With a bitter chill in the New York air this January, I decided
to make it my winter mission to find the best ramen in NYC. There’s nothing like a warm bowl of silky
noodles drenched in a rich, flavorful, hearty broth to soothe the soul. Over the past month, I have scoured the town and have slurped my way through several bowls of ramen from some of Manhattan’s famed shops. I tried various styles of ramen and carefully selected my favorites along the way.
But before I get into my “ramen” of choice, I want to help
demystify some of the preconceived notions that most people associate with ramen. And, I also want to provide a bit of history about the labor of love that goes into each
bowl. First off let’s just say ramen is
much, much more than a package of hard dried noodles with a small spice pouch
available at your local grocery. Unfortunately,
this is what most of the world associates it with, but, there is a very clear
distinction between an instant ramen and a ramen from a restaurant.
In Japan, Ramen is a cherished dish served up at specialty shops
in which chefs slave over hot stoves for several hours each day to assure that
their signature broth is perfect. It is said that it requires years-long
practical training to master be a ramen chef.
Side Note: If you want to catch a glimpse of how this specialized
process plays out (and you don’t live near a ramen joint) check out a little
indy movie called The Ramen Girl starring Brittany Murphy (RIP). Even though it was a pretty lame movie, it does
help to accurately depict how much work goes into each bowl.
Ramen can be broadly categorized by its two main ingredients:
noodles and broth.
Noodles: are made from four basic ingredients- wheat (gluten)
flour, salt, water, and kansui, which is essentially a type of alkaline mineral water containing sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate and sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid. Then Kansui lends a yellowish hue to the noodles and also helps create the firm texture that is associated with "ramen". Ramen noodles can come in various shapes and lengths. They can be fat, thin or ribbon-like, as well as straight or wavy. In a good ramen, the noodles should be served al dente vs. overcooked and mushy.
Broth: Ramen soup is generally made from pork stock (in some
cases chicken), and combined with a variety of ingredients such as onions,
shiitake mushrooms, kombu (kelp), niboshi (dried baby sardines), and beef bones
and then flavored with a healthy dose of salt, miso, or soy sauce. All which is slow cooked for several hours.
From these two staples, ramen is typically divided into a few different style
Tonkotsu: A cloudy white colored broth, that is thick from
the boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours
(typically 12 plus), along with, garlic and soy sauce which suffuses the broth
with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk, melted
butter or gravy. This style is typically served with thin straight noodles. Toppings
include: Chashu (sliced braised/roasted pork belly), scallion and jelly-ear mushrooms, sometimes served with Mayu (charred/black garlic oil). This is the richest of all broths...with lots of great flavor and fat!
Miso/Sapporo: This broth is typically pork based and infused
with miso to create a thick, nutty, slightly sweet and very hearty soup. The
noodles served with it are typically thick, curly, and slightly chewy. Toppings
can include: sweet corn, bean sprouts, Chashu (sliced braised/roasted pork belly), garlic and a seasoned boiled egg.
Shōyu: A clear brown broth, based on pork, chicken and
vegetable stock infused with plenty of soy sauce, garlic and ginger resulting
in a soup that is tangy, salty, smokey and savory yet still fairly light on the
palate. This is the most “traditional” style of ramen. This ramen is generally
served with curly noodles. Toppings include: Marinated bamboo shoots, Chashu
(sliced braised/roasted pork belly), green onion, kamaboko (fish cakes), nori (seaweed), boiled egg, bean sprouts and black pepper.
Shio: A pale,
clear yellowish broth with plenty of salt and any combination of Chicken, pork,
vegetables, ginger, garlic, seaweed and sometimes fish. This is the lightest
style ramen broth. Typically served with
thin straight noodles. Toppings include:
Fried tofu, Chashu (sliced braised/roasted pork belly), bean sprouts, cabbage, bamboo shoots, and miso-simmered ground pork.
Now that we all have our ramen 101, let’s get to the good
stuff…my top picks! Ranked in order starting with my favorite:
1. Akamaru Modern Ramen from Ippudo ($15)
The broth was a silky Tonkotsu cooked with pork bones from Berkshire pigs. The
Noodles are thin, straight noodles made in-house. Toppings included: Chashu,
cabbage, kikurage mushrooms, scallions, fragrant garlic oil and umami dama (a
* This was one of the most expensive bowls of ramen I tried, but definitely
the best in my eyes. It was decadent and
dreamy and I am still craving it.
Ippudo: 65 Fourth Ave between 9th and
10th Sts (212-388-0088)
The broth was a based on chicken, kelp, shiitake
mushrooms, scallion, mirin, soy, sake and Benton's bacon. It was light but delicious. Mr. Chang uses straight alkaline noodles in
his ramen. Toppings include: Chashu, roasted pork shoulder, nori, napa cabbage,
a poached egg, sliced scallions and a fish cake. The poached egg yolk added a depth to the broth which helped to thicken it making a nice effect. The pork in this ramen was
the best out of all the ramen’s I tasted.
It was perfectly cooked and had great flavor.
3. Hakata Kuro Ramen from Hide-Chan ($9.75)
The broth was an extremely rich and thick Tonkotsu. The noodles were house-made, thin and
straight served perfectly al dente. Toppings included: Mayu (charred garlic oil), Chashu, scallion and jelly-ear
Hide-Chan: 248 E 52nd St between
Second and Third Aves, second floor (212-813-1800)
4. Totto Paitan Ramen from Totto Ramen ($9.50)
The broth was warming and flavorful made from chicken bones, soy
sauce and vegetables. The noodles were
thin and straight house-made noodles. Topping included: Chashu), scallion, bean
sprout and nori seaweed. I asked for a side of the rayu (house-made spicy chili sauce) to add to the
broth. It brought out the flavors and
gave it a little kick!
5. Kambi Ramen from Kambi Ramen House
The broth was on the lighter side made from pork
and chicken with soy sauce. They served it with Thin- Straight noodles, and were a little overcooked but still decent. Topping included: Chashu, Chinese-style
mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions, marinated
hard boiled egg and nori.
Kambi: 351 E 14th St between First and
Second Aves (212-228-1366)
The broth was rich, cloudy Hakata-style pork-bone style (Tonkotsu).
The noodles were very thin and straight. Toppings included: Chashu, black mushrooms,
red ginger and scallions. The broth and
noodles were cooked fine, but the pork was not.
It was flubbery and flavorless.
Menchanko Tei: 131 E 45th St between
Lexington and Third Aves (212-986-6805)
7. Signature from Naruto Ramen ($9.00)
The broth was a soy sauced based Tonkotsu, which lacked in
flavor and depth, but the noodles were
cooked great and were thin/straight. Toppings included: Chashu, bamboo
shoots, marinated boiled egg, scallions, dried seaweed, bean sprouts, and a fish cake. The pork was not cooked well and was
*This was my least favorite
shop, but it was not terrible. One plus, is that it's in my neighborhood (on the UES), so if I need a ramen fix, it will be the quickest spot to get to.
Naruto Ramen: 1596 3rd Ave between 89th & 90th (212)
One that didn't make the list, but probably would be on top…is
the soon to open Ivan Ramen from the famed Ivan Orkin. Coming to the LES sometime (hopefully) very
soon! I will definitely be among the first "in line"
*Please note that most of these locations are "cash only" so make sure to stop by the ATM before planning a visit! Also, most of these shops are very small and typically have a wait to be seated, so don't come starving as you will most likely be standing around for about 20-45 mins.
I would love to hear about some of your favorites....please shoot me a note or email with your choices!
The ramen journey always continues......Happy slurping!