By now, most people have come to understand the profound distinction that exists between freeze-dried ramen sold at supermarkets and fresh ramen served in noodle shops. For the uninitiated: It’s like the difference in quality between a frozen pizza and an expertly crafted Neapolitan pie. As with pizza, ramen has its own spectrum of styles and influences. That’s never been more clear in Washington than now, as chefs from myriad backgrounds are putting distinctive spins on the Japanese noodle soup. “The beauty of ramen,” says Sakuramen co-owner Jonathan Cho, “is that it goes well with a wide range of flavors without sacrificing its unique experience.” Here are five restaurants where you can slurp a variety of ramen.
2441 18th St. NW; 202-656-5285
Adams Morgan’s Sakuramen serves bowls with various cultural influences. But one — The Chosun ($13), so named for a historic Korean dynasty — has a distinctly Korean twist (a nod to co-owner Cho’s Korean heritage). The ramen is shoyu-style (see “The Basics of Broth,” below), topped with bulgogi (thinly sliced ribeye) and kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), both Korean staples. The kimchee lends its characteristically pungent kick to the comparatively mild broth. Having grown up on kimchee and bulgogi, Cho says it was a “no-brainer” to “integrate those flavors” into his ramen.
1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-387-3825
For more than a year, this bookshop-cum-cafe has offered its own takes on ramen. It may be unexpected, but it’s not that odd; Afterwords also serves dishes inspired by France, Jamaica and other countries. Owner Henry Posner didn’t think twice when he enlisted chef Denis David (then a bookstore manager) to develop a ramen. Of Filipino descent and formerly a cook at Raku, David is no stranger to noodles. He eschewed heavier broth in favor of a lightly salty shoyu and used thicker egg noodles instead of wheat. The result, he says, is essentially “a Chinese- and Japanese-style chicken noodle soup.” His most popular bowl, the Café Lobster Shellfish Ramen ($23), contains scallops, mussels and half of a Maine lobster.
11403 Amherst Ave., Wheaton, Md.; 301-693-0806
Ren’s Ramen serves perhaps the purest forms of Japanese ramen in the area. Chef Eiji Nakamura and wife Yoko — who proudly describe their restaurant as “a ramen house, not a bar or izakaya” — have been serving the same heavy, rich Sapporo-style miso ramen ($10) since they opened in 2009. Their bowls are made with noodles imported from Sapporo, Japan, topped with roast pork and vegetables.
1817 Columbia Road NW; 202-450-2416
At a month-and-a-half old, Taan Noodles in Adams Morgan applies a markedly modern approach to ramen, adding subtle, creative flavors to bowls. Chef Jonathan Bisagni’s Triple Stock Ramen ($12, whose name refers to the three flavors of stock that combine to make the broth), comes with charred corn and pickled cucumbers. Those veggies provide sweetness not often present in ramen. Bisagni also serves “maze-men” ($15), a form of brothless ramen gaining popularity in Tokyo. Still uncommon in the U.S., it’s more meat-heavy than typical ramen, containing pork belly, duck confit and chicken confit, with just enough broth to coat everything with flavor.
1234 H St. NE; 202-388-3086
It’s impossible to speak of D.C.’s ramen scene without acknowledging the fever pitch of popularity for the dish that Toki Underground has engendered since it opened in early 2011. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s signature bowl, the Hakata Classic ($11), is a tonkotsu ramen. Drawing from his background working in a Taipei ramen shop, Bruner-Yang infuses Taiwanese elements into his ramen. His pork is cooked “red pork-style” (a Chinese technique involving slow braising in soy sauce and sugar) with wine. He tops the soup with various Chinese spices and aromatics, including star anise and Sichuan peppercorn.
The Basics of Broth
A staple in Japan since the early 1900s, ramen is a soup that typically consists of wheat noodles, a meat-based broth, pork and vegetables. The broth’s flavor often varies. On Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, “miso” broth (flavored with fermented rice, barley and soybeans) reigns; in Tokyo, the preferred style of broth is “shoyu” (made with soy sauce); and on the southern island of Kyushu, it’s all about “tonkotsu” (a rich, milky broth made by boiling pork bones).