Has there ever been a better time to be a ramen lover in Washington? Fans of the Japanese noodle-and-broth bowl can now find cheap ramen, expensive ramen, chef-made ramen and only-in-the-District ramen. They can get ramen in the styles of Kyoto, Tokyo, Sapporo and Taipei, or a fusion. There are bowls topped with butter, bacon, mustard greens and even cheese.
The ramen just keeps on coming. Last year, David Chang's Momofuku CCDC debuted in the District and Jonah Kim began slinging bowls of broth at Yona in Ballston. It won't be long before Daikaya unleashes two more ramen-centric restaurants in the city: Haikan in Shaw and Bantam King in Chinatown.
It's enough to overwhelm even the most fervent ramen followers. Which is exactly why a field guide to some of Washington's most interesting bowls may come in handy.
Just remember: When it comes to eating these noodles, don't chomp. Slurp.
Where: Ren's Ramen, 11403 Amherst Ave., Wheaton. 301-693-0806. $10.
Broth: Tonkotsu (pork broth) seasoned with miso (fermented soybean paste). seasoned with miso.
Toppings: Chashu (pork belly), ground pork, bean sprouts, menma (bamboo shoots), scallions.
Ren's Ramen can be intimidating. A sign at the door demands that you sign in. Another plastered inside warns that your car will be towed if you park in the wrong spot. Then there are the rules: No credit cards, no strollers, no changing of tables and no seats until your whole party has arrived. But once you dive into the ramen, those demands devolve from nuisances to quirks. The tonkotsu — a rich, creamy broth that takes at least 18 hours to make — can take most of the credit for that. The broth, slick with tiny globules of pork fat and pungent with garlic, is a welcome indulgence, especially when clouded with miso and topped with slabs of roast pork. Sourced from a supplier in Hokkaido, Japan, the wavy, medium-thick noodles hide beneath bean sprouts, scallions, ground pork and bamboo shoots called menma. You also could ask for a pat of butter, but this ramen has more than enough goodness all on its own.
— Emily Codik
Where: Kizuna Sushi and Ramen, 8221 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 703-442-7888. kizunatysons.com. $11.
Broth: Chicken stock with a non-traditional shio (or salt) base.
Toppings: Chashu, menma, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, scallions, toasted nori (seaweed).
The name is custom-made for confusion. The pork shio ramen at Kizuna features a broth developed without a single piece of porcine anatomy — the broth is built from chicken bones and whole birds, gizzards and all. For those pork-ramen chauvinists out there — guilty! — Kizuna chef and partner Scott Han proves that bird-based bowls can have as much depth as their milky, porky tonkotsu counterparts. The chef's misdirection begins with his base, or tare, which is not a classic shio (or salty) mixture at the bottom of the bowl. Instead, Han cooks down ginger, garlic and apples in oil as a base, then pours the long-simmered chicken broth on top, creating one of the most distinctive and complex ramens anywhere, no matter what creature donated its bones to the cause. Not that it needs anything more, but you can juice the noodle soup with a few pinches of karashi takana, an extra condiment made with pickled mustard greens, garlic and chilis. The flavor booster releases depth charges of heat and acidity in this rich ocean of ramen.
— Tim Carman
Where: Daikaya, 705 Sixth St. NW. 202-589-1600. daikaya.com. $12.
Broth: Chintan — a clear stock made with chicken, pork and beef, skimmed of fat at the end of the 16-hour process — with shoyu, a very dark soy sauce with caramel undertones, and garlic-infused olive oil.
Toppings: Chashu, ground pork, bean sprouts, onions, garlic, scallions, nori and nitamago, a soft egg soaked in a sweet and salty marinade.
The shoyu lends this bowl a rich, mahogany color and bold flavor; it can be overwhelming, but at Daikaya it’s balanced with several ingredients that were too top-secret for co-owners Daisuke Utagawa and Katsuya Fukushima to reveal. It certainly benefits from the complex flavor of the chintan — some of which has been carried over from day to day for more than three years as a kind of “mother” — as well as the raft of stir-fried toppings and Sapporo-style noodles that enhance the soup at different times and places. “That’s the fun thing about the ramen,” Fukushima said. “It’s constantly changing.”
— Becky Krystal
Where: Marumen, 3250 Old Pickett Rd., Fairfax. 703-352-6278. marumenva.com . $12.
Broth: The noodles are dipped in a cloudy tonkotsu-based sauce.
Toppings: Chashu, nitamago, bean sprouts and nori.
Repeat after me: Tsukemen is not traditional ramen. The noodles here tend to be thicker, chewier and served cold on the side, rather than submerged in broth, to preserve their essential springiness. An accompanying bowl is filled not with a standard ramen broth but with a scalding, concentrated “dipping sauce,” which would be a sucker punch to the palate if slurped on its own. You use chopsticks to dip a mouthful of noodles into the sauce, creating this perfect ying-yang of hot and cold extremes, soupy and springy textures. That’s the theory at least. At Marumen in Fairfax, the theory becomes complicated when the special noodles, for instance, are served with a bowl of lukewarm spicy miso dipping sauce, undercutting one of tsukemen’s principal pleasures. But even if the blood orange-colored Godzilla sauce dips too low in temperature, its heat index soars, inserting a chili-pepper kick within this oil-slicked liquid that coats the chewy noodles in one luxurious burn.
— Tim Carman
Where: Oki Bowl, 1817 M St. NW. 202-750-6703. okibowldc.com. $12.
Broth: Chicken stock seasoned with lemongrass, chili, garlic, onion and fish sauce.
Toppings: Whole fried jumbo prawn, cilantro.
This cuisine-defying ramen shop in Dupont Circle draws inspiration from around the world, including Thailand, from where Oki Bowl owner Metinee "May" Lieppert hails. The tom yum ramen is nearly identical to a soup of the same name found on almost every supper table in Thailand. "The only difference is we serve it with noodles here instead of rice," Lieppert says. "The only thing Japanese about this dish is the noodles." Unlike Lieppert's other ramens — which are pre-cooked in bulk — the tom yum variety is made to order to avoid the shrimp paste from clumping, which can occur when it's sitting on heat all day. The broth is made with chili paste and chicken stock, lemongrass, lime juice and whole milk. The full-bodied ramen is served with a deep-fried, head-on jumbo prawn bobbing in the broth. "I want to give people a new experience," Lieppert says of the showstopper. "It would be really easy to give people a peeled piece of shrimp, but it won't wow them."
— Holley Simmons
Where: Sakuramen, 2441 18th St. NW. 202-656-5285. sakuramen.info. $12.
Broth: Chicken stock seasoned with miso.
Toppings: Chashu, menma, scallions, nori, naruto (fish cake) and cheese.
Look closely at the ingredient list for Sakuramen’s DC Miso ramen and you’ll spot the outlier: cheese. Dairy, of course, is not a big part of Japanese cuisine. So you won’t be surprised to learn that cheese on ramen is an American innovation, continuing our great nation’s proud tradition of putting it in places where it doesn’t belong (e.g., aerosol cans). The dish was popularized by American soldiers stationed in Asia, and Sakuramen put it on the menu as a tribute to veterans. Each bowl of curly noodles swims in a broth of chicken stock and miso, with rafts of chashu and bamboo shoots, a pink swirl of naruto and a sail of nori. And then, in the middle, is a tidy mound of shredded Monterey Jack. Like all ramen ingredients, it is used with precision. It’s not a French onion soup-style blanketing of cheese — just a sprinkle on top of the noodles, melting into the broth enough to give it an added richness and slight tang. It goes together so well, you might forget some people consider it a culinary taboo. They don’t know what they’re missing.
— Maura Judkis
Where: Gaijin Ramen Shop, 3800 Lee Hwy., Arlington. 703-566-9236. gaijinramenshop.com. $11.
Broth: Chicken stock seasoned with curry powder and coconut milk.
Toppings: Barbecue chicken or fried chicken, scallions, fried garlic, sesame seeds.
The broths at Gaijin Ramen Shop don’t rush at you with flavor. For that, you can thank the tiny restaurant’s commitment to slinging from-scratch Kyoto-style ramen without the umami hit of MSG. Owners Nicole Mazkour and Tuvan Pham use only hints of bonito flakes in their stocks, instead relying on the notes coaxed from kombu and roasted pork and chicken bones. In the case of the curry chicken ramen, a poultry stock simmers in a pot for six hours and morphs into a fragrant liquid spiked with coconut milk and Japanese and Vietnamese curry powder. Wavy, egg-free noodles, which the restaurant makes in-house, snake throughout the brownish stock. Those accustomed to Sapporo-style ramen’s richness or Hakata-style ramen’s porkiness may be surprised by the bowl’s subtlety, but as Mazkour wisely points out, one Japanese definition of gaijin, which also means “foreigner,” is actually “different.”
— Emily Codik
Where: Daikaya, 705 Sixth St. NW. 202-589-1600. www.daikaya.com. $13.
Broth and base : Chintan seasoned with mugi-miso, which combines miso with barley (mugi) and shanso, a Japanese seasoning you may know as Sichuan pepper.
Toppings: Chashu, ground pork, bean sprouts, onions, garlic, nori and scallions.
The Daikaya team first came across mugi-miso while spending several months doing research and development in Japan. Although Sapporo (the birthplace of white miso ramen) is located in the northern reaches of the country, mugi-miso comes from southern Kyushu, Japanese native Daisuke Utagawa said. Even so, he said, “You don’t really see mugi-miso ramen in Japan,” making this Daikaya bowl — bright and slightly more acidic than its brethren — not only a local, but international anomaly.
— Becky Krystal
Where: Toki Underground, 1234 H St. NE. 202-388-3086. tokiunderground.com. $14.75.
Broth: Tonkotsu seasoned with kimchi puree and kimchi hot sauce.
Toppings : Pulled pork, pickled ginger, scallions, nori, a soft egg and even more kimchi.
Before Toki Underground opened, owner Erik Bruner-Yang traveled around Asia sampling ramen. “I had a ton of ramen topped with kimchi,” the traditional fermented Korean cabbage, he says, especially in Japan and Taiwan. But instead of using kimchi as a finishing accent, Bruner-Yang’s kimchi ramen “kicks it up a notch”: His kimchi infusion finds funky, sour kimchi as a puree in the broth, as a spicy hot sauce and again atop the assembled bowl. The sharp, fragrant kimchi pops out, even when it’s in the same bite as mellow pulled pork, soft, curly noodles or bitter greens. “I don’t think Toki does anything balanced,” the chef says. “It’s not our style. Our version has always been aggressive.”
— Fritz Hahn
Where: Momofuku CCDC, 1090 I St. NW. 202-602-1832. ccdc.momofuku.com. $17.
Broth: A hybrid of pork, bacon, chicken, kombu and mushrooms.
Toppings: Chashu, pork shoulder, poached egg, scallions, nori and naruto.
You probably wouldn't be reading this ramen guide if it weren't for Momofuku, because this is the bowl of noodles and broth that elevated ramen to the American mainstream, leading to a ramen joint in every upscale-urban-millennial-creative neighborhood in the country. David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York's East Village in 2004. "It wasn't cool to eat ramen back then," Chang wrote in Lucky Peach last year. The Momofuku broth is slightly oily and a little bit smoky, enriched by the pop of a poached egg. For those who have grown accustomed to the incredible varieties of ramen out there — each shouting for your attention with more miso and layers of spice — it will seem a little spartan in comparison. But in the United States, this ramen is just as much a part of the dish's past as its present, and to try it is to consider both, simultaneously. "Momofuku ramen is our own story and no one else's. We borrowed but made it our own narrative," Chang wrote. And for that, we say: Thank goodness for Momofuku.
— Maura Judkis
Where: Yona, 4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-465-1100. yonava.com. $14.
Broth: Shio vegetable broth with garlic, carrots, onions and kombu.
Toppings: Snap peas, bean sprouts, pea shoots, roasted royal trumpet mushrooms and nori.
When asked if veggie ramen is native to a particular part of Japan, chef Jonah Kim laughs. “They don’t accommodate for vegetarians in ramen, come on!” But this is the United States, where just about every menu is sprinkled with GF, DF and V. His near-vegan dish (you can thank the egg noodles for blowing it) is built from the bottom up, starting with a pool of black garlic that’s been steeped in oil and puréed. “Think of it as extra umami,” Kim says. “The oil mimics pork or chicken fat.” On top of that he pours a vegetable broth and goes heavy on the soy milk to re-create the richness of pork broth. The bowl is topped with sautéed snap peas, bean sprouts and pea shoots as well as roasted royal trumpet mushrooms. “They’re pretty meaty,” Kim says of the fungi. “They’re meant to be like chashu.” When the bowl arrives, mix it up to disperse the pool of black garlic at the bottom. Though there’s no way you’d ever confuse the trumpet mushrooms for chashu, you’d bet your left chopstick that there’s meat in the broth.
— Holley Simmons