The Shinyokohama Ramen Museum near Tokyo recognizes 26 different regional varieties of ramen, yet most Americans are only familiar with one that isn't on the list — the instant kind. Even in the Bay Area, where ramen shops are part of the restaurant tableau, most of us stick to a few populist choices like rich, porky tonkotsu or salty, chicken-based shoyu. A pair of recently opened ramen shops are changing that, bringing new styles and a novel ramen-making ethos to the Bay Area.
Ramen Shop debuted a scant three weeks ago in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, garnering rave reviews almost as soon as it started serving dinner. This isn't a surprise: The small restaurant is helmed by three Chez Panisse alums who learned ramen-making in Japan. They're taking an oh-so-California approach to the dish, incorporating local ingredients with classical techniques to make a truly personal final product.
The short menu changes every few days, but on one night the best bowl of soup was the tantanmen ramen, a voluptuous, spicy pork broth studded with tender hunks of spit-roasted pork, a shoyu-marinated egg, baby bok choy, and a shower of cilantro, which adds a bright green sparkiness to the bowl. Vegetarian miso ramen was also a surprising frontrunner — plenty of richness and no animal fat. Its miso-based broth was luxurious without being heavy, and its ginger finish hummed on the taste buds. Noodles in both, made in-house of course, kept their chew and faint nuttiness throughout the entire meal.
The biggest letdown of the bunch was Meyer lemon shoyu ramen. Its chicken-based broth had a hit of intense lemon flavor, but didn't have much depth other than saltiness — a decent bowl of soup, but nothing compared to the dazzle of the other two.
Appetizers are smartly designed to be palate-whetters without spoiling the appetite for the soup ahead. A little gem salad with halibut tartare had an elegant avocado-sesame dressing; a plate of pickled, meaty king oyster mushrooms and daikon woke up the taste buds. Desserts follow the same playbook — they're small and not too sweet, just what you want after a bowl of hearty soup. We especially loved the miniature kishu tangerines paired with tiny chocolate meringues.
The decor is traditional-Japanese-ramen-shop-meets-hipster-restaurateur. A long, curved ramen bar displays the chefs stooped over steaming pots, but the room also has lots of reclaimed metal fixtures, rough-hewn wood, and sailcloth curtains. The bar up front doubles as a waiting area; its mixology-driven cocktails are definitely ambitious, but their flavors never quite came together. Cocktails seem like strange bedfellows for ramen, anyway, which has so many complex flavors in its own right, you just want a straightforward beer.
Over in the Outer Richmond, Men Oh Ramen is also taking a personal approach to ramen-making. This may seem hard to believe for a chain restaurant. Men Oh Ramen is the popular Japanese chain's second location in the U.S. (the first is in Union City), and brings with it a certain stylized, inoffensive decor with lots of black and blond wood.
The restaurant's specialty is ramen from the owners' home in the Tokushima Prefecture, a region big on pig farming. The intense milky brown broth is made from long-boiled pork bones and soy sauce, and unlike other ramen styles, the soup is topped with slices of both pork and stir-fried pork belly. But the most distinctive element of Tokushima ramen is the raw egg that accompanies the bowl, which you crack into the broth and stir around. Unlike the half-boiled eggs that often come in bowls of ramen, the egg here adds silkiness without too much weight. The thin, chewy noodles loosen up the longer they sit in the bowl — once you finish them, it's traditional to ask for a side of rice to finish sopping up the broth.
Even more pork-forward than the Tokushima ramen is the shop's take on tonkotsu ramen, with a fat-laden broth that hits you deep in the brain's pleasure center. Order it instead of the spicy tonkotsu, which adds heat at the expense of depth of flavor (the same issue facing the miso ramen, rich but disappointingly one-note).
The rest of the menu offers decent renditions of bar snacks like gyoza and fried chicken — I wished the gyoza had less oil and more pork filling, and the fried chicken had a crispier skin, but they're both dishes where mediocre versions are still satisfying.
Will we all become experts in all 26 ramen varieties over the next few years? Probably not. But in Japan, every ramen chef has a personal interpretation of each regional style. It's exciting that local chefs are starting to do the same.