Ramen Fever: Seattle’s Push Toward a Higher Profile

It’s been a particularly curious phenomenon that the Seattle area, claiming as much connection to Japan as any other major U.S. city, has had a mediocre track record as far as having great ramen restaurants. As any ramen fanatic can tell you, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C., are several steps ahead of Seattle (and Portland) on the West Coast to having anything close to a notable ramen scene. This is not to say that Seattle is a ramen armpit. Far from it, because there are a few—and I mean few—places that serve up a pretty good bowl of noodles. But, earlier this year, the introduction of Kukai Ramen changed the local landscape. Its first operation in the U.S., the respected Japanese chain opened a restaurant in Bellevue to much praise and long lines.

As if tapping into some kind of cosmic mind-meld, suddenly the area will see several more ramenya open their doors. It is well known that Eric Stapleman, who owned and closed Shibumi in Santa Fe (where I’ve eaten and liked), relocated to Seattle and will start the ramenya-izakaya concept in Capitol Hill. Exactly when is not clear. I also learned only today that Mighty Ramen will pop-up at The Dish in Green Lake on Monday, December 9, to offer its noodle bowls before settling on a more permanent space.

Possibly the most significant launch will be Jinya, a U.S. chain that will open its first Washington restaurant in the Crossroads area of Bellevue. The original Studio City (in California) restaurant has garnered praise from both Jonathan Gold (who lists it among the 10 best ramen places in the LA area) and rameniac, great endorsements both. From that location, additional ones have opened in other parts of LA, New York City, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Houston. The specialty will be tonkotsu ramen, which I’ve written about in other posts. Suffice it to say that I’ll be anxious to dive right in. I am holding out hope that their tonkotsu broth is thick—and I mean thick—like real tonkotsu is supposed to be, rather than the thin broth-y concession to American tastes. And really porky in flavor. The restaurant hasn’t opened yet, but the debut is imminent.

Time will tell if these restaurants measure up. It’s interesting that Kukai and Jinya, both brainchilds of Japanese entrepreneurs, decided to make their move not in Seattle, but across Lake Washington in Bellevue. Chances are it’s because most of the Japanese on temporary work visas live on the Eastside. Din Tai Fung did its own market research when it similarly started its first Washington venture in Bellevue, likely for the identical reason that the area’s Taiwanese American population is concentrated there. Is it any wonder that what many regard as the best Taiwanese restaurant in Washington (Facing East) is also located in Bellevue?

All this aside, it appears that the Seattle area is perched to make big strides toward ramen legitimacy. And it’s about time.

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