The deceptively simple character of ramen — broth and noodles — hides complexity in technique and chef secrets in equal measure: Good ramen is easy; great ramen is hard. We talked with a few chefs to find out what makes their ramen special.
Marin’s OG ramen house has been slinging tonkatsu and shoyu, tantan and shio for seven years. Owner Kevin Fong says the tonkatsu, a cloudy, slow-simmered pork bone broth, remains his most popular menu item, but the vegetarian broth, the base for the hearty miso, is nearly as popular. Though he won’t divulge the secret behind the animal-free broth’s umami thunder, he will admit to using as many vegetables as he grew up eating both in the base and as toppers for the vegan and vegetarian bowls. He recently added pan-fried ramen with just as many vegetables to the menu, and gluten-free noodles are available.
821 B St, San Rafael; 415.524.2727
View this post on Instagram
Yuthana (Oy San) Sitiprawet runs Chonmage with his wife, Manee Jenkins, turning out Japanese-style ramen with local flair. Housemade, walnut-based miso amplifies the spicy miso ramen and a recently added garlic ramen turned heads, but the curry ramen continues to inspire a vocal following. The blended tonkatsu and chicken broths are infused with curry and topped with karaage (fried chicken) and french fries, making it the ultimate multi-culti mashup.
1020 Court St, San Rafael; 415.419.5919
Noodles from ramen master Tomoharu Shono, who has multiple restaurants in Tokyo and San Francisco, are made in-house, the custom flour blend ground on an imported Japanese stone mill for a slightly chewy texture designed to the master’s specifications for flavor and impeccable freshness. Crafted exclusively for the San Rafael location, toripaitan is the new trend. The broth is chicken instead of the traditional pork and its lighter style is meant for every day eating, but traditionalists can still get Shono’s Marin-influenced version of shoyu and matcha ramen, too.
908 Fourth St, San Rafael,415.295.7112
Widely recognized for their work in sushi, the chefs turned their attention to another popular culinary export from Japan, dropping ramen onto the menu earlier this year. The singular ramen on offer is named for a coastal town on the northern island of Hokkaido. Tonkatsu broth is thickened with miso and topped with braised pork belly, corn and a golden-yolked egg. It’s a carnivorous bowl a fisherman would be proud to eat.
813 Grant Ave, Novato; 415.892.0081
U.S.-made, skinny Sapporo ramen noodles might shock purists for their out-of-the-package ease of use. But the toppings — pork belly chashu and spicy ground pork, charred cabbage, seaweed, spicy greens and wood ear mushrooms — turn the bowl into a destination-worthy slurping experience. The vegetarian broth packs a flavorful punch, its saltiness tempered by the fresh veg atop. There’s a gluten-free noodle option, too.
6948 Sebastopol Ave, Sebastopol; 707.827.3609
According to chef/owner Kyle Itani, his oxtail ramen is inspired by a rural country dish in Japan called nikujaga, a beef and potato stew. Itani riffed on the classic by swapping miso-braised oxtail for beef and yam noodles for ramen. He layers in Satsuma Imo, a type of Japanese sweet potato, and tops the hearty dish with spinach, garlic chives and the tradional egg. The chicken-based broth resembles shio in style, the miso from the oxtail drifiting in to enhance the salty, umami character. Whatever you call it, it is a satisfying bowl. 1736 Telegraph, Oakland; 510.788.7489; itaniramen.com
The scientific ramen shop started by chemist couple Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura in Emeryville Public Market serves up a brothless version for those days when you don’t want hot soup. Called maze soba (mixed noodle) or abura soba (oil noodle) in Japan, the noodles are cooked in boiling water, then tossed with flavored oil, vinegar, small amounts of soup, and tare, ramen’s flavor base. Marinated ramen pork, chicken or egg are available adornments. Though a spoon is optional, the “dry” result is culinary chemistry. 5959 Shellmound St, Emeryville and 1438 Broadway, Oakland; shibaramen.com
A ramen chain with locations in San Francsico, Oakland, Redwood City, Southern California and beyond, Marufuku is perhaps best known for its Hakata ramen, a type of tonkatsu ramen. That means a rich, pork-based broth and thin as a rail noodles. Toppings are traditionally minimal, like chashu pork, egg, and green onions. Go DX mode and get all the goodies – buta kakuni (braised pork belly), corn, nori seaweed – loaded into the bowl. 1581 Webster St, San Francsico; 415.872.9786; marufukuramen.com
The original in San Mateo has a loyal following for its shio (salt) ramen but city dwellers are gravitating to the vegan curry tantan ramen. The foremost umami delivery system in the western culinary tradition, tomato provides balance and bright, acidic notes, co-joined in the bowl with traditional Japanese curry as a tide in which glassine noodles float (gluten-free is available). Eggplant and alt-meat toppings are available but a soft-boiled egg adds creaminess, lifting the flavor to a more familiar place. 174 Valencia St, San Francisco; 415.527.6577; orenchi-beyond.com
A Korean fusion restaurant tops San Francsico Eater’s list of slurp-worthy ramen. Bowls of tonkatsu ramen and gyukotsu ramen (a style that hails from Tottori Prefecture, northeast of Hiroshima) boast thick, chewy noodles and creamy, surprisingly pale broth. Ground toasted sesame adds richness and a distinct sweetness, tempering the broth’s salty character. 5524 Geary St, San Francisco; 415.221.5353; jijime.com
More from Better:
- 4 Bay Area Caterers Share Their Go-To Weeknight Meals: Easy Recipes to Feed the Whole Family
- Big Blue Brews: Where to Get Tahoe’s Best Beers
- Equator Coffees Reopens the Historic Round House Café at the Base of the Golden Gate Bridge
Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.