The Long and Winding Ramen Road
Ramen restaurants proliferate hereabouts like the bamboo shoots they serve; has the East Bay reached ramen overload?
Ramen from Tetsu Ramen in Alameda looks like modern art.
Photo by Lori Eanes
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It’s so satisfying and soothing. Simple if you like it that way; complicated if you don’t. Safe. Steaming-hot. Did someone mention soft?
These days, it’s also everywhere.
Most of us first knew it as a cheap, easy insta-snack. But now we’ve embraced richer, realer ramen: bold bowls brimming with handmade-if-you-can-get-’em noodles, soy-sauce-marinated ajitsuke eggs bobbing like boats in boiled-overnight bone broth—as is slurped throughout Japan at countless streetside carts and late-night mom-and-pops.
“A good ramen chef is a true romantic, because making ramen requires patience, which means it requires love,” quips Kakui Sushi owner Yingji Huang, whose Dragonfish street-food restaurant is set to open—and serve ramen—in downtown Oakland this summer.
“A lot of people think ramen is just soup, and everyone can make soup,” said Huang, who studied ramen craftsmanship in Japan. “But ramen is largely about chemistry. Bones, meat, oil, fat, salt—and does your salt come from scallops, ayu, or bonito, harvested where, during which season? Even the water you use makes a difference,” as do the shape and size of the bowl and the degree to which the broth cools down when you insert a spoon.
“It takes a beautiful mind and a lot of heart to make it right.“
But do we love ramen too much? Have we reached Ramen Overload?
Not yet, asserts Hopscotch chef/co-owner Kyle Itani, whose new Itani Ramen brings region-specific bowls to Downtown Oakland. In his view, this dish’s amazing adaptability renders the ramen road endless.
“The concept of ‘authentic ramen’ has only one marker—that it blends sea and land with multiple ingredients from both,” Itani explains. “The beauty of ramen culture is that there aren’t any restrictions beyond that.
“In Japan, putting a creative spin on sushi, tempura, or other traditional foods can be viewed as disrespecting the history and legacy of those dishes. Ramen culture, being a relatively new food concept to Japan” —most likely imported by late-19th-century Chinese cooks—“doesn’t have that stigma attached, and therefore can be manipulated by any- and everyone.”
Here are 10 popular and rising East Bay ramen shops. Each has its own special touch.
Ramen Shop: Chez Panisse veterans Sam White, Jerry Jaksich, and Rayneil De Guzman opened this pricey hipster magnet in 2013; it’s been topping “Best Ramen” lists and spawning long lines ever since. Chewy house-made noodles meet nightly-changing arrays entailing foodie faves such as Meyer lemons, Brussels sprouts, rapini, uni, and smoked Liberty Farms duck. 5812 College Ave., Oakland, 510-788-6370, www.RamenShop.com.
Tetsu Ramen: Beautifully plated, generously portioned bowls feature rich miso, shoyu, and tonkotsu broths cradling chewy curly noodles, snowdrifts of corn and pink-spiraled fish-cake slices. Chashu ramen comes in mild and (very) spicy versions; seafood ramen includes lobster, scallop, and salmon. Going that extra mile is a vegetarian ramen containing soy-based faux chicken, faux ham, and faux fish. 1245 Park St., Alameda, 510-865-1505, www.TetsuRamen.com.
Sobo Ramen: Miso and 24-hour-boiled tonkotsu pork-bone broth bathe an impressively wide array of options, including spicy, chilled, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and fusion-y soy-coconut bowls. Customizability—choose your favorite broth, noodle, protein and toppings—makes this popular Chinatown spot a something-for-everyone satisfier where sourcing is important: Bones, meats, eggs, and produce are organic. 988 Franklin St., Suite 186, Oakland, 510-832-7626, www.SoboRamen.com.
Shiba Ramen: Embracing simpler, more affordable old-skool noodles, retired husband-and-wife chemists Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura opened this Emeryville Public Market shop last December after Nakamura trained at Tokyo’s Ramen Academy of Japan. Classic offerings are augmented by spicy tantan and such adventures as butter-and-corn ramen, brothless “dry” ramen, and vegetarian soymilk-based broth. 5959 Shellmound St., Kiosk 10, Emeryville, www.ShibaRamen.com.