em a taste to see how they stack up to the local ramen shops and other instant noodle brands.
First things first: the noodles are awesome. But that's no big surprise. They're the same noodles that are shipped to all the best ramen shops in the city. So long as you cook them right—and that means boiling water followed by immediate, rigorous draining, and serving with no delay—they come out perfectly springy with just the right amount of chew.
Depending on the flavor you get, the shape, size, and color of the noodles varies, from wide, yellow, wavy noodles with the miso flavor to thin, straight, white noodles for the tonkotsu.
The soup bases are also dissimilar from most instant ramen brands. Instead of a packet of powdered soup base and a separate liquid seasoning pack, you get a single, large pack which includes the whole shebang. To prepare each bowl, you do it the same way as they do at the ramen shop: pour the concentrated tare into the bottom of a pre-warmed ramen bowl, then add the water and stir it up in the bowl.
Pro-tip: Don't make the mistake of simmering the soup bases on the stovetop; the miso, tonkotsu, and tan tan flavors will separate and form distinct and unappetizing curds.
Once the noodles are cooked and drained, you add them to the bowl, top as desired, and slurp up.
Truth be told, the soup bases don't really compare with anything you'd get homemade or at a shop, but that's to be expected; it's like comparing Wii bowling to the real thing. That said, they're markedly better than any dehydrated ramen on the market, including my beloved Myojo Chukazanmai, both in terms of noodles and broth. Here's what I thought of each flavor, from favorite to least favorite.
Tan Tan Ramen
Relatively thin, yellow, wavy noodles in a broth flavored with sesame, soy sauce, miso, garlic, ginger, clams, fish, and chilies. The broth comes out rich and cloudy with plenty of heat.
I garnished my bowl with some soft boiled eggs, sliced scallions, and ground pork that I seasoned with soy sauce and chili oil before piling it on top of the noodles.
The chili oil and sesame add richness and mouth-coating texture to the broth, making it taste almost as if it could have come from a real restaurant. Adding the ground pork was a good idea, too.
These noodles are even wider and springier than the tan tan noodles. The package recommends a full 2 1/4 minutes to cook the noodles, but I preferred the more chewy bite you get from after around a minute and a half of cooking. Plus, I can never slurp them fast enough that they don't soften up a bit in the broth.
The broth is flavored with a ton of miso paste, along with carrots, ginger, garlic, onions, and a touch of chili-sesame oil.
You can see the nice pockets of oil glistening on the surface of the rich, cloudy broth. This is the flavor to grab when the weather takes a dip.
I had high hopes for the shoyu ramen, since it's one of the flavors I find fares best with instant noodles and the thinner broth seems like it should be easier to replicate out of a packet. The noodles here are identical to those in the tan tan ramen, relatively thin and slightly wavy.
Though the broth looks great in the bowl—a nice rich brown color with golden circles of fat floating on the surface—the fat is mostly flavorless (it's straight up vegetable oil), and the color comes from caramel coloring. Though there is "fish extract" listed on the ingredients, I wish there was a richer seafood aroma to it.
Still, not a bad bowl of noodles all around. That is to say, there were no leftovers.
As a lover of things porky, rich, creamy, and noodle-y, I was particularly excited to give this flavor a shot. It was, unfortunately, the most disappointing of the four.
The soup base comes out as a thick, peanut butter-colored paste, which tastes plenty porky if you eat it plain.
Once diluted, it has a nice milky white color, but it lacks the intense richness you expect from a really good bowl of tonkotsu. It's still flavorful (not to mention mega-salty), but it's a pretty far cry from a real bowl of long-simmered pork broth.
Those thin, straight noodles, though, are as killer as ever.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.