Editor's Note: Our trusty Food Lab intern Luke Davin recently took a departure from recipe testing to visit Sun Noodle's Los Angeles factory.
You might not expect a ramen factory to resemble a secret government operation, but the gleaming white walls and heavy fluorescent lights at Sun Noodle's three production facilities are closer in aesthetic to Fringe than Tampopo. Here's a look at what goes on behind the scenes at the largest ramen supplier in the United States.
Sun Noodle was founded in Hawaii in 1981, though today they operate factories in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and New Jersey. They produce 90,000 servings daily of noodles and noodle-related products for hundreds of well-known restaurants, from Momofuku in New York to Ramen Tusjita in Los Angeles.
Sun didn't saturate the market with one giant factory spewing out tons of a single product. You may have been to two different ramen shops in different cities, or even right next to each other, and not realized that the noodles were made in the same factory. Instead, the company made their mark with customization —tailoring every aspect of the detailed ramen production process to each of their customer's specific needs.
Sun starts each order with one of over 40 recipes, each with very specific amounts of a blend of ten brands of wheat flour, along with the occasional use of vitamin B2, powdered egg whites, egg yolks, and wheat gluten to control the density, shape, and color of the noodles. The factory technicians take great care to start each batch with purified water and tightly control the temperature, salt, and pH of the water. Even after the dough is made, special importance is paid to maintain the correct thickness and shape of the noodles. The noodles are a mix of traditional styles from Japan and newer inventions for more adventurous ramen chefs.
Far from latch-key preparations with hot water and flavor pouches, professional ramen shops have exacting standards for making a bowl of ramen. With some shops advertising a 96-hour process just to make their broth, it only follows that they put meticulous effort into sourcing their noodles, too. Sun enables these perfectionists to go even farther, tailoring recipes specifically for their restaurant, even to one dish. Some shops order two or three different kinds of noodles at once to create the ideal, unique pairing.
With all of these factors in mind, Sun Noodle managers like Keisuke Sawakawa are less technicians and more craftsmen. Their machines may appear to be designed for mass production, but in truth, Sun's model is more akin to that of a craft brewery or small bakery. In Japan, there's a ramen culture built on the appreciation of different styles of noodles, and with the help of Sun Noodle, that ramen culture is spreading to America.